Keri Herman turns in skates for the slopes to make U.S. Olympic team
Keri Herman could shoot and score and deke defenders on an eighth-of-an-inch hockey skate blade, so taking on the rails and jumps of a slopestyle course in the mountains on skis felt like mere child’s play.
Hockey skills, apparently, are far more transferable than you might realize. Herman took hers from the rinks of her Minnesota youth to the mountains of Colorado, and now, to a spot on the U.S. Olympic team for slopestyle skiing.
Assists and goals, not rails and tricks, were assumed to be Herman’s route to the Winter Olympics when she was growing up in Bloomington, Minn.
After all, hockey was in her bloodlines. Her uncle, Tom Vannelli, played for the NCAA championship team in 1976, the Minnesota Golden Gophers coached by the legendary Herb Brooks, architect of the Miracle on Ice in 1980. Her brother Kevin grew up playing with Zach Parise of the Minnesota Wild, who will be leading Team USA in Sochi, Russia.
“That was my goal when I was a kid, and then it got too serious,” Herman said.
Skiing was the perfect antidote. Herman, now 31, hit her first rail at 21 after she moved to Colorado. Back then there were no thoughts of professional opportunities looming, let alone the prospect of making an Olympic team.
This will be the Olympic debut for the sport in Sochi. Freestyle skiers are judged by their ability to perform tricks in the air and on the snow.
Breaking new winter sporting ground is nothing new to Herman.
“It’s incredible, going back to hockey, I was the first girl to play in Bloomington,” she said. “That was my pioneer stage. I was [among] the first eight girls to be in X Games and now one of the first possibly to be in the Olympics.
“It’s kind of like, ‘What am I going to pioneer in next?’ ”
Herman was talking with a small group of reporters at the Olympic summit in October in Park City, Utah, and the team would not be named until January. Even though nothing was assured until Jan. 18, her hopeful parents, Diana and John, purchased tickets a year ago.
“We didn’t want to put any pressure on her,” Diana Herman said in a phone interview. “I don’t remember how she found out. I was sorry she found out we had the tickets. I’ve been worried about this for a year, ‘Is she going to make it? Is she not going to make it? “
Herman had retired from hockey when she moved to Colorado and earned a degree in finance and marketing from the University of Denver in 2005. She made the controversial decision to delay entering the workforce after finishing school.
“When I graduated, my mom was like, ‘You need to get a job. This is not funny. You can’t move to Breckenridge, you’re not going to be a ski bum,’” Herman said. “Then I won one of the only events they had for girls’ skiing and it was on the X Games course before they had X Games for girls.
“I didn’t even realize what was going on. ‘How did I win?’ All of a sudden people are like, ‘We’ll give you money if you go to this next contest.’ A thousand dollars — that was like a month’s work for me. I’ll do that, easy.”
Her mother remembered elements of the family debate and was refreshingly honest, laughing about the memory.
“When she told us she thought she was going to try to be a pro skier, I didn’t say much. I just rolled my eyes,” Diana Herman said. “In my mind, I’m thinking, ‘Come on, go get a real job.’
“Her dad said, ‘Go for it. Why not? This is the time to do it.’ She never looked back.
“I will freely admit, I was completely wrong. She has found her passion and what she loves. She is so happy. She just lives to do this.”
Keri Herman said the sport filled an athletic void and provided the excitement she lacked playing hockey. But she did say that hockey helped her quick progression in the sport.
“It’s a lot of the same movements,” she said. “You’re turning left, you’re turning right. Spinning and deking to get around people. Skates are so much smaller than skis — what’s all this balance? This is easy!”
The elements of danger and risk enter almost every conversation about extreme sports. Not only is slopestyle making its Olympic debut in skiing, but it is on the program in snowboarding. Canadian freestyle skier Sarah Burke, who died in a training accident two years ago at age 29, pushed for the inclusion of the new sports in the Olympics.
Burke’s pioneering spirit and inspiration were themes among the slopestyle athletes at Park City, and the memory of the four-time X Games champion will be an enduring one for Herman and the other competitors at the Olympics.
“It took me a little while to be able to push myself again,” Herman said. “But you’ve got to do it for Sarah every day. She’d be doing it. That’s always what you’ve got to think: ‘Sarah would try this, so I have to.’”
Herman acknowledged Burke’s deep and lasting contributions to the sport.
“I know she’s just smiling on us,” Herman said. “Any time a glimmer of light comes though on a cloudy day, you’re like, ‘Thanks!’ It’s awesome. We always have her in our hearts and in our heads.”
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