Standing five feet tall, weighing 88 pounds and hailing from a country where the highest mountain barely exceeds 1,000 feet in elevation, a 13-year-old Kelly Sildaru made X Games history last January when she won the women’s slopestyle event and became the youngest X Games gold medalist in history. The month before, she topped the podium at the 2015 Winter Dew Tour with a technically difficult and stylish run that Dan Skivington of NBC Sports said “blew the top off the ceiling in women’s slopestyle and raised the bar which we will see progress the sport.”
“Kelly caught the attention of the judging community early on, her technical abilities most of all,” says Steele Spence, head judge for the Association of Freeskiing Professionals. “Kelly is so comfortable spinning in all four directions on both jumps and rails, which instantly sets her apart from the competition. She’s the most technical female [park] skier we have ever seen.”
Now, at the age of 14, this success has opened new doors for Sildaru on the sponsorship front; she and her 10-year-old brother Henry—a crazy-talented skier in his own right—have inked a deal with Verbier, Switzerland-based Faction Skis. The partnership brings to light the thoughtful discussions that happen between brands and athletes in closed meeting rooms. A behind-the-scenes look at this deal shows how even at their young age, Kelly and Henry Sildaru know exactly what they want out of a sponsor—and how Faction placed a careful bet for long-term return on an investment.
Though the Sildarus’ home nation of Estonia lacks big mountains or an alpine ski culture—their local ski hill boasts just over 300 vertical feet—the pair has been turning heads in the industry for some time and their deal with Faction was two years in the making. Discussions with the company began in 2014, before Kelly had won any major contests, and picked up again when the Sildarus ran into Faction co-founder Alex Hoye while skiing through the trees of Japan.
“Our interest in working with them wasn’t an overnight decision but something genuine, which we thought about for a while,” says Mathieu Soumet, Faction’s athlete manager. The Sildarus round out a varied athlete roster that includes Candide Thovex, Sam Anthamatten, Adam Delorme, Johnny Collinson and more. “We are putting quite some time and effort into trying to find the right people we want to work with. We care more about personalities than having athletes filling certain categories,” says Soumet.
Up until a couple years ago, the siblings skied about 60 days a year—not a ton as far as pro skiers go. What they did regularly was spend time on the trampoline and longboard around their hometown of Tallinn. Growing up, they tried new things—skating, snowboarding, wakeboarding, surfing, go-karting, tennis and golf—and today they’re still focused on being students; they travel with extra luggage to accommodate textbooks and school work. On the road, they study every day and back home in Tallinn, they do their homework after school, before skiing or training on the tramp. This willingness to try new things and a commitment to excellence in pursuits outside of skiing impressed the team at Faction.
“We want to create great stories with unique people, and Kelly and Henry fit right into this,” says Soumet. “Regardless of their age, their talent and personalities speak to a broad audience and this is great from a brand perspective. They both shred hard and are having a great time on our products, and this matters the most to us, but also to a skiing audience. We want to support unique skiers, regardless of what they do.”
The Sildarus appreciate working with a smaller company that takes a more personal approach to its brand-athlete partnerships. Faction’s office is informal enough that its sponsored skiers often drop in unannounced, take product designers out on the ski hill and spend time with staff. That closeness translates directly to athletes providing input on products—ones that ultimately help them progress as skiers.
“Faction gives you the feeling of being part of a family where everyone is equally important,” says Kelly. “And it’s really great that they value Henry individually, too. He’s earned his own recognition.”
Kelly and Henry’s parents had no grand plans for their kids to become skiers. They saw a small pair of ski boots on sale when Kelly was two years old and bought them for fun. Henry grew up following his sister around the mountain. And while Kelly’s best results have been in slopestyle, she aspires to find similar success in halfpipe and big air. She recently learned back-to-back 900’s in the pipe. Kelly is still too young to enter World Cup events, but she plans to compete in Dew Tour, X Games Aspen and Junior World Championships, among other events, in 2016-17.
“Kelly is such a good inspiration for this sport,” says X Games gold medalist in slopestyle, Emma Dahlstrom, 24. “I’ve watched her ski since she was eight and it has been such a cool journey to follow. She is an incredibly consistent rider on a very high level, and a tough opponent for everyone in halfpipe, slopestyle and big air. I love that she has pushed female skiing to new heights and I believe that she has a long future ahead of her in the ski scene. I’m looking forward to next season when it’s going to be very interesting to see her start in her first World Cup events.”
Kelly’s future as pertaining to competitions is bright, indeed. She’ll be a strong contender for an Olympic medal in Pyeongchang barring injuries or other unforeseen circumstances. Yet, even with all of the fame and notoriety that came this past season, one of her greatest motivations remains skiing with brother Henry.
“It’s a constant battle between me and Henry to see who does [a trick] first or better than the other,” Kelly says. “You don’t just want to let the other win. It’s the biggest thrill and motivation for both of us.”
When it comes to progression, Kelly understands that these days, double corks and triple corks are the norm for world-class competition. But, she’ll get there when she’s ready. “I like to do things that are fun for me, to ski different terrain… I understand that one day we have to start doing [doubles], but right now I want to focus more on the halfpipe and, of course, improving my skills in the park, overall. If you [look at] the men, they can do every [trick with every grab] before they are going for doubles. I would love to follow the same road. It’s not just about learning a trick, but becoming a [well-rounded] skier from A to Z.”
Kelly and Henry are committed to Faction for the long haul. Looking around an industry where athletes sometimes jump from brand to brand in a short time span, Kelly says it should be normal for skiers to have a long-term relationship with a sponsor. “It gives a hint about the athlete’s dedication and persistence to grow and progress together,” she says. Wise beyond her years, though, Kelly states, “being with a brand for a long time should not become the main reason to hold on and keep going together.”
“Building a strong alliance that’s beneficial for both [parties] should be mutual,” Kelly believes. “This is something I see and can’t wait for with Faction—to grow together for as many years as possible. To become two in one, each strong separately and also unbeatable together.”