(The Verge) –With mindless effort, a seasoned athlete shifts his bodyweight towards his heels, “Cuh-click. Cuh-click.” The skis are attached to his perfectly-adjusted boots. Gliding across a flat bit of snowy terrain, the two HEAD skis become embodied within him; they are his lifeline, his liberation from mundane teenage life. Catching the chairlift, this prolific skier, Kei Kullberg, heads to the top of the hill, focused and simply locked in; he’s poised to take home the trophy for the Junior National Giant Slalom event at Mammoth Mountain in California. But down by three tenths of a second going into this, his second run, he has to make up some serious ground to attain the victory. Nerves in a frenzied clutter, he embarks down the course. The wind-resistance is staggering, but not enough to slow down the determined high school senior. As he goes passed the finish, he pauses, his stomach drops. Looking across at the timer, it becomes clear: he wins by seven tenths of a second. The hard work pays off and now it was time to look ahead to his next event, which involves skiing alongside consummate professionals. But before we step ahead, it’s best to take one back and really just illustrate who this young man is…
Kullberg, 17, has been a lifelong resident of Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York and is son to Sonja and Karl, the latter being a successful ski-racer himself until a devastating knee-injury at the age of 21. But Kei first hopped on skis at only 3 years old, and from that point on, the sport completely encompassed his life. He raced in just about anything he was eligible for, trained around the clock, and eventually became a fearless leader for Mt. Peter Ski Team in Warwick, New York. Then, he became a sponsored-racer for an Academy a bit further upstate. Enrolling full-time at this private school (the National Sports Academy in Lake Placid, New York), he’d go through his high school years skiing by day, and hitting the books by night. “We wake up at 6:30, train at Whiteface Mountain until 11:30, each lunch, and start school at 1:00. This continues until 6:00, and afterwards, we go to dinner, then study hall from 7:30 – 9:30, and then it’s light’s out,” said Kullberg.
What makes this story even more compelling, however, is not only the rigorous daily regiment or the impressive list of states and countries visited because of the sport, but instead the mountain he was groomed at. Mt. Peter Ski Area, in Warwick, New York (only about an hour north of New York City), is a family-owned, tight-knit and thriving ski center. With its racers eloquently sporting sweatshirts that read, “Small Mountain, Big Attitude,” the resort’s gained an esteemed reputation for its race program in recent years. The catch: it’s only a 450 foot vertical drop, with a summit at approximately 1,250 feet, a miniscule number compared to some of the mountains other emerging racers have come from. But this didn’t stop Kullberg, who hit Mt. Peter’s slopes at age three and continues to do so today…
“I remember vividly the first time I met Kei, he was with his Dad and he was just about 3 years old. He was at Mt. Peter for the day, for his first time on skis…It turned out he was a natural! After a few times down the hill with his dad, he was skiing on his own,” said Gail Sampson, co-owner of Mt. Peter. “And as soon as Kei was old enough (I believe about 6), he was in our ski racing program, and he was soon the leader of the pack, always trying to go faster and faster.”
Winning within-mountain races and New York/New Jersey area events, Kullberg was greeted by a barrage of familial support as he began at the Academy. Even the entire Mt. Peter Race Team knew, according to Sampson, that he was destined for a successful four years. According to his website, some of the highlights of his time there include: “Prestigious events such as: Future Stars…Junior Olympics, and more recently, the Ontario Championships in Canada and J2 ‘Easterns’ FIS Finals…” He has also indicated, via his website, that “(He’s) currently ranked 9th in Eastern Division USSA and 24th FIS/US (Federation of International Skiing)…And these rankings are out of thousands of athletes!” Though he experienced a bout of setbacks at the school his senior year (over the institution’s financial well-being), he is on track to graduate in June.
Regarding the Academy, Sampson said, “With a bigger mountain…and the great coaches, he became one of their top racers. All of us at Mt. Peter, from family, friends and customers were (and still are) so proud of him and his accomplishments, especially as he just won the Junior National Giant Slalom on March 9th.”
Commenting on the Mammoth Mtn. victory, Kullberg said, “My favorite time on the slopes has definitely been winning the title. It was the most spectacular feeling I think I have ever had!” Shortly after he reached this new career high (unrivaled by anyone in his surrounding area), his life continued to operate as nicely as an expert skier tackling a freshly groomed, black-diamond slope; he was now in it with the ‘big dogs.’ With the win, he’d ski on, almost like an invitational tournament as seen in NCAA college basketball.
Before he took part in the next California race though, a Times Herald Record writer, Sal Interdonato, did an exclusive piece on Kullberg, sparking a heap of interest in the Orange County, New York region. Soon, Mt. Peter was receiving inquiries, just who was this renowned skier?
Well, we’ve unraveled the 17 year old from afar, but, who is he as just Kei, minus the skis, the boots, the goggles…? As his stepmother Rebecca Sampson-Kullberg has repeatedly noted, he is really just a humble, hard-working, ‘East Coaster’ who has been graced with a handful of rewarding opportunities.
Jennifer Gunderman, a nearly ten-year teammate of Kullberg at Mt. Peter, is quick to point out that the high school senior has a bubbly personality. “(Skiing aside), he’s so funny that I look forward to every gathering we have because I know for sure that he’ll leave me laughing,” she said. Also, those who know him personally (as I do) point out that his humbleness is just poetically fitting for his life-story. From small-mountain a.m. practices to cable-televised national events, he’s already left his footprint, or should we say ski-tracks, on the world, and only at 17. But as much as he loves the sport, he admitted that at the same time, it is very financially demanding.
With an estimated yearly cost of about $50,000 (provided by his father Karl to the Times Herald Record), the money subtly creates barriers…barriers that need to be carefully, and sometimes painfully crossed. And though the U.S. Ski Team remains a distant dream of his, he pointed out, “(The team) is quite expensive to be on, and really the first dream I’d like accomplished is to ski for a college!” And that, in fact, can be crossed off the list; he’ll be skiing for the Division-1, University of Alaska next year. “I’m super-excited to race in college and I’ve barely even thought about what might happen afterwards in terms of skiing. It has always been a goal for me to ski Division-1.”
With the future in mind, his parents remain fully supportive and pledge to continue to be there for Kullberg, in all that he may come across. “He will be supported by us the entire way—as long as he’s happy and wants to take a few ski runs with his family when he’s older, of course!” Rebecca Sampson-Kullberg cheerfully said.
“It has been a long journey and it still has a long way to go, but it’s been an exciting one for sure!” Karl Kullberg, Kei’s father added. “Hard work and dedication will get him to wherever he wants to go—it’s up to him.”
…But again, the pressure is mounting. It’s March 22, 2013: he’s ready to ski in the next Alpine event, this time at Squaw Valley, California…and against the pros. He’s even pitted against his idol, Ted Ligety (himself once a paramount figure at a young age). He comes to the gate, adrenaline pumping. He recalls how there is no better feeling for him than ripping Giant Slalom turns down a steep pitch with grippy, chalky, dry snow. But this time even the cameras are rolling. When the signal is given, he lunges forward, his skis moving like the stringent motions of a Michael Phelps freestyle stroke. He aims towards the nearest gate, the work seems effortless, tasteful. The “Small Mountain, Big Attitude” mentality injects serious confidence, and he crosses the finish line obtaining 37th; a wildly impressive mark for a U-18 skier in the midst of Olympians. Now it seems as though Gail Sampson’s wish, of one day seeing Kullberg at an Olympic event, is not too far-fetched.