Main photo by Sam McMahon
You've seen them. They're cropping up at every snowboarding competition on the planet, from Manchester to Aspen. They're fast, talented, fiercely competitive – and all under the age of 16. These children are the snowboarders of tomorrow. Welcome to the age of the Super Grom.
In the early days of snowboarding, no brands made kid-specific boards. You never saw groms on the mountain, let alone winning contests. Shaun White was a rare young talent making a name for himself with some solid movie parts, but few people outside of snowboarding would have known about him.
Now, there are more kids under the age of 12 strapping into snowboards than ever before, hoping to make it as the next snowboarding superstar.
"They're fast, talented, fiercely competitive – and all under the age of 16. Welcome to the age of the Super Grom"
When 14 year-old Ayumu Hirano became the youngest person to win a medal at the 2013 Winter X Games, something in the world of snowboarding shifted. It was the mark of a new era – the groms were starting to take over.
Just one year later, he stole the podium from Shaun White at the 2014 Winter Olympics, securing silver and knocking the 27 year-old back to fourth place.
In the same year, 14 year-old Chloe Kim became the youngest Winter X Games gold medallist of all time after beating long-standing champion Kelly Clark in the Women's Superpipe.
In 2015, 16 year-old Marcus Kleveland landed a quad cork 1800 – and became the youngest snowboarder in the world to do so.
It's now not enough to see a baby sliding around on a board with his mum or dad. Kids now have to be hucking backflips and dropping quad corks if they are to make any impact on the international snowboarding stage.
But what are the consequences of this? With children as young as 8 years old landing big tricks and major sponsorship deals, is there a risk of them burning out too soon? And what is the physiological impact on their bodies?
INTRODUCING THE GROMS
Mia Brookes has just turned 9 years-old. She likes skateboarding, surfing, art and playing electric guitar. She first strapped into a board at just 19 months old.
Now Mia is throwing methods off kickers and riding with more style than adults twice her age. Last year she won both the Scottish and British Indoor Slopestyle Championships. This year, she wants to stomp her first backflip.
“I never really thought Mia would get into competitions," says Vicky, Mia's mum. “We just thought if she could link turns and get down the mountain, we could enjoy family holidays together."
Vicky and Mia's dad Nigel have been snowboarding together for twenty years, spending winters in their motorhome in the mountains. The sport was already a big part of their lives before Mia was born.
By the age of three, Mia was linking turns. Then when she was 6 years-old, Vicky and Nigel took her to the Chill Factore snow dome in Manchester. “We found out there was a competition going on, so Mia went along. She made the podium first time around."
Since then, Mia's snowboarding has gone from strength to strength. She is now sponsored by major snowboard brands like Nitro Snowboards, Dragon Alliance, Bern and Celtek.
She is by far one of the best snowboarders for her age in the country, but Vicky and Nigel are wary of putting too much pressure on Mia at such a young age.
“People always ask if she is going to do the Olympics. We don't even go there," says Vicky. “She does four or five major competitions a year. She could be at the Chill Factor three nights a week, but we don't think it is healthy."
"We don't want to push her too much. It is important for her to be a child, have fun and do other things too. Going to the Olympics is not the be all and end all."
PUSHY PARENT PHENOMENON
Parents are ultimately key to any mini-shredder's success. Without their support, none of these up-and-coming groms would have been able to develop into hugely successful athletes.
Jon Jing, Chloe Kim's dad, spent years taking his daughter to countless snowboarding events. Kim went to boarding school in Switzerland so she could be nearer the mountains.
He would fly over from their home in California, leave the house at 4am so they could take two trains and a gondola from Geneva so she could ride the superpipe in Avoriaz.
“Before these kids even turn pro, they are already burnt out" - Travis Pastrana
“I didn’t know it then but that’s not an easy task. Driving for a long period of time isn't easy. Travelling and being away from your family isn't easy either," says Chloe. “That is what my dad did for me to get me where I am today. If he wasn't that supportive, I definitely would not have been able to do what I love today."
For both Chloe and Mia, having support from their parents was crucial to their success. But where do you draw the line between encouraging parenting and pushing kids too far?
Snowboarding is still a relatively young sport. There isn't a huge amount of experience in guiding children under the age of 12 through the pressures of competitive snowboarding.
Only a small percentage of the parents who support their children on the UK snowboarding scene are snowboarders themselves. Many have never even stepped on snow before. Parents and coaches alike are still developing the best way to approach the sport when it comes to kids taking part.
“The competition scene in England is not a healthy, pleasant place to be," says Nigel Brookes. “There's a very small pool of people who have their sights set on getting their kid into the Olympics at 11 years-old. It's a big ask for a kid, isn't it?"
“It's not snowboarding how we see snowboarding," says Vicky Brookes. “It's a different kind of snowboarding. It's only a minority that do actually understand it."
Snowboarding in Europe is still very much a seasonal sport. The winter runs from December to April and once the snow melts, it is time to pick up a different sport – whether it is skateboarding, surfing or mountain biking.
However, in the UK, snowboarding has become a year-round pursuit, with many kids hitting their local snow domes three times a week, 12 months a year. While this has huge benefits for their progression in the sport, there are also clear downsides.
“With the domes, there never seems to be any let up for British kids," says Nigel. “It's the middle of summer, it is 80 degrees outside and these kids are stood in a giant fridge. They should be out walking, mountain biking or surfing. I think it is easier in Europe to get that balance."
Nigel feels the excitement when winter rolls around is being lost now kids are in the domes all months of the year.
“Mia had two months off at the end of this year and it has done her the world of good because she's come back fired up and wants to go snowboarding," says Nigel. “You don't want snowboarding to become a chore."
THE RISK OF BURNING OUT
With more young children becoming professional snowboarders than ever before, there is a risk of losing passion for a sport you once loved. “You have to start so young and work so hard to get there," action sports legend Travis Pastrana said when we interviewed him last month. “Before [these kids] even turn pro, they are already burnt out."
It's not just snowboarding where there's a risk of burning out too young. Everyone from Macaulay Culkin to Britney Spears has suffered at the hands of taking their hobby into a career at a young age. There is a risk, as Travis Pastrana says, that “by the time you are good enough to do what you love for a living, you no longer love what you do."
Chloe Kim admits that it is something she is definitely concerned with. “I can see how some people would start losing that passion but right now, I’m absolutely in love with snowboarding. Hopefully that doesn’t change anytime soon."
Snowboarding became a career very early on for both Chloe Kim and grom superstar Red Gerard who grew up in Colorado, following in the footsteps of his older pro snowboarder brother Brendan. He is now a part of the US Snowboarding Team.
“I never really think of riding as training, I have always thought of it as just snowboarding and having a good time," says Red. “If I ever feel [burnt out], I just go skateboard or ride with my brothers. Just have fun."
IS SNOWBOARDING BAD FOR CHILDREN'S HEALTH?
Snowboarding has a huge impact on children often in a really positive way. Children as young as 2 years-old are being taught in snowboarding lessons now.
“Age doesn't really matter. There's nothing wrong with taster lessons for younger kids who are desperate to snowboard," says Tammy Esten from Mint Snowboarding in Morzine, France.
“There has been a huge uptake in recent years of younger kids getting into snowboarding. It's fantastic, but kids shouldn't take it too seriously too soon. They should be having fun, riding with their buddies rather than trying to look for sponsorship or focusing on a career in the sport at a young age."
Mentally, snowboarding can give kids a positive, encouraging message. “When you challenge yourself to learn new tricks, this has a very positive effect on your emotional and psychological wellbeing," says Lesley McKenna, Team Manager for GB Park And Pipe team. “It makes for a high level of being stoked a lot of the time!"
Learning new tricks should always be fun, not pressured
While she notes there are negative consequences of trying to progress too quickly, this can be prevented by good coaching. “Learning new tricks should always be fun, not pressured."
There is no 'right' age for someone to start getting into competitive snowboarding according to Lesley, it completely depends on the person. “You can get a 13 year-old who has been competing in snowboarding since a very young age and who is very emotionally mature and ready to set quite advanced goals."
However, she does add that “there are not many 7 year-olds who I would say are ready to compete at the top level against young adults. Whatever the age, competing should be fun. Focus should be on the performance and not the competition result."
Concerns that sports like snowboarding can be too physically taxing on bodies of young athletes have long been under discussion.
Many kids we spoke to didn't have health complaints related to snowboarding, although Sever's Disease is common among snowboarders under the age of 12. It is an inflammation of the growth plate in the heel of growing children caused by repetitive stress.
One parent noted seeing young snowboarders limping at indoor freestyle competitions in the UK, complaining of pains in their heels and knees. Parents watching from the sidelines were seen offering painkillers and encouraging their children to carry on competing regardless.
While serious health concerns are rare and still being researched, it is something that parents should keep an eye on. “If the motivation of the athlete is to win at all costs, it can lead riders down this path," says Lesley McKenna. “Snowboarding should be a positive in someone’s life and not something that becomes controlling or is used to control people for an end result."
EVERYTHING HAS CHANGED
“It's a new world, snowboarding is a completely different sport than it was 25 years ago," says Nigel Brookes. He's right. Snowboarding has changed dramatically in the past twenty years.
Snowboarding has gone from being an underground sport for rebels and adrenaline seekers to a competitive international sport with more money, coaching and resources than ever before.
“We are definitely seeing a resurgence of dry slope and indoor events," says Lesley McKenna. “We are also seeing more people getting involved in coaching. We need to give those coaches help so they can learn to coach the right way – so negative things [like overtraining] don't creep into the system."
The most important message drawn from all of our findings is kids shouldn't take snowboarding too seriously. After all, snowboarding is meant to be fun – it's about shredding around the mountains with your friends and spending time outdoors, not focusing solely on one day competing in the Olympics.
As Nigel Brookes says: “If you are having fun, then that's the end goal. If you're doing that and you're being taught properly, then you'll succeed."
Read the rest of The Future Issue by Mpora here