Baker the bigger J4 skier
When Sierra-at-Tahoe coach Scott Bell walked along a line of young, Hot Shots skiers in 1999 and asked them what they wanted to be when they grew up, he paused beside Jake Baker.
Everyone wanted to be doctors and lawyers, firemen and astronauts, the proverbial childhood answers that seldom endure through adulthood. But not Baker.
“He looked at me for a second, and said, ‘I want to be a skier.’ And that was the start of a beautiful relationship,” Bell chortled.
Jake Baker, in his first year as a 12-year-old J4 Far West skier, will travel to Mount Hood Meadows, Ore., as one of three J4 skiers from the state of California to compete in the March 18-24 J4 Festival, an exhibition class of skiers who compete in the Junior Olympics.
Baker has been under the tutelage of Bell for the past four years, and he is one of South Lake Tahoe’s strongest young skiers.
“I’ve been watching him for the last four years,” said Scott Novotny, the Far West Alpine Committee J4/J5 chairman. “He’s got the passion. He really puts it together on race day. He’s shown a diversified talent. It was mainly GS skiing, (but) he’s coming out this year really ripping in slalom.”
In his first year as a J4, Baker racked up top-three finishes in many of his races, including a second and third in giant slalom and a first in slalom at Kirkwood Mountain Resort.
On Feb. 2, Baker stunned the competition by ousting more than 80 J4 boys to take first place in slalom at Boreal Mountain Playground. The next day, he straddled a gate and dropped to 14th place in his first run. On his second run, Baker finished with such a good time that he jumped 10 places and tied for fourth.
The result earned him a berth in the J4 Festival Qualifier Feb. 9-10 at Kirkwood, where he finished eighth in GS and first in slalom.
In doing so, Baker qualified for the third-and-final slot in the J4 Festival, beating out 15 of the top 18 J4 skiers in Far West.
This will be the first time the shy, Sierra skier has had the auspicious opportunity to ski out of state and in one of the four regionals in the nation.
Nervous? Not in his home Sierra turf.
But the young Baker has plenty of skiing experience to rely on, having learned to ski before his second birthday.
First learning at Kirkwood, Baker started organized skiing at Sierra when he was 6. He began a program called Hot Shots. In his third year, Baker started learning from a new ski instructor with a faint, Eastern accent that could have originated anywhere.
Bell, who moved west from Philadelphia, Pa., in 1989, was in his first year as a Sierra instructor when he joined the development program. He had eight years under his belt as an instructor at Heavenly Ski Resort and five as a development team coach.
A year and a half later Bell moved on to the race program, and he has been Baker’s coach ever since.
“Me and Jake kind of got into it together,” Bell said after the two had just finished training Monday.
In his first year as a J5, Baker placed second in overall points for the North Series of the Far West and finished second in the Far West GS championships.
He again finished second overall in points for the J5 North Series in his second year.
Baker, who celebrated his 12th birthday last weekend by hitting the slopes, says his postseason play on the Pop Warner football team keeps him in condition for skiing.
He also plays Little League baseball and is a black belt in karate.
Novotny said Baker is in his golden year as a 12-year-old, the age when skiers typically show future potential with ski racing.
“He’s technically sound with the right attitude. He’s fun to watch,” Novotny said.
Novotny added that Baker needs to continue skiing at a high caliber and to keep his passion.
“As in any sport, skiing is a mature sport,” Novotny said. “Kids don’t have the opportunity to get the mental part of skiing until a later age. There are exceptions to that … and (Baker) just needs to keep stepping it up.”