CARRABASSETT VALLEY, Maine — From all appearances it is one of the most demanding sports on skis, with competitors literally bouncing from one giant bump to the next at 30 miles per hour while seven judges scrutinize their every move both on and off the snow.
And while Greenville native Jeremy Cota doesn’t deny the physical demands of being a world-class freestyle mogul skier, he agrees with those at the top of other athletic disciplines that breaking through to thrive among the elite has just as much to do with being strong of mind.
“At this point 90 percent of it is mental,” said the 23-year-old Cota, who recently won the men’s single moguls title at the 2012 Sprint U.S. Freestyle Skiing Championships held at Stratton Mountain, Vt.
“A lot of people in the sport have the skill to do it well, but the difference is one, can you handle the pressure of skiing in situations like this, and two, do you have the confidence that you can ski consistently at the highest level?”
The national championship, which he won by edging 2011 winner Patrick Deneen of Cle Elum, Wa., represented a personal breakthrough for Cota, who now spends time in both Carrabassett Valley and Steamboat Springs, Colo.
“It was awesome, and it came as sort of a relief to me,” said Cota, who had finished second at the nationals each of the previous two seasons. “It was something that had eluded me for a couple of years. I don’t know if I expected to win, but I knew it was possible.”
Cota entered the season-ending competition coming off a strong winter on the International Skiing Federation, or FIS, Freestyle World Cup circuit, with four second-place finishes among his 12 top-10 performances against the rest of the best mogul racers in the world.
“I had a terrific year on the World Cup circuit,” said Cota, the son of Dave and Micki Cota of Carrabassett Valley. “I thought I had a lot of confidence going into the national championships, but I needed to make sure I skied well.”
Cota has been skiing well since first taking up the sport at the now-defunct Big Squaw Mountain ski area at his mother’s urging while still a preschooler.
After attending Greenville schools through fifth grade, the family relocated to Carrabassett Valley and by midway through his eighth-grade year he was enrolled at Carrabassett Valley Academy, a ski- and snowboard-oriented school near Sugarloaf USA that has produced the likes of Olympic gold medalists Seth Wescott and Bode Miller.
It was while at Carrabassett Valley Academy that Cota found a competitive home as a freestyle mogul skier.
“I made the leap when I moved to Sugarloaf,” said Cota. “At that point I was already a competitive skier and my older brother [Kyle] was a racer, and freestyle just catered to me because it was a little bit less structured.”
Competitive freestyle mogul skiing is a sprint of sorts, with racers challenged by a short course filled with obstacles — namely snow mounds called moguls that can vary from between 1 to 3 feet high and are arranged on average just 3½ meters apart.
“There are specifications for every mogul course, but they do vary a bit depending on the pitch of the course and snow conditions,” said Cota. “It’s 25 seconds from the top to the bottom, but a lot can go wrong within that time.”
And merely completing the course isn’t enough in these events, as a panel of judges study each competitor’s jumping ability and style in conjunction with speed.
According to the International Skiing Federation, the world sanctioning body for the sport, “the goal is to ski down the course as fast as possible, while performing two jumps without technical errors or temporary loss of balance. The skiers need to keep their upper body straight down the hill, [while] their lower body and the skis are constantly turning. Maintaining snow contact with the skis is an important element.”
Course speed and jumping are each worth 25 percent of a total score, while the cleanliness of the run is worth 50 percent.
“I try not to let success and results be the focus of everything,” said Cota. “In our sport it’s very easy to get caught up in results, but because it’s a judged sport you can’t just go by that.”
Cota graduated from Carrabassett Valley Academy’s high school in 2007, then used that knowledge base to steadily move up the national rankings — a rise he says largely came in correlation to his developing self-confidence.
“Coming out of Carrabassett Valley Academy I felt like I had the skills and the capability, but I was lacking a little in performance,” he said. “So I talked to a lot of people and read a lot of books, including psychology books, trying to build my confidence.”
Cota was the 2007 junior national champion in both single and dual moguls — the latter in which two athletes compete on the course against each other at the same time — then joined the U.S. Development Ski Team in 2008.
Cota placed second at the 2009 U.S. Olympic Trials but fell short of competing in the 2010 Winter Olympics because he hadn’t been eligible for enough World Cup events by that time to accumulate the points he needed to qualify for the U.S. team.
He joined the World Cup circuit in January 2010, finishing sixth in single moguls in his debut event at Deer Valley, Utah. Cota went on to win the U.S. national title in dual moguls and while placing second in single moguls.
Cota was elevated to the top-level U.S. “A” team in 2011, and went on to finish second in both the single and dual moguls events at the national championships as well as fifth in the final World Cup standings.
Cota — who also finished second in dual moguls at the 2012 U.S. nationals — ended his most recent World Cup campaign, which took him from the United States and Canada to France, Finland, Sweden, Japan and China for races, ranked third in the world behind champion Mikael Kingsbury of Canada and Deneen.
The International Skiing Federation Freestyle World Cup mogul circuit features the top 40 to 50 racers in the world, with Canada, the United States and France among the top-ranked countries in a sport dominated by North America and Europe.
“The World Cup is extremely competitive,” said Cota. “Even the bottom of the field is not that far behind the guy who wins it.”
Cota currently is taking about six weeks off, visiting family in Maine and planning a Hawaiian vacation, before beginning an off-season training regimen for a sport for which he says the average peak age for a world-class competitor is about 25.
“There are definitely a lot of injuries in the sport,” he said, “so it’s a sport that involves a ton of conditioning during the off-season, a lot of time in the gym, and you just have to stay with it.”
Cota will be gearing up for his fourth full year of World Cup competition next winter, and not too far in the future are the 2014 Winter Olympics to be held at Sochi, Russia.
But with those Olympics still two years away, Cota is not looking that far ahead — yet.
“I definitely have goals,” he said. “I try to set goals based on things I can control, and results isn’t necessarily one of them. My jumping, skiing and my mental approach are things I can control, so one of my biggest goals is to get into the right frame of mind so I can perform my best every time out.
“I’ve dreamed of going to the Olympics and it would be a great accomplishment, but that’s not my focus right now. It’s more just taking things one day at a time.”