When the X Games kick off this weekend in Aspen, Colo., three brothers will be competing against one another in the freeskiing events, happily sharing the limelight, and maybe even the podium.
Jossi, Byron and Beau-James Wells all qualified this year (with 17-year-old Jackson waiting in the wings). And their upbringing has certainly prepared them for the moment. Their parents, Bruce and Stacey, originally from Australia, emmigrated to New Zealand in the 1980s. There, Bruce, a registered nurse and passionate surfer, landed a job as a ski patrolman at Cardrona Ski resort just outside Wanaka on the rugged South Island. The boys followed in their father’s ski tracks, learning to shred on the small ski hill in the Southern Alps. Stacey ran the mountain’s daycare center so the boys were always on the snow. While Bruce worked, Stacey would take the boys out to ski, balancing them between her legs. “That’s my claim to fame,” she says. “I taught them to ski. But they obviously progressed quickly.”
Jossi, now 25, led the way. He worked his way up the professional ranks in an era he calls “The Golden Years of Freeskiing,” before Olympic inclusion and coaches and national teams, when young skiers traveled from contest to contest, pushing the sport’s envelope on their own. “I was 13 when I came over to the U.S. for my first winter,” he says.
Jossi hooked up with Tanner Hall, Simon Dumont, TJ Schiller and Sammy Carlson, extraordinary athletes who were raising the sport’s bar, all on their own accord, with no coaches or training tables. There was no one setting a schedule or driving them to the next contest. They were in their late teens and early 20s and took the eldest Wells boy under their wing. “It was a great bunch of dudes,” Jossi says. “My parents had no problem letting me travel with them. They knew they were going to take care of me. I was really focused on where I wanted to be and they were in the same boat. They looked after me. Someone would come offer me a drink at a party and they’d jump down their throat. They went from being my idols to my best mates: TJ was a groomsman at my wedding.”
That influence paid off on the slopes, too. In 2010, at age 20, Jossi was named the Association of Freeskiing Professionals world champion. Pretty soon, Byron, now 23, was tagging along. And Beau-James, 20, would follow. The eldest Wells brother had a treasure trove of knowledge to pass along.
But by 2013 the game had changed. The Olympics in Sochi—where freeskiing would make its debut—was right around the corner and national teams were being formed with coaches and regulations, the realities of organized sport. Something to which Jossi had to adjust. “It took me some time to come to terms with it,” he says. “But that’s the natural progression, I guess.”
The timing couldn’t have been better for Bruce. Having watched his sons rip around Cardrona for years in a country with very few freeskiing programs, he was as qualified as anyone to lead New Zealand’s national team. He applied and landed the job, and started traveling with his sons as not only the national coach—in which capacity he would accompany both Jossi and Beau-James to Sochi (Byron made the team but was injured)—but as a manager for his sons as well.
Both Bruce and Stacey Wells seem genuinely taken aback by their brood’s success. “We never made a fuss over the boys,” Stacey says.
Skiing isn’t a cheap sport, so both parents made sacrifices. “It’s been an evolution,” says Stacey. “And we’ve taken it year by year. They were just little guys, asking the liftees to slow down the lifts so they could pull themselves up on the chairs. Then Jossi got to a certain level and we decided to send him to [the States] to see how he’d do. But we weren’t in the income bracket to [finance it all].”
Bruce would take different nursing gigs in the offseason, pick up jobs on local farms, anything to support the family. But it’s the coaching that’s been a blessing. It’s allowed him to work for his country and travel with his family.
Bruce’s easy-going temperament has made for a fantastic working relationship with the boys. “It’s never been, ‘Hey dad, how do I do this grab?,’” Jossi says. “It’s more like, ‘So here’s two options of a run I want to do, what do you think?’ He’s watching every competitor’s runs and he knows every trick they can do and every trick I can do and which runs would score better on certain courses.
I’ve never once in my life felt pressure from my dad.”
As a surfer, Bruce recognizes style and can help his sons with body awareness. (He has video ready on their iPhones after each run so they can analyze it on the chairlift ride.) “It’s two different roles,” says Bruce. “As a father, and coach, and melding those two together. I don’t need to have a complete answer, it’s an extension of being a dad in a way: they’re getting older and getting on with their own lives. It’s a balance.”
His proudest moments, he says, are watching the boys make their first major podiums, which Byron did this winter on the Dew Tour in Breckenridge. And there seems to be little competitive angst among them. Byron actually beat Jossi for his Dew Tour finish. “When it comes to skiing, they’re just another competitor but if I’m not winning, I want it to be someone in my crew,” Jossi says. “The whole family feels very blessed. It’s pretty cool to live this lifestyle and we’re all really appreciative.”