Dominic Unterberger has only vague recollections of his first time skiing. It was on the handle-bar at the old Powder Springs Resort.
“I just remember the french fries. That’s what motivated me to ski,” he said. “We’d do two runs and come in for french fries. I think I was two.”
Last year, Unterberger became the first member of the Revelstoke Ski Club in decades to qualify for the BC Ski Team, joining a half-dozen other top young skiers from around the province. It was a milestone for Unterberger, and the ski club, and marked the culmination of childhood growing up on skis and swerving them in and out of gates.
I met up with Unterberger for coffee in early November just before he took off to Sun Peaks, B.C., where he was scheduled to start an intensive winter of training and racing, including his first NorAm Cup races, which are one step below the World Cup.
Unterberger grew up the son of ski guide and started skiing as soon as he could, first on the handle tow, then graduating to the chairlift at the Powder Springs. He joined the Nancy Greene program and would ski around with a group of friends that developed together as skiers.
“That place was so wicked,” he said. “Parents could ski by themselves, everybody was keeping their eye out for the kids and we could lap as much as we wanted. I think that was really beneficial for my development when I was younger, to have that freedom to ski when I was young.”
Skiing was a fun social activity for him and his friends, but slowly they started moving up the racing ranks. The training became more structured and the results started coming. At his first K1 race weekend (U14), he came away with first, second and third place finishes. “After that I really got motivated,” he said.
Racing appealed to Unterberger even after the opening of Revelstoke Mountain Resort, with all its freeride opportunities at the top of the mountain. His competitive drive kept him in the gates. He liked that racing was just him versus the clock.
“There’s no opinions. You put in the work and you try to ski as fast as you can,” he said. “There’s a clear winner on the day.”
Unterberger had to surmount a few hurdles to make the BC Ski Team. Namely, two broken legs in less than a year.
The first was at the K2 (U16) nationals at Silver Star in March 2009. It wasn’t during a race. Instead, it was while fooling around with friends on a cat track. They got tangled up, his ski got stuck in the snow and his leg twisted. “I was done after that.”
He was in a cast until July and then spent the summer rehabbing. By the following winter he was back on skis, but then in January, while skiing down Separate Reality at Revelstoke Mountain Resort, he got in the backseat off a mogul and the same leg snapped. There was no pain, but he knew it was broken.
“At no point did I think it was the end of my career. I was kind of bummed and pretty upset it happened to me.”
The upside was that he was out of a cast by the spring and had a whole summer to work out and rehabilitate his leg. “If anything, breaking my leg sparked me to do a lot more dry land training,” he said. “I started road biking a lot more, got a mountain bike.”
Unterberger continued to do well and during the winter of 2012 the subject was broached with him about making the BC Ski Team. He was on the cusp of qualifying – the coach liked his skiing, but he didn’t have the results he needed. That summer he was invited to train with the team, including going to Chile with them. On top of working on his skiing, he also worked on his mental toughness.
“Ski racing is a lot of mental toughness and there’s a lot of mental barriers you have to overcome,” he said. “Just to be able to send yourself down the hill as fast as you can and just pushing a new line in the course. For me, a lot of that stuff was new. They were concepts the coaches were trying to work with me a lot.”
PHOTO: Dominic Unterberger trains with the BC Alpine Ski Team in June. Photo by Gordie Bowles/BC Alpine Ski Association
At the end of the Chile camp he was given the news – he made the team. “I didn’t expect that at all,” he said. “Admittedly I didn’t have the best summer performance wise, but I put in all the work. I had good days, but consistency wasn’t there.”
After a month off in October, Unterberger was back on snow in November at Nakiska in Alberta. He started to believe in himself and his skills more. His focus was not results, but on developing his skiing. On a trip to Europe he felt he skied well, but didn’t get the results he hoped for. But when he came back, something clicked for him. He was skiing well and beating his teammates – showing that he wasn’t last on the team, despite being the last to make it.
At the final race of the year in Panorama, he finished fifth – his best result yet. “At the last race of the year, I thought that’s how I should ski, that’s how I can ski,” he said.
The off-season was a busy one for Unterberger. First there was the matter of graduating from high school. Then there were trips to Mount Hood, Oregon, and Whistler, for training on glaciers. There was a dry land training camp in Fernie and another trip to Chile.
“I was trying to improve some physical training,” he said about his summer regimen. “I was trying to get a little more power and a little more explosiveness.”
Unterberger’s favourite event is the giant slalom, though he says he’s a more natural slalom skier. He considers slalom more challenging because there’s less room for error. In GS, there’s a little more leeway for mistakes. “Mentally it’s a little bit easier,” he said. “You can survive little mistakes better.”
The day after I interviewed Unterberger, he took off to Sun Peaks to join the rest of his teammates for their first training sessions of the winter. Afterwards, it was off to Colorado for the first NorAm Cup races of the winter. Starting at the back of the pack and with challenging course conditions, his first few races didn’t go so well and he didn’t qualify for a single second run.
On Dec. 2, he had his first finish – a 20th place in the giant slalom at a junior race in Loveland, Colorado. On Dec. 18, racing in Vail, Colorado, he achieved his goal by placing in the top-30 at a NorAm slalom race – finishing 23rd.
“Yesterday I just wanted to finish and get a result!” he wrote in an e-mail. “I skied solid but not nearly as fast I have been training, making a big mistake first run and skiing a safe second run. If anything yesterday was a confirmation of just how fast I, and the rest of my team can ski. I am pumped to get that result under my belt but even more excited for the day when I lay two fast runs down!”
His ultimate goal this year is to qualify for the national development team. “Realistically there’s a lot of factors involved other than my skiing,” he said. “It’s a goal at the back of my mind. It’s possible, but you have to think about the process.”
He said it would take some top 10 finishes on the NorAm Cup circuit to make it.
Long term, Unterberger wants to make his living skiing, whether it’s racing, coaching or guiding like his father. “Who knows? I definitely see it in my future no matter what form it’s in.”