Will Brandenburg: What Makes a Champ

Megan Harrod
2016-05-26 11:52

From local ski hills to the PyeongChang Olympics, the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA) encompasses all athletes that share a passion for skiing and snowboarding. We explore what makes each skier and rider a champion with stories from the U.S. Ski Team, U.S. Snowboarding and U.S. Freeskiing, next to kids winning a NASTAR medal, landing their first cork 7 or joining a club team. Alongside USSA’s mascot Champ, take a look at how all of these athletes strive to be Best in the World.

As we continue to explore what makes USSA athletes champions, we’re learning more than we ever expected. To be a champion is holistic – it goes beyond the medals and the titles. It’s someone with great character and an undying belief in themselves; it’s someone who loves their sport with an unmatched passion—whether they’re still actively pursuing it or not. We are honored to share these stories with you. In this installation, Alpine Press Officer Megan Harrod sits down with U.S. Ski Team alumnus Will Brandenburg to discuss #WhatMakesAChamp.

Will Brandenburg’s smile brightens up coach’s knoll and his heart swells with a pure love for the sport of alpine ski racing. In just one conversation with Brandenburg you’ll find there’s a beauty in the relationship between his head and heart you will seldom find in humans, let alone professional athletes with a top-10 Olympic result on their list of accomplishments. 

Will Brandenburg smiles with his trophies and friends at Ski Bluewood.

It was humble beginnings for Brandenburg, who grew up skiing at Ski Bluewood, outside of Dayton, Washington with a goal of becoming a World Cup ski racer. His eight-year career with the U.S. Ski Team was not always smooth sailing; it was full of ups and downs and a lot of the in-between stuff too. However, with the heart of a lion, Brandenburg fought. From battling injury to earn a discretion spot on the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Team to taking 18th in Schladming under extreme pressure to grab himself a spot on the 2015 Vail/Beaver Creek World Championships team, he’s seen it all. And through the journey, he’s kept fans on the edge of their seats.

He struggled, at times, because he was not the most gifted athlete – “average” as he says. But Brandenburg turned what most would consider a major roadblock into an opportunity to differentiate himself. As a student of the sport and through hard work and perseverance, Brandenburg would eventually develop a style that was riskier—a style that would help him keep up with the more naturally talented skiers.

This style translated to a lot of splits in the green, but it also meant a lot of DNFs and DSQs and little consistency on the Audi FIS Ski World Cup circuit. Brandenburg felt like when he backed off, it wasn’t as rewarding. “It felt fake,” he said. “The skiing made me proud. The biggest accomplishment was the hard work it took to develop a different style.”

Brandenburg’s career featured glimpses of brilliance he vividly recalls, like the NorAm series in 2011 where his unconventional style paid off on the results sheet. With little snow in Europe, Levi was canceled and the tour shifted to North America. That meant slalom powerhouses like Austria’s Mario Matt and Marcel Hirscher and France’s Jean-Baptiste Grange skied a NorAm in Loveland, Colorado. Brandenburg capitalized on the opportunity to score points on American soil and showcased that Willy B style, walking away with two first place finishes.

A big heart often means big emotions. For Brandenburg, it was emotion that fueled his fire on the mountain. When he drew on it properly, it was a huge advantage, but when he wasn’t able to channel it appropriately, it got him off line and off track.

Though Brandenburg did not make criteria in his final season of World Cup action, he was able to raise funds to support his own team— “Team Willy B” —which included coaching by current U.S. Ski Team coach Josh “Yoshi” Applegate, an individual who was hugely influential in Brandenburg’s career. With the support of family and friends, he made one last valiant push.

Brandenburg (back row, third from right) poses with the team in 2013, including coach Josh 'Yoshi' Applegate (front center).

“There’s so much more behind just your name on the results sheet. There’re so many more people that are really, really in it with you,” recalled Brandenburg. “My wife Shannon has had my back behind every decision for the last seven years and for that I am forever grateful. Ski racing is so personal. Those turns are yours, but there are so many people behind you making those turns possible. For me it was my mom, dad, brother, sister, wife, coaches and friends who have been there along the way. I just can’t thank them enough.”

Brandenburg took his final lap at 2016 U.S. Alpine Championships on his new home hill at Sun Valley and is happy to officially announce that he’ll be hanging up his Fischer race skis. He’ll continue to carry that same love and passion as U16 Head Coach at Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation (SVSEF). For someone with a soul as big as Brandenburg, it wasn’t an easy decision to make. He admits that last year at this time he was struggling to bridge that gap between athlete and “what’s next.” He admits, “It would be a disservice to the sport if guys like me just walked away and didn’t try to share the knowledge that they’ve been able to acquire.”

Brandenburg poses with his athletes after his last run at the 2016 U.S. Alpine Championships.

As a slalom specialist, Brandenburg’s passion for coaching kids in the slalom discipline is fueled not only by his love for it, but also by his concern for the state of the discipline in the U.S. So, along with his coaching responsibilities, he’s stoked about his involvement in the club-wide slalom progression he’s working to implement, focusing on a detailed step-by-step teaching progression for athletes from age six to the FIS level.

He loves going to work every day because he believes in the direction SVSEF is going. They strive daily to make an experience that fits every individual athlete’s needs and goals. “I get to go to work with people every day that are as passionate about skiing as I am and want to help make ski racing better in our nation,” said Brandenburg.

Brandenburg goofs off with teammate Hailey Duke. (USSA-Jon Margolis)

Here’s a big plus: Brandenburg’s ski racing expertise is being utilized off the hill, too, where he and James “Taco” Tautkus cohost Fantasy Ski Racer’s podcast out of Sun Valley called “Piste Off.” Fantasy Ski Racer is the brainchild of current American Downhiller Steven Nyman and “Piste Off” offers a unique, behind-the-scenes view of life on the Audi FIS Ski World Cup circuit. Catch them this season with a weekly episode featuring current and former World Cup athletes in a dinner table-esque manner that only Brandenburg and Taco could orchestrate. Follow the dynamic duo on Facebook and Instagram.

Brandenburg would like to give a big shoutout to Fischer, who he was with during his entire FIS career. “I kicked out of the start gate on Fischer skis in every single FIS race of my life,” said Brandenburg. “They supported me through thick and thin. They never stopped believing in my skiing and never stopped supporting me.”

Brandenburg competes in the alpine combined of the 2013 World Champs. (USSA/ESPA-Mitchell Gunn/ESPA) 

Brandenburg has been able to successfully transition from ski racing to ski coaching at SVSEF, as he believes that the sport breeds positive and successful individuals. There is not a coach out there that embodies USSA’s core values more than Brandenburg: excellence, passion, integrity, community, grit, fun and team emanate from Brandenburg. We asked him our three questions on what he believes makes a champion.  

U.S. SKI TEAM: In your words, what makes a champion?
WILL BRANDENBURG: That is tough. A woman beating breast cancer…that’s a champion. A kid who can’t hit a baseball and works his butt off and finally gets that single…that’s a champion to me. I don’t have a clear definition, but I believe it is someone who fearlessly pursues the challenge in front of them.

U.S. SKI TEAM: Do you remember the first time you felt like a champion?
WB: The first time I felt like a champion was probably when I was racing at Ski Bluewood during my first ski race ever – and I was really fast. I think I felt like a champion then [laughs]. You know, I was six years old, and that was the pinnacle there. 

U.S. SKI TEAM: What is the biggest piece of advice you have for aspiring kids who want to be sitting where you are today?
BELIEVE. Believe in yourself, and fearlessly go after what you believe in. The end result is never as scary as you think it’s going to be, even if it’s failure. It’s always better to kick out and believe in what you’re doing and give it everything you possibly have. There will never be a bad outcome when you give it your all. During my career, the times when I truly enjoyed the journey and was living in the moment was when I started to have a good time and be more successful. The happiest I am and the best days I have are when I’m 100 percent truthful with myself. If you’re truthful with yourself and you go after something with belief, there will only be a good outcome.

Now that you know a little bit about Will Brandenburg and his heart, it will come as no surprise that his gratitude is overwhelming. He’d like to thank the following:

His family: mom, dad, brother, sister and wife, Shannon Brandenburg
His coaches: Roger Taggart, Randy Pelkey, Tom Sell, Mike Day, Forest Carey
His teammates: Erik Schlopy, Dane Spencer, Steven Nyman, Bode Miller, Marco Sullivan, Ted Ligety, David Chodounsky, Tim Kelley, Nolan Kasper, Tommy Ford...and the list goes on.
His sponsors: Fischer, Shred Optics, Slytech Protection