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BREAKING THROUGH

PART ONE

a six-part series profiling athletes reaching the next level in their sport.

Casey Brown
Story by Gordy Megroz

Casey Brown makes a lot of noise when she rides her mountain bike.

Casey Brown makes a lot of noise when she rides her mountain bike.

There’s the loud whooshing that emanates from her when she’s bombing downhill, which she once did at 60 miles per hour by removing the brakes from her bike. There’s the metallic clanking her ride makes when she lands 60-foot jumps, the distance she flew to win top prize last year at Hoff Fest, a big-air competition in Retallack, British Columbia. And there’s the buzzing of her tires when they carve around turns on dirt trails.

We better get going, eh?
Casey Brown rides the Kuskanax Trail near Nakusp, British Columbia. This old horse trail leads to a natural hot spring and is over 100 years old. "If this trail could talk it would have many amazing stories to tell," says photographer Bruno Long.

There’s another sound that Brown makes and she’s making it right now. On a sunny mid-May afternoon in Revelstoke, British Columbia, the place Brown has called home since moving from New Zealand 10 years ago,

she’s blasting down a trail on her powder-blue Trek—her slight, five-foot-three-inch frame hunched low on her bike, a massive ponytailed tangle of blond hair flying out the back of her gray Bell helmet—and she’s giggling. Brown laughs a lot. That’s because the 26-year-old, who struggled through poverty and the tragic death of a sibling, has a lot to be happy about these days. Mainly this: She's fast emerging as one of the best mountain bikers, male or female, in the world.

Santa Cruz, California Photo by Ian Collins
She's fast emerging as one of the best mountain bikers, male or female, in the world.
REI

What sets Brown apart are her fearlessness and her style on the bike. On steep descents and over bony terrain, she rides aggressively, low over the front of her handlebars, a technique that allows her to quickly dive into turns and hold a sharp radius, enabling her to maintain speed without braking. In the air, she seems to delight in messing with the laws of gravity, floating higher and higher while sustaining Spider-Man-like control and balance. “She’s breaking new ground for women as far as some of the air she’s getting,” says Andrew Shandro, a pro rider from Vancouver, British Columbia. “She doesn’t question herself. On the big bike, she’s very comfortable." Brown’s skills have helped her rack up some impressive race results. Since breaking onto the pro scene in 2012, she’s scored several top-10s on the World Cup downhill tour as well as in Enduro World Series races, both of which place emphasis on an athlete’s ability to ride at ludicrously high speeds down incredibly technical courses. In addition, she’s won titles at the Crankworx event in Whistler, one of the world’s biggest and most revered mountain-biking competitions, and she’s scooped up a Canadian national championship. Brown, however, would like to give up competition completely in pursuit of her ultimate goal: being a movie star. “When I’m filming, I can be more playful on my bike,” she says. “I can express my personality more through that type of riding.” To date, she’s appeared in one movie, Not 2 Bad, and five short edits for Anthill Films. But her big break is imminent.

“We were always hungry. Going to Canada and being with Dad seemed like a good opportunity—like we’d have everything we ever wanted.”
Revelstoke Revelstoke British Columbia
Brown holds up a rusty chainsaw chain, perhaps left over from the old mining days in the Retallack area. Photo by Bruno Long
Brown
Brown
Casey Brown riding at an Enduro World Series Event. Photo by Matt Delorme

A few days ago, TGR filmmakers contacted Brown about a shoot they were planning. Would she be willing to come to Jackson, Wyoming, and air 20 feet off the lip of Corbet’s Couloir, the famous Jackson Hole ski run, in the snow, on her bike? “Sure!” Brown said. “I’m stoked!” But that shoot is a few weeks away. Today, Brown is happy to be home and riding the trails.

Just yesterday, she came back from a trip to Portugal, where she placed sixth in the enduro race in Madeira. This ride gives her a chance to spin out the jet lag and reset. “A casual ride,” she calls it. And it is, until Brown decides she wants to drop 10 feet off a moss-covered rock, a jump that requires her to land just right to avoid smacking into a tree.

“Isn’t this trail great!” she says after her successful flight. The sun begins to dip and the sky starts spitting rain. “We better get going, eh?” she says in classic Canadian dialect, the faintest remnants of a Kiwi accent still noticeable in her lilt. “Let’s ride!” And just like that, she’s gone, rocketing down the trail so fast that all the sounds—the whooshing, buzzing, clanking, and giggling—fade in the distance.

I met up with Brown earlier in the day at the small basement apartment she shares with her boyfriend, Marty Schaffer, a 31-year-old backcountry ski guide, and Snuff, her black Lab mix. “Check out Snuff’s dog tag,” Brown said. “I made it in my dad’s metal shop.” Engraved on the copper tag is OH FUCK I’M LOST. “She likes to wander,” Brown chuckled. The couple’s apartment is decorated with paintings, a few photos, and foraged deer antlers. Missing are most of the awards Brown has won in competition, save a silver rock pick, the top prize from Hoff Fest, which sits on a shelf. “The rest are with my dad and sisters,” she told me. “I don’t really like having them around. If you have all this stuff about you everywhere, it makes you look kind of self-centered or narcissistic. That’s just not me.”

Casey

“But check this out,” Schaffer said. He lifted the couple’s mattress to reveal 12 oversized cardboard checks—the ceremonial kind presented to athletes on the podium—laid out across the bedframe. “They help with back support.” Those winnings, along with endorsement deals, earn Brown about $75,000 a year, money she plans to use to build a house. It’s a life she never could have imagined as a young girl in New Zealand. Brown was born in 1990 in Queenstown, the youngest of Lou and Liz Brown’s four children. (Brown also has a half-sister, Liz’s oldest child.) She spent the first seven years of her life on the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island, in Barn Bay, a beautiful stretch of jungle a seven-hour hike from civilization on the shores of the aquamarine Tasman Sea. The family lived in a home Lou built from wood he harvested from the jungle, generating power from a windmill he’d also built. During the day, Lou worked as a lobsterman, shipping his catch out on planes that would fly in and land on a 1,000-foot-long airstrip he’d constructed. Liz homeschooled her children, but most of the time the kids were left to roam their vast surroundings. “We’d play all the time,” says Elinor, Brown’s sister, four years her senior. “We were in the middle of nowhere. We had our boundaries—the two rivers and the ocean—but otherwise we ran wild.”

That included swinging from a bungee cord Lou had strung up on a tree, chasing along with the occasional through-hiker (“We never saw people, so when somebody came through, it was a big deal,” says Elinor), and competing with each other in various tests of skill and strength, including potato-sack races and tug-of-war. “They were our Olympics,” says Brown. “I was the youngest and a lot smaller, so I always lost.” In 1996, after Lou had had some near-death experiences at sea—including the sinking of one of his boats in a raging storm—the family decided to move inland to a 317-acre farm in Clyde, a town of about 1,000 people. There they lived in a teepee and tried to grow vegetables. But due to the arid climate and high winds, the crops failed.

By now, Lou and Liz’s marriage was unraveling. Lou decided to pick up and move to Canada, where he’d grown up, taking his eldest children, Jennifer and Sam, with him. “That he took two of the kids with him made my mom sad,” says Brown. “But she’s not the type to fight about it.”

Brown and Elinor remained on the farm with Liz until 1999, when a massive fire swept through and destroyed everything. That forced a move to Hawea, a small town near lakes and mountains, where the family lived on government funding.

At the same time, Brown’s siblings were thriving in Canada, particularly Sam, who’d quickly taken to mountain biking and had become a formidable rider. He’d built gnarly, jump-filled trails and various contraptions that only the very best mountain bikers would attempt. That included the “Disconstructed Wheel,” a giant wooden hamster wheel 15 feet above the ground that he’d enter through a small opening via a narrow wooden plank, spin around inside, then exit through the same opening onto another narrow plank. When he rode it in the 2002 movie New World Disorder III, it blew the minds of fellow riders. “That was groundbreaking,” says Cam McCaul, a mountain-biking legend known for his insane trickery. “Sam was doing things creatively on a bike that nobody else had thought about.”

Brown idolized her brother and missed her father. In 2002, she and Elinor both made the decision to move to Canada. “We never had enough food or money,” says Brown of her final years in New Zealand. “We were always hungry. Going to Canada and being with Dad seemed like a good opportunity—like we’d have everything we ever wanted.”

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When Brown arrived in Revelstoke, an old logging town in southern British Columbia that had become known for skiing, she immersed herself in sports. Lou, who was now a metalworker, built her a bike out of spare parts, one that had a 24-inch rear tire and a 26-inch front tire. “I called it ‘the chopper,’” says Brown, noting its similarity to custom motorcycles. “It was heavy and really hard to pedal and terrible to ride uphill. It was manageable on the downhills.” Brown progressed quickly by riding with her brother and other men around town, people who could push her. “I met her when she was 15,” says Bruno Long, a Revelstoke local and professional photographer. “She was a tiny girl but she was fast. We could all tell she’d be passing us soon.” Besides developing her preternatural talent on a bike, Brown was excelling in competitive skiing, a sport she hadn’t taken up until she was 14. “The whole family is insanely athletic,” says Long. “Casey could probably be a pro in any sport she wanted.” As could be expected, on skis Brown was extremely comfortable in the air. Several victories in slopestyle and big-air events culminated in the 2007 BC Junior Freestyle Ski Championship. “But I was the only girl who was willing to go off the really big jumps,” says Brown. Meanwhile, Sam had put mountain biking aside and taken a job as a heli-logger, a dangerous profession that involves flying deep into the woods to cut down massive trees.

“The industry jaded him a little,” says Brown. “The freeriders had egos and partied their faces off. The community just wasn’t as down-to-earth as he wanted it to be.” Sam worked constantly, which meant Brown wouldn’t see her brother for months at a time. When he would show up, it’d often be unannounced, in the dead of winter, at two o’clock in the morning. “We’d grab our bikes and put on headlamps and ride up the ski-hill road at the ski area, then ride down the groomed trails,” says Brown. “You couldn’t brake because you’d slide on the snow, so we’d get going incredibly fast. Sooo fast. It was amazing.”

What Brown didn’t know was that Sam had also become involved in an even riskier business than logging. In nearby Malakwa, Sam had been learning how to fly helicopters. While there, he became acquainted with a notorious drug smuggler who offered Sam a job: How’d he like to make upwards of $40,000 per week flying shipments of pot to the U.S.?

According to his family, Sam jumped at the opportunity. The risk appealed to him. So did the money. But in February 2009, it all ended. Agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration caught Sam landing with a shipment of pot in a meadow in Washington’s Colville National Forest, arrested him, and threw him in jail.

Four days later, at around one in the afternoon, Lou arrived at the ski shop where Brown was working. “You have to come with me,” he said. “It’s a family emergency.” The two drove to Elinor’s house and walked in to find a police officer. Elinor and Jennifer were on the floor crying. Sam, 24, had been found that morning, hanging from a towel in his jail cell. “Your brother killed himself,” said the police officer. Brown dropped to her knees and sobbed.

Casey Brown carrying her bike at an Enduro World Series Event. Photo by Matt Delorme

After Sam died, Brown poured her energy into racing her bike. “I wanted to make something out of it,” she says. “Sam died so young and it made me realize that I should be doing something I love doing.” But her approach to the sport was often reckless. “I wasn’t in the right head space to be riding,” she says. “I was trying to be better than I was.” That led to injuries, including a lacerated liver from bad crash at a race in Panorama. “I was in the hospital for a week,” she says. “It could have killed me.” In 2011, in an effort to fortify herself, Brown reached out to Todd Schumlick, a trainer based in Pemberton, British Columbia.

Schumlick added Brown to his mountain-biking team, PerformX, and drew up a training program for her that included gym workouts and bike intervals. “She needed a program to be able to handle a really aggressive style of riding,” says Schumlick. “Some CrossFit-style training.”

The training paid off. Brown broke out in 2012, placing sixth in her first-ever World Cup downhill race and taking the Canadian National downhill title. “And I definitely don’t feel like I get hurt as easily now,” says Brown. Over the years, her training has evolved. Last year, Brown took up snowmobiling and spent huge chunks of time making her sled fly. So Schumlick devised some workouts around the machine, exercises worthy of entry in the Redneck Olympics. For strength training, she’ll intentionally get the snowmobile stuck, then pull it out. “Sometimes she’ll stop the sled and do 100-meter sprints to it,” says Schumlick.

As she enters the next phase of her career, shooting movies for film companies demanding she do bigger and crazier tricks, it’s her ability to walk away from a bad crash that’s likely to pay the highest dividends.

Just a day after meeting her, I watched Brown test her durability during a ride at Boulder Mountain, a labyrinth of steep terrain and manmade jumps just 20 minutes from downtown Revelstoke. Brown came bombing down the rooty, rocky trail, jumped off a mound of dirt, and flew 40 feet in the air—so far that she overshot the steep landing, instead coming down hard on a flat section of trail. The compression annihilated the shocks on her bike, causing Brown to fall backward onto her rear wheel and take the full brunt of the impact to her backside.

Instead of taking an injury time-out, Brown began pushing her bike back up the steep incline, wincing and brushing the tread marks off her butt. This time, she climbed even higher, to a section with a 45-degree descent, saddled up, and cruised down the trail, hitting another mound of dirt and clearing both a three-foot-high stump and Snuff, who’d made her way into the middle of the trail. “Yay!” she shouted, after leaping the 40-foot hurdle. “Snuffy stunts!”

Just outside of Moab, Stu Dickson and Casey Brown take in the breathtaking views of the La Sal Mountains caked in an early-season snowfall. Photo by Bruno Long
Casey Brown teamed up with photographer Bruno Long and fellow enduro racer Stu Dickson to travel around Utah in search of amazing trails to ride. "Sometimes the best light hits you while driving along the highway in the middle of nowhere," Long says. Photo by Bruno Long
Casey in the street
three two one
I'm still alive.

On June 1, at five in the morning, Brown pushes her bike onto Jackson Hole Mountain Resort’s famous red Tram. A 10-minute ride will transport her to the top of the ski area, where, just after sunrise, she plans to jump off Corbet’s Couloir. Joining Brown are Schaffer, a TGR film crew of about 20, and Cam McCaul, who’s flown from his home in Bend, Oregon, to attempt the stunt also.

Over the years, Corbet’s Couloir has developed a reputation as one of the gnarliest inbounds lines in the world, mainly because it’s hard to enter. A 20-foot-high cornice wraps around the top of the 10-foot-wide corridor with granite walls on either side. After the first few turns, the couloir opens up into a wider, 40-degree pitch that’s about 500 feet long. It holds snow deep into the summer. Since it was first skied in 1967, plenty of skiers and snowboarders have leapt in—and many have been carted away with blown-out knees and broken bones. In 1999, a snowmobiler named Shad Free even jumped off the couloir. But nobody has ever ridden off it on a bike.

The tram docks and the crew makes its way down to the couloir, where Brown, McCaul, and Schaffer immediately begin shoveling a section of the cornice, flattening it out to form a launchpad. Brown seems nervous. She’s been relatively quiet all morning and now is beginning to voice her doubts. “I’m just trying to figure out how I can make this work,” she says as she tosses snow over her shoulder. “I’ve watched videos of skiers do it. But on a mountain bike? We’ll see.”

McCaul steps back and surveys the work the trio has done. “That looks pretty good,” he says. “Better,” Brown responds. “But it’s still intimidating.”

Just after 7:30, McCaul is the first to jump. He lands smoothly, then rockets through the couloir before augering his front tire into the snow and wiping out. Still, he’s unscathed and Brown seems buoyed by his success.

“Do you still want to do this?” asks Schaffer. “Oh, yeah,” says Brown.

Ten minutes later, the radio crackles. “Thirty seconds,” the voice says. Brown adjusts her blue and red full-face helmet, wraps her hands around her handlebars, and lowers her head.

“Three…two…one…drop!”

Brown pushes off and heads toward the lip of the couloir. As she takes flight, the group falls completely silent. Brown is in the air for two intense seconds, and then… “She stuck it!” shouts somebody from the TGR crew.

As soon as Brown hits the snow, she begins picking up a tremendous amount of speed. Unable to use her brakes on the slick surface, she begins careering down at over 60 miles per hour, hitting undulations that cause her to hover above the surface. Finally, about 300 feet down, her bike rotates and Brown goes flying over the handlebars, landing headfirst, then tomahawking 50 feet down the mountain. When she stops sliding, she raises her hands in the air.

When I finally make it down to Brown, about 20 minutes after her crash, she’s stretching her back and wiping crusted blood from the end of her nose. “I was going so fast!” she says. She giggles a little and tilts her head to one side to work out a kink. “But I made it,” she says. “I’m still alive.”

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Story / Gordy Megroz Design & Development / Austin Branham Lead Series Editor / Leslie Hittmeier Series Producer / McKell Favrot Back End Engineer / Andrew Wells Photos / Ian Collins, Matt Delorme & Bruno Long Executive Producers / Drew Holt, Steve Jones & Todd Jones