To an athlete dying young: A tribute to Asher Crank


He had the perfect name: Asher Crank. How could you possibly grow up with that name in a ski town and not learn how to rip? And learn he did. Asher loved new-school skiing. By the time he was 16, he was already comfortable with trips to regional and national podiums in halfpipe, slopestyle, skiercross and big-mountain events. He must have ranked in the first seed of up-and-coming junior American freeskiers. He was good and he was ready.
Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.
— A. E. Housman

HE HAD THE PERFECT NAME: Asher Crank. How could you possibly grow up with that name in a ski town and not learn how to rip?
And learn he did. His mother, Stephanie Watkins, owned one of the best ski shops in town and he was on the hill all the time. While still a J4 ski racer, he was already in the first couple of seeds of the Rocky/Central Division for his age group and climbing the ladder. Then in ninth grade, he quit racing to focus on big-mountain skiing and freeriding. His alpine coaches, sorry to lose such obvious talent, tried to get him to run gates for a few more years, but he was determined.
Asher loved new-school skiing. By the time he was 16, he was already comfortable with trips to regional and national podiums in halfpipe, slopestyle, skiercross and big-mountain events. He must have ranked in the first seed of up-and-coming junior American freeskiers. He was good and he was ready.
I’m not sure when I first met Asher. He was just always there, spending time in his folks’ shop, running gates, running around. I knew that the private school where I was then headmaster, Crested Butte Academy, could serve him well, and I remember how pleased everyone at the school was when he joined us. I was looking forward simply to having him in the halls. After all, the word “Asher” in Hebrew means “happy” or “blessed,” and Asher lived up to that name. Even when he was in trouble — a regular event — and trying to avoid the staff, Asher was a little bit like a sneaky ray of sunshine. He had a big smile and he wasn’t afraid to use it.
That charm came in handy at times. During Asher’s last year of alpine racing, when he was in eighth grade, the team went down to Telluride for a race. Despite careful protocols to make sure students were never unsupervised, somehow three of them wound up in a condo for a few hours on their own. The details of what happened don’t really matter any more, but suffice it to say that Borat and the guys who make the Jackass movies would have been impressed, perhaps even awed. And their young counterparts might have gotten away with it all, except that they couldn’t even dream of raising enough allowance money to deal with the property damage. Never leave a bunch of 13-year-old boys alone with a blender.
When the team returned and we were drawing together our judicial committee at the school to deal with what the boys had wrought, I remember each member of the committee, as I explained to him or her what had happened, looking at me incredulously and saying “… they did what?!” Yes, I would say, that’s what they did, and then we would talk about exactly how to address it.
There were apologies, there were tears, there was contrition and some gnashing of teeth. There were suspensions and checks had to be written. But in the end, what I and everyone else saw was that these were three wonderful boys and we were glad they were in our school. They were going to be fine. And indeed it all worked itself out and the boys remained at the school and are fast friends to this day. Didrik has graduated and is in college; Josh is a senior at the academy and college-bound. The third was, of course, Asher. I have looked forward already for years to telling them all how funny the whole thing really was.
After l’affaire Telluride, Asher worked hard to fly under my radar for a while, and he was good at it. He understood stealth. But I had my own stealthy ways and I was always watching him, because he was a leader in his class and a lovely kid. You could feel his exuberant energy from around a corner. After I had left the academy and was living in California for a year, he probably thought I wasn’t paying attention, but of course I followed his results as he started to shine in his chosen sport. When I returned to town, he had magically grown a foot, but now the resentment seemed to have evaporated. Instead of avoiding my gaze, whenever he saw me he smiled, looked me in the eye and said “Hello.” Shook my hand. Told me about his results, about school. I always looked forward to that. One time I saw him riding a rail from the chair and he made it look as easy as water flowing downhill. This fall I’d heard that he was now (finally!) passing his classes, and I knew he was stomping his competitions. He was finally talking about going to college. Asher was going to be fine, just fine. I was looking forward to his graduation in June 2007.
Then, on Saturday, Jan. 13, Asher was with his team preparing for a slopestyle event at Copper Mountain. On a training run, with coaches and teammates watching, he came blazing into the biggest hit in the park, riding switch. He went big, his timing was off, and though he landed on his feet, something went wrong and he was thrown immediately onto his head. Ben Somrak, one of Asher’s coaches and an EMT, was on the scene within seconds and says it was clear from the first moment just how dangerous the injury was. According to him, Asher’s pupils were already dilated, sure sign of a serious head injury. He was unresponsive, bleeding and soon went into convulsions. On the flight-for-life to Denver, he went into cardiac arrest and was resuscitated, but never regained consciousness.
The next day, after heroic efforts by his doctors, it became clear that he was never coming back, and his family made the excruciating decision to let him go. My wife and I were down in Boulder that weekend, and when we drove over and asked if we could leave a note for the family, the attendant at the other end of the line simply said, with a sigh, that since we had last called — a mere 45 minutes before — Asher was no longer a patient.  It was one of the most sorrowful things I’ve ever heard.
The next weekend, most of the town turned out for Asher’s memorial, but I and many of his coaches couldn’t attend, as there was a J3-J4 super G in Durango (my own son is now a J4).  The coaches had decided that Asher would have wanted everyone to go, so the race was on.
The night before his memorial, I visited the coaches in their condo, where they were tuning skis. We’ve all known each other for years. The conversation turned to Asher and everyone had a story. Steve Hamilton told of the time that Asher and some friends snuck off to ski a forbidden chute with mandatory air on Crested Butte&rsq
uo;s North Face. They were about 12, and Steve looked up from the bottom to see them literally dangling from rocks and branches and had to chew them out and hand out consequences. Others told stories of Asher leaving his race skis at the top of the course at the end of the day; of showing up late for training and having to hike up the hill as penance. Story after story — laughter and tears. I think it was Steve who summed it up at one point. After a pause in the conversation, he said, “Asher was the kind of kid who woke up every day without knowing what he was necessarily going to do — and then he just went out and had a great time.”
Our town is small, and there were times when the academy and the ski club didn’t always get along. In retrospect, one of the amazing things about that evening in Durango was that in that room were three coaches or teachers who had worked with Asher at the academy — Brian Krill, Dolly Schaub (both of whom now coach for the club), and me — and three others who had worked with Asher at the club — Steve Hamilton, Marnie Joslyn and Dolly’s husband, Reed Schaub. As the anecdotes went around the room, I now realize, it was Asher who was helping us to remember what we should always keep in mind — it’s all about the kids, and they are more precious than any of us can really say.  Every day matters. Perhaps part of Asher’s legacy was to help to draw us all together in that way. I’d like to think so.
Although it hurts, I owe Asher a debt for reminding me of what a privilege it is to have been part of his life and to have been one of his teachers. It was an honor to serve him and through him everyone in his family, even when he trashed a condo. I think that is how all his coaches and teachers feel as well. After all, Telluride has plenty of condos, but there was only one Asher. And that will never, ever be over. I can take that knowledge with me to the very next time I ever work with any student, anywhere.
Skiing is beautiful, but it can be dangerous. I don’t want anyone to go out and do something foolish. Please don’t. In fact, even though Asher’s death was a freak accident, I think it may be time for the FIS to start talking seriously about homologating terrain parks. But if anyone knew what he was doing, it was Asher. He was talented and skilled. He just landed wrong. And amidst all the grief, I’d like to think that his final thoughts were joyful ones.
… Man, I’m going big. It is so cool up here. Every day’s a new day. Oh, I love skiing, I love life, and I’m free.

•    •    •

A scholarship fund in Asher’s name is in the process of being established by one of the community foundations in Crested Butte. Donation checks should be made out directly to the Asher Crank Memorial Fund. Contact Community Banks of Colorado, at 970-349-1000, or Graham Frey, headmaster of Crested Butte Academy, at 970-445-7685.


Asher Crank’s skiing highlights

2006
USASA National Championships — 7th PlaceOverall SkierX, Slopestyle, Halfpipe
U.S. Extreme FreeSkiing Championships — 5th Place Jr. Men Finals Big Mountain
Profurious Pipe Series, Crested Butte — 5th Place Overall Park/Pipe
Copper Series —1st Place Slopestyle March /06
Copper Series — 2nd Place Slopestyle
Copper Series — 2nd Place SkierX 1/29; 1st Place SkierX 1/28; Place SkierX 1/22; 1st Place Slopestyle 1/15; 1st Place Halfpipe   1/14
2005
National Champion SkierCross USASA Copper Mtn. 2005
Overall Junior Winner 2005 Crested Butte Profurious Park’n’Pipe Series 2005
US Extremes 8th Place Big Mountain U.S. Extreme Freeskiing Championships March/05 4th Skier X
First Place Overall  Copper Series Skier Cross 2005
Fourth Place Salomon Crosse Max Skier Cross 2005
Second Place in Crested Butte Series Pipe Comp 2005
First Place In Copper Series Skier Cross 2005
Second Place In Crested Butte Series Slope Style 2005
Fourth Place In Salomon Crosse Max Skier Cross 2005
Fourth In The Slush Huck Pipe Comp 2005
Second In The Slush Huck Slope Style 2005
Qualified & Attended Junior Olympics Ski Racing 2001-2003

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