Winning wasn’t on Tyler Hamel’s mind when he showed up to Copper Mountain in Colorado for the FIS U.S. Snowboard Cross National Championships.
After a few races, however, he started to wonder.
“My goal was to finish in the top eight,” he said. “But then I ended up getting third place the first day and another third place the second day, so I said ‘Why not? Let’s try to win the national championship.’”
Hamel, a Gould Academy snowboarder, had a perfect finish to his trip out west, winning the championship in a final four-person race on April 4. It was just the latest accomplishment for the Bethel resident, who at only 16 has started to work his way into the national snowboarding scene. Earlier in May he became the youngest member of the U.S. Snowboard Cross Development Team, and he currently races in the North American (Nor-Am) Cup circuit, one step below the World Cup, the highest level of annual competition in the sport.
Hamel also qualified for the Junior World Championships before they were canceled due to the pandemic, and he’s won three United States of America Snowboard and Freeski Association (USASA) national titles in addition to the FIS championship in April. It’s been a meteoric rise, and even Hamel sometimes has to try to keep it in perspective.
“It’s really amazing. I don’t even expect to do as well as I have been lately,” he said. “But it comes back to the people around me. My parents always supporting me, they do whatever they need to do for me to get to the races and get the best training possible.”
KC Gandee, the snowboard program director at Gould, has worked closely with Hamel along with slopestyle coach Dustin Holzweiss.
“If you look at the average age of U.S. team riders in the World Cup and the average age especially of the men who have been successful from the United States, we’re talking older. We’re mid-20s into early 30s, and sometimes even older,” Gandee said. “It takes a lot of time, not only to develop athletically but to develop the smarts and the wisdom of being able to race on a course with three other people. … The fact that he’s been able to figure (it) out, and what he’s done at such a young age is pretty awesome.”
Gandee said Hamel is blessed with talent, but is a student of the sport as well.
“Every run, in the start gate and even when we’re free riding, (he’s) thinking to himself ‘OK, this is what I’m going to be doing on this run with my body,’” Gandee said. “He works really hard at the way he approaches his training and his races, mentally.”
It’s put Hamel on what he hopes is the path to the highest of highs: His target is the 2026 Winter Olympics, which will be held in Italy.
“Everything I’m pretty much about to do in the next five years is leading up to the 2026 Olympics,” he said. “That’s kind of the one I have my eyes on doing. That’s the first one.”
That Hamel can even have this goal at all is surprising considering where he was two years ago. On Feb. 15, 2019, he was on a training run when he approached a jump wrong and landed awkwardly on his leg. It was a spiral tibula and fibula fracture resulting in eight breaks in the leg, and it required two surgeries, two plates and 19 screws just to get the leg set.
“That was probably the worst point of my entire life,” Hamel said. “I was doing really well that year. I hadn’t lost a race all year, and it was about a month before nationals.”
Injuries had been a chronic issue for Hamel, and after this one, he wondered if he needed to find another activity.
“I did question it,” he said. “I kind of contemplated being done. That was my eighth broken bone in I think four or five years. I couldn’t stay healthy.”
The rehab went smoothly, however, and by that fall he was cleared for action. The next hurdle became the COVID-19 pandemic, which wiped out the end of his 2019-20 season and then canceled the 2020-21 Nor-Am Cup slate.
In its place, though, came the FIS championship in Copper Mountain. After time trials, Hamel won the elimination heats leading up to the final, then beat a field made up of 20-year-old Cody Winters, 26-year-old Michael Perle and Gould teammate and friend Nathan Pare for the title.
“Winning was nowhere on my radar, and then after the first two days of racing, I said ‘I can do this,’” he said. “Getting to the bottom and winning that, it was unreal. I don’t even know how to describe it.”
The accolades kept coming with the Development Team nod, which Hamel called “by far, the biggest accomplishment of my career.” He’ll be able to train with the U.S. Snowboard Team, which consists of three rungs — the Development Team, the B team, and the A team, which sends the competitors to the Olympics. His season isn’t done; he’ll train with the U.S. team in June at Mount Hood in Oregon.
After that, the focus shifts to competition. Hamel’s goal is to finish in the top two in Nor-Am points this season, which would put him on the B team and push him further toward that Olympic dream.
“It’s a lofty, but attainable goal,” Gandee said. “The difference from North American courses to World Cup courses is pretty significant. … I certainly would not tell him that there’s no way he can make the (2026) Olympics, but he’s got a lot of work to do.”
Hamel is ready to get started.
“This is definitely just the beginning step. The road ahead is so much longer,” he said. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”