How did a self-taught kid from Indiana rise to the top of the men’s slalom world?
“My fin and ski have not been touched since September of 2010,” Nate Smith says. “I jumped on it, rode it, made a few tweaks, and haven’t tuned it since. That’s the same ski I’m currently on.”
Currently meaning he’s still riding the same D3 X7 — one that didn’t even belong to him the first time he tried it. But somehow that 21⁄2-year-old ski — and the person riding it — spent the majority of 2012 sitting at the top of the professional slalom rankings.
It’s true — the lanky 22-year-old from McCordsville’s Champion Lake in Indiana has been skiing most of his life. His father, Kevin, was a water skier who competed on the national level as an amateur. Even though Nate was on his first ski by age 2, tournament skiing wasn’t something he was drawn to as a youngster — he was too scared to enter a tournament until he was 8. He quickly acclimated to competitive skiing — winning state tournaments, regional tournaments and, finally, nationals three times, the first time being in 2004, at the age of 13. But even after that, Smith wasn’t thinking of going pro.
Sure, he’d had an impressive career as an amateur youth competitor. Yes, he’d heard of guys like Will Asher and Chris Parrish, and he recognized them in magazines. But did he think he’d ever be one of them? Not in the least. “I knew the pro guys — you hear about ’em all the time. But I didn’t know much about where they skied or what they did.” It was June of 2010, right after Smith’s high-school graduation in May, when pro-tour organizer Dana Reed practically forced him to show up at the Global Invitational in Michigan. “It was just a few hours away from my house, so I went — with the full expectation I was going to come in last,” Smith says. “I came in second place, just behind Will Asher. That’s when I thought, ‘Hey, maybe this is something I can do.’” He found out he could not only play with the pros — he could beat them.
A Cinderella story? Sure — until just a few short weeks later at the Malibu Open in Milwaukee, that is, when the starry-eyed youth placed second to last. He missed his gate on the opening pass. At the next tournament, the Diablo Shores Pro Am, he finished in 10th place. Nevertheless, by the end of that year, his path was set: Pro skiing was going to be it. “I can go back to school later,” Smith says. “I’m not passing up the opportunity to travel the world and have a pro ski career.”