At an age when so many of his peers are trying to figure out what it is they want to do with their lives, one NMU student is actively chasing his dreams, as wild as they may be.
On the first weekend of November, a selection of the world’s most prominent extreme athletes flocked to San Francisco for the Esurance ICER AIR competition. A 100-foot-high jump was constructed in the middle of AT&T Park and covered in 200 tons of man-made snow. The world’s best skiers and snowboarders hit the jump time and time again during those two days.
NMU freshman Ian Thorley peered over the sheer drop at the edge of that jump. The height alone would have terrified some, but Thorley, 21, didn’t think twice about the plummet. He tipped his snowboard over the edge and prepared for the ride of his life.
“You don’t even notice those little things because you’re looking out at the crowd of 32,000 people, all cheering,” he said. “Everything kind of goes away and you just soak it all in and realize, ‘Hey, I’ve pretty much made it. My dream has come true.'”
Ian’s dream-to become a professional athlete-is familiar to many. Growing up, the Marquette native watched snowboarding videos and saw boarders plastered prominently in magazines. He saw the poster-boys for the sport and wanted to be like them.
Ian, who has since had four top-three finishes in the U.S. Open Snowboarding Championships, can remember growing up during a time when snowboarding was still a largely unknown and scarcely-respected sport. He recalls sitting in class over the years and hearing the stock question from each teacher: What do you want to be when you grow up?
“Other kids would say, ‘I want to be a fireman or I want to be a police chief,'” Ian said. “Ever since I can remember, I said I wanted to be a snowboarder and nobody ever really took me seriously.”
The birth of a dream
Ian’s father, Ron Thorley, remembers that it was a challenge to get Ian to ski at a young age, and that he would often have to drag his son to the mountain.
“He wasn’t too jazzed about (ski) racing,” he said. “He just wanted to try a snowboard so badly.”
During family vacations, the Thorleys headed west, to the mountains-and the snow.
On Father’s Day one year, Ron asked what his son most wanted to do. Ian said that he wanted to learn how to snowboard.
“Around third grade, me and my dad rented snowboards and we tried it out,” he said. “I was brutal at it for the first two years, but I finally got the hang of it.”
Soon, Ian was competing in regional United States of America Snowboard Association (USASA) contests. He almost always finished well in the competitions, which took him to Upper Peninsula hills, such as Ski Brule, Indianhead, Blackjack and Mount Ripley.
A small-town kid from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Ian still had very little knowledge of the still-young snowboarding industry.
Chasing the dream
As he entered high school, it became obvious that in order to advance into the realm of professional snowboarding, Ian would need help.
“Ian came up to us at the end of sophomore year and said, ‘I think I really need to be coached,”‘ Ian’s father recalls.
It was clear that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to get a coach to come to Marquette.
In order to fulfill their son’s request, the Thorleys offered to send Ian to Waterville Valley, NH-nearly 1,000 miles away.
“I remember thinking about people that sent their kids away, ‘how could you?'” said Ian’s mother, Frida Waara. “And here I was, doing it.”
The family’s opinion began to change when coaches explained that although Ian was a natural snowboarder, he knew very little about the sport and that coaching would both help him to improve and keep him from getting injured due to poor technique.
“It was a huge decision to try and figure out if I wanted to do that or not,” Ian said. “It was kind of big for me, at 16, to leave home.”
While in New Hampshire, Ian would be away from his parents for nearly five months at a time. This made the decision even harder.
“I decided to go ahead and do it because I knew it’s what I needed to do to have a career in snowboarding,” he said. “I knew it was possible and I knew it was unlikely, but if I worked hard, anything was possible.”
For the next couple of years, Ian spent the two school semesters in Marquette and two in New Hampshire, where he attended the Waterville Valley Academy.
Ian and the rest of the Waterville Valley students went to school for half the day. For the rest of the day, they were trained by long-time snowboarding coach Bill Enos, who is referred to as the ”Yoda of snowboarding,” according to Waara. Enos has coached some of the sport’s biggest names.
“[Ian] is definitely right up there with some of the best I’ve coached,” Enos said. “And if he just keeps believing in himself, he’s going to be fine.”
When the two run into each other at competitions around the country, Enos still acts as a coach to Ian, giving him tips.
Ian, reflecting on his unusual high school experience, Ian sat down recently and watched his high school class video.
“I did notice that I wasn’t in the video at all,” he said. “I kind of feel like I missed out a lot on having a normal high school life, but then again, I did get to experience a lot of things that a lot of people won’t get to experience. I wouldn’t take it back for anything.”
Living the dream
Through contacts that he made in New Hampshire, Ian started to feel his way through the snowboarding world after graduating high school.
Ian now spends about five months of his year attending college in Marquette. During the other seven months, he and a group of snowboarders rent a house in California and spend the days boarding.
Last year, Ian’s roommates included snowboarders Cameron Egan, Tanner Pendleton and Tim Humphreys.
Ian, who has traveled the country and competed against some of the world’s best athletes, has walked a road that many can only imagine.
And just two weeks ago-when most Marquette boarders were awaiting the first snow of the year-Ian was atop the snowboarding world.
Only 14 snowboarders on the globe were invited to San Francisco to be a part of the ICER AIR competition. Each got two shots to impress the judges and move on to the final round of seven.
Entering the competition, Ian’s lone goal was to make the final round.
After Ian was randomly selected as the first to hit the jump in competition, he nailed a backside 720 nosegrab, placed fourth and moved on to finals.
“After that, there was no pressure because I had done what I came to do,” he said. “From there on, it was all fun.”
Moments before Ian scaled the 211 stairs for the umpteenth time that day, Ian’s parents, sitting in the crowd, got a text message from their son.
It read: “I love my life. This feels amazing.”
“What does every parent wish for their child, but to hear them say ‘I love my life, this feels amazing’?” Waara said. “I don’t care what you strive for. That’s what we all want.”
Ian described the surreal scene-it was then that he sent the text-as he prepared to climb to the top of the jump once more.
“All you can see is people. That felt cool,” he said. “I know my parents have invested a lot of time and a lot of money into me doing this. It’s just kind of a way for me to express that I appreciate what they have done for me. It’s just now starting to pay off.”
In the finals, Ian completed a switch backside rodeo and a backside rodeo 900 en route to a fifth place overall finish. Despite a total prize pool of $100,000, Ian claimed just $500. And he didn’t mind one bit.
Ian lists standing at the top of the mammoth jump as one of the top moments in his still-young career and he insists that snowboarding has never been about the money.
In fact, it has been about something much more important. When he is flying – snowboard latched to his feet – a few stories above the ground, the money never comes to mind.
“It’s a feeling that I couldn’t even describe,” Ian said. “And I know it’s a feeling that I will not get from anything else but snowboarding. For me, it fills a space that nothing else could fill.”
The Thorleys have raised all of their children in the same fashion, insisting that if they do what they love, the happiness-and possibly the money-will follow.
From day one, Ian has stayed true to that philosophy.
“I don’t think Ian has ever done it for the money. I think he has done it for the love,” his father said. “We’ve encouraged our kids always to follow their dreams. And this was his.”