This article was originally published on the Canadian Freestyle Ski Association website.
A familiar face has stood at the bottom of countless hills over the last decade or so in the freestyle skiing community.
Heather Gerrits is the mom to 2014 Olympic aerialist Travis Gerrits and her Twitter handle (@FreestyleSkiMom) gives us a glimpse of who she is and her love affair with freestyle skiing.
But Heather has evolved into so much more than that for him and countless others who practice the sport around the world.
Full-time mom and full-time coach
Putting her eldest son, Travis, into organized sport was not a difficult decision for Heather.
Having a gymnastics background herself, she enrolled Travis and his younger brother Tyler into lessons at a young age and became one of their coaches – a background that would serve as a strong foundation for Travis’ future career as a world-class aerialist.
However Heather and her husband, Rob, wanted to register their athletic sons into a winter sport. Rob had a background in both hockey and skiing. The couple selected skiing because they viewed it as a way the family could bond and participate in the sport together.
“My husband said that we should go skiing and hopefully the kids will love it,” said Heather. “We thought it would be fun to do something together instead of sitting in a rink watching each kid play individually. It was a bit of a selfish decision. Now our whole lives revolve 12 months of the year around skiing and it’s awesome.”
The boys started off in alpine racing, but their background in gymnastics naturally pushed them to try more and drove their instructors crazy according to Heather.
“The coaches were going nutty with them because they kept going off jumps,” explained Heather. “Their air sense at a young age was incredible. So we made the switch to freestyle after meeting Nicolas Fontaine and shortly thereafter, Travis won his first competition at age 10.”
The outcome was the eventual creation of an Olympian in Travis, 23, and one of the best young freestyle judges in 18-year-old Tyler.
“From day one she’s always been there for me and helped me progress while chasing my goals,” said Travis. “That could be in gymnastics, freestyle skiing or school. I wouldn’t have been able to accomplish my dreams without her. She keeps me so grounded and keeps me motivated. She’s really my best friend and my rock.”
Going the extra mile
Most of the freestyle clubs were private back when Travis was getting his start in the sport and the Gerrits could not afford the fees associated with them.
Living on a large plot of land west of Toronto, the Milton natives decided to create a makeshift training centre in their backyard with the help of a snow blower.
“We couldn’t afford that snow blower,“ said Heather. “But we put all our pennies together to purchase it. My husband was out there gathering all the snow in one area and we built five or six moguls and a jump. Our backyard is where they first did their backflips.”
“I think that’s how my brother and myself became so successful,” said Travis. “My mom and dad were always there to encourage us and push us. They wanted us to be great and wanted us to learn the tricks right. My mom would always be at the bottom of the hill smiling. It’s always special having her there.”
Shortly after through the advice of Fontaine, Heather decided to become a freestyle coach herself so that the kids would have guidance when competing in Ontario. Heather would then hand over the reigns to Fontaine whenever they found themselves in Quebec.
It was around that time that Heather became the “team mom” for the aerialists.
“I’ve been a mom to the athletes for 11 years,” said Heather. “But not just to the Canadians. I’ve kind of held that title at World Cups for all the other athletes from around the world too.”
Athletes from Australia, Japan, China and others get excited to see her. Athletes like world champion Qi Guangpu requests a hug before each competition.
Even a language barrier didn’t stop Heather from connecting with these athletes as they continued to recognize her as a familiar face. She was the foreigner they could trust and that mother figure they needed around when their own families could not make the trip.
A lot of that bonding happened over the summer when several international athletes would head to Lac-Beauport to use the training facility in Quebec.
Having worked in education for the majority of her life, Heather was able to move herself to Lac-Beauport during summer break and rent a chalet from another freestyle family – the Marquis.
“I was always volunteering to help out at the facility and I had to do that because Travis and Tyler were too young to go on their own,” added Heather. “I had an agreement with the High Performance Director at the time that Travis could be on the team as long as I could travel with him. He was the very youngest to be put on the national team at 13 years old. He needed someone there.”
The Marquis chalet became a second home for Heather where she’d host the Canadian team and cook them healthy home cooked meals.
“I wanted these athletes to feel loved and cared for,” said Heather. “You know it’s hard for these kids. They travel so much and are away from their families. Sometimes it’s nice to know there’s a home cooked meal ready for you and someone there to make a fuss over you.”
A community affair
Heather’s ability to be able to attend events and continue her presence on tour has been largely helped by the community of Milton whom she credits for a lot of support over the years.
“I’m blessed because the community of Milton supports our family so that I can be at the super important competitions like the Olympic Games and the World Championships,” said Heather. “They know how important it is to Travis and the rest of the team for me to be there.”
Long ago the Gerrits made the decision that Heather would work half as much as she previously did in the classroom to become Travis’ full-time manager. Her new duties would include sponsorship and balancing the schedule of a high performance athlete.
Going back and forth between playing the role of mom and manager has been something Heather has been able to do seamlessly.
“Sometimes you just need to be a shoulder to cry on,” said Heather. “Especially during a season where things don’t go your way. You need to know when to just give a hug and smile. He has his coaches there to tell him what went wrong. You just need to know when to back away at times and just let them know you’re there when they’re ready to talk about it.”
That balance between manager and mom is something that has amazed Travis because he knows Heather will be there for him regardless of the situation.
“I know I can do something as simple as text her the things I am stressed about at that moment and she will be there for me,” said Travis. “She’s a great mom and a great manager. She does so much for me to help me balance my schedule and my commitments.”
Now other athletes in the Halton Region, where Milton is located, approach the Gerrits for advice on how to manage things like school and sport.
Heather has lent an ear for the likes of slopetyle skiers Evan and Reid McEachran, as well as mogul skier Robbie Andison who was recently named to the national team.
“I was Reid’s gymnastic coach and our families have known each other for years,” said Heather. “I’ve known Robbie since he was a little kid too. I used to watch him before he was well known in the community and would ask who that skier was coming down the hill. He has a world of talent. The Halton Region has really been producing amazing athletes.”
Skiers from different disciplines interacting is normal in the freestyle world where friendly faces and a helping hand seems to be the norm.
The World Cup tour is even filled with individuals who are good friends with their opponents seemingly able to turn off a switch once the competition is over. It’s something that makes the sport unique according to Heather and why she loves to do what she does.
“If the world could see how freestyle athletes treat one another then the world would be a better place.“