The first time Lowell Whiteman sophomore snowboarding sensation Matt Ladley got a chance to show his stuff, he fell down.
According to Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club program director Jon Casson, when Ladley was 9 years old his mom couldn't wait to show him off to the instructors. So one day Casson watched intently as Ladley took to the slope, pointed his board down the hill and ... fell down. Sure enough, he did it again on his next try. And again.
It turns out Ladley hadn't waxed his snowboard in a while, and the cold temperatures had built up a lot of ice on the bottom of the board. Once Casson had the youngster's board waxed and readied, Ladley followed him through some trails, hanging on his every move.
Eventually, Ladley asked his instructor, "Do you know how to do a 360?"
Casson said yes and showed Ladley the trick. Ladley responded by attempting one of his own off a nearby jump and flew over Casson's head, landing the trick perfectly. Six years later, it's been a while since Ladley has done anything short of impressive for Casson or any of his coaches.
Now a 15-year-old professional boarder, Ladley has everything a young rider could want: sponsorships, a spot on the U.S. Snowboarding Rookie Team and a pair of gold medals from big competitions. And he's been able to accomplish everything by going to a school where he can get out at noon and hit the slopes.
"You drop two classes in the winter and you get out at 11 or 12," says Ladley, who finished first in the Junior Jam at the 2005 U.S. Open and first in the halfpipe at the Jackson Hole, Wyo., leg of the 2006 Revolution Tour. "Then you make them up in the spring. You get to train on the mountain."
But Ladley's education isn't all slopes and halfpipes. Lowell Whiteman athletic director Gina Wither says not every student-athlete can succeed at balancing such a rigorous training regimen with a quality education. Ladley just happens to be that type of athlete.
"It takes a special person to be able to succeed like Matt," Wither says. "He's dedicated to being a good student and a good snowboarder."
Ladley grew up in Chicago but found there weren't many areas for him to fine tune his skills. Through the dedication of his mother, Ladley started traveling to Steamboat Springs on weekends. Eventually, he and his mom picked up and moved to Colorado so Matt could focus on both athletics and academics. Steamboat Springs is where Ladley honed his talent into a craft, constantly working on his skills and pressing his coaches for more information. Casson recalls that Ladley used to ask for more tips than anyone else.
"I used to tell him, 'Take your time, you don't need to learn everything now,'" Casson says. "But Matt would say, 'But I want to learn everything now.' That really shows there's a love of what he's doing."
Another Steamboat Springs instructor, Spencer Tamblyn, recalls a time when Ladley was just starting to carve his niche in the sport. Tamblyn would watch as Ladley, then no older than 10, would do tricks in the halfpipe that were "perfect -- like, totally perfect."
It wasn't long before other people started to notice his talent. Now Ladley has sponsorships from the likes of Rossignol, Bonfire, Oakley, The Click and ThirtyTwo, just to name a few. U.S. Snowboarding, meanwhile, awarded him one of three spots on its Rookie Team for the 2006-07 season. As if that isn't enough, Ladley's not even close to being finished. His coaches say he keeps getting better, and the tricks back it up: Those 360s he pulled as a 9-year-old first turned into 900s and are now 1080s.
"Once you get spinning, the difference between a 900 and a 1080 is not that much more of a rotation," Ladley says. "I try not to think about it. I just stay mellow." Just staying mellow might be what Ladley is best at.
"He has some characteristics that extremely upper-level athletes have," Tamblyn says. "He performs extremely well under pressure. When the judges are watching or he's riding with someone he feels he needs to ride for, most people kind of crack or try too much. Matt's really good at being able to focus, pulling it together and performing at the level he wants to."
Ladley loves the thrill of competition, but he never forgets his commitment to schoolwork. Even when he's traveling to competitions, Ladley keeps in constant contact with his teachers through e-mail to make sure he stays on top of his assignments. While other athletes might be stressing out in the moments before a big event, Ladley studies. The grades will come in handy later, but for now Ladley has some snowboarding goals in mind.
"The X Games would be really cool," he says. "The Olympics obviously would be great. I don't know if it's possible, but it would be great."
His coaches certainly have faith. Tamblyn says Ladley has "incredible tools." Casson goes even further, saying future Olympic Games could feature Ladley as the next great snowboarder.
"I think he's got all the tools -- mentally, emotionally and physically," Tamblyn says. "If that's the goal he wants to set for himself, he can do it. And I think that is one of his goals. In 2010? That might be pushing it -- there are some strong riders right now -- but in 2010 or 2014, we could see him there."
Apparently, not all first impressions last.