This article was originally published by Austin Colbert in The Aspen Times.
The U.S. Freestyle Championships last month in Steamboat Springs was nearly a complete disaster for moguls skier Colby Lee. The 22-year-old Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club athlete accidently ripped the toe piece from his binding the day before the competition, missed a lot of important training runs and had to compete with mismatched skis.
So for him to finish a personal best 10th in moguls at nationals was something of a miracle, although not completely surprising.
"It was exciting, too, as a spectator and as his brother watching him," said Aaron Lee, Colby's younger brother and fellow moguls skier.
"He hasn't had the big competition success like he could. It was good to see him break through and get there."
The U.S. nationals, held March 31 and April 1 at the Steamboat Ski Area, was the last hoorah for the mogul skiers this season. The competition featured many current members of the U.S. Ski Team as well as skiers like Colby and Aaron Lee who are looking to take that next step. For Colby, who was the third best skier not currently on the U.S. Ski Team, it showed he's right on the doorstep of being able to represent his country on the World Cup level.
"It puts him in a pretty high class," said Colby's father Donnie Lee. "He was hoping this was a year he could take another step. Colby has never had kind of that breakout year. He's just been steady. Every year he moves 10 or 15 spots in the rankings. Ever year he keeps moving."
Donnie and his wife, Mari, came from different sides of the country but met in Aspen, where they raised their three children, including daughter Mariah, the eldest at 25. Colby took to moguls from an early age while Aaron, now 18, followed right behind.
"When I was skiing around with my family, I just knew I liked skiing rogue moguls around the mountain," Colby said. "It was once I joined AVSC they kind of introduced me to the competitive side and I just loved it enough to go back every year. I haven't ever questioned doing anything else in the winter."
The brothers — Mariah shied away from competitive skiing — have competed at the FIS level for numerous seasons, including multiple appearances at both nationals and junior nationals over the years. Colby finished 33rd in moguls and 22nd in dual moguls at nationals in 2016, then his best finish, and has spent much of the past two seasons competing at the Nor-Am level, the stage just below reaching the World Cup.
Colby's 10th-place finish this season — a sore back led to him pulling out of the dual competition the next day — could be the sort of performance that finally puts him in the crosshairs of the U.S. Ski Team. All national qualifiers also get to compete at selections in December, which is the main road to Nor-Ams and hopefully the U.S. team.
"That's not out of the picture for him if he can put together some good runs and improve his airs a little bit this summer," said Eric Knight, the AVSC freestyle/freeride program director. "I'd say he is poised to make some big moves. Definitely, I feel that was a breakthrough competition for him."
Nationals also were a best for Aaron, who took 43rd in singles and tied for 33rd in dual moguls. He is hoping a strong performance at selections next winter can get him onto the Nor-Am circuit alongside his brother.
Colby and Aaron spend much of the summer working, saving up money to support their skiing lifestyle in the winter. Only the upper echelon of the U.S. Ski Team receive significant financial support, so being able to live their dream requires a lot of effort in the summer months.
"It's a lot of hard work. Even when you are training and having fun, it's an energy draw," Colby said. "It's been a slow climb up the ladder and every year is just a little bit better. As long as I'm going up it's been hard to quit. You just want to see where you can get."