Skokie Olympic-hopeful skier’s future up in air, literally
Dakota Fochs is seen here doing what he loves best as a member of the U.S. Ski Team in aerial jumping. | Photo courtesy of April Billman
DAKOTA FOCHS’ OLYMPIC DREAM
CURRENTLY: A member of the U.S. Ski Team
RESIDENCE: Lake Placid, N.Y.
SPECIALTY: Aerial ski jumping
Updated: October 28, 2012 6:43AM
SKOKIE — Many teenagers Dakota Fochs’ age will celebrate homecoming, attend football games and dance the night away at their prom this year.
Fochs, 16, says he misses none of those high-school staples. He’s too busy flying through the air on skis, performing aerial twists, turns and flips that could land him in the Olympics in 2018.
Instead of spending his junior year at Niles North High School and living with his family in Skokie, Fochs lives in Lake Placid, N.Y., with others pursuing the same Olympic dream. The rules are more regimented there, he admits, and outsiders might even consider parts of the experience like a boot camp.
But to Fochs, all of it is the road to a dream.
“The only thing that I might miss in high school is my friends, but I live with my teammates and they’re all the friends I need,” he said. “I go to school with them anyway.”
Not only doesn’t Fochs miss high-school life, his mom, April Billman, says, but that may have been a contributing factor to his alternative path as an athlete.
“He doesn’t have to go to school, and for Dakota, that’s all good news,” she said.
Actually, Fochs goes to school, but hardly like others. He spends all day training and then takes online courses with his teammates after a full day of activity.
“I have always known that my child has never been an academic person,” Billman said. “But I have always been encouraging of all three of my children to find what they like and to give them space to pursue it.”
Billman had an inkling of her son’s atypical future even when he was a tot growing up on a Michigan farm.
“When he was a baby, he climbed everything,” she said. “I’m amazed he made it out of infancy or toddler-hood because if I turned my back, he was at the top of the crib. He’s a daredevil.”
Billman somehow knew he was “not going to be on the ground” when he got older.
But neither she nor her son could predict that the “instrument” that would lift him in the air would be skis. He first skied when he was 8 during a Boy Scout trip and knew he had finally found what he loved to do. It was the speed that thrilled him like no other adventure he had tried.
Fochs wasn’t initially even aware of aerial skiing — the Olympic sport where skiers flip in the air two and sometimes three times. When he had watched the event on TV, he said, he found it boring. But when he tried it himself and began hitting jumps, the adrenaline racing through his veins, that all changed.
He trained with Bill Harris at an Ohio water ramp — a common practice venue for aerial skiers, especially in summer — and that’s when things got serious. Harris has trained two U.S. Olympic skiers and many others on the U.S. ski team.
While Billman misses her son, she isn’t lamenting his absence from a traditional high school.
“I honestly think this is the best way for him to learn because he gets more out of it,” she said.
His days are filled with strenuous training followed by a couple of hours of online school with others, though he gets a week off every three weeks. That allows him to come home — to visit his dad in Michigan, and his mom and siblings in Skokie.
He recently had a family reunion with them during a visit home. At a new gym in Niles he jumped on a trampoline, flipping through the air. Using a trampoline is a common part of his training, he said.
From Lake Placid, Fochs will attend Westminster College in Utah, the U.S. Ski Team college. His coach, Eric Bwergoust, doesn’t believe Dakota will be ready for the 2014 winter Olympics in Russia, but he’s on track for the 2018 world showcase in Seoul, Korea. By then he hopes to have “The Hurricane” down pat, a triple-flip jump with a twist during the first flip, three twists during the second and two twists during the third.
The sacrifices that Fochs makes every day in pursuit of his dream are not his alone.
Billman misses her son and has to accept a few distasteful realities about her not being around. She says her son seems to have a new tattoo every time she sees him even though he promised to stop. And then there is the danger of what he does. A couple of weeks ago she learned he had a hard landing, and coughed up blood and bruised a lung.
“He was so far away from home, and I was here and I couldn’t get to him,” she said. “That was hard.”
There’s a serious financial burden that comes with Dakota’s dream, too — one carried by both his mother and father, who are divorced. Billman is currently on medical leave so it’s a one-income family, she noted.
As a member of the U.S. Ski Team, Fochs has his room and board, food and medical care subsidized. But his parents have to pay for competition fees each year, school costs and transportation to get to the competitions. When Fochs travels around the world to compete, the expense is on the family.
Each athlete also needs $5,000 in his account in Lake Placid for registration and competition fees. Billman is planning some fundraising activities, and she has started a “gofundme” page for her son, hoping to raise at least $5,000. The page, www.gofundme.com/Dakota-Fochs, is also a good place to keep up with the latest news about the teenage aerial skier.
But even with such hardships, Billman said, she never considered holding her son back. “I felt it was my job as his parent to encourage him,” she said.
She knows she made the right choice — especially during special moments. One of them came in March when Dakota participated in a competition in Vermont that left him ranked 19th in aerial ski jumping in the nation.
“I was standing at the bottom of the ramp with my camera looking up just waiting for him to flip over my head,” Billman recalled. “It’s impossible to describe the exhilaration and the excitement and the pride that I felt just then. It was amazing.”