/**span.highlight**/Athletes succeeding on a shoestring/*/*

Jess Hotter has reached the pinnacle of backcountry competitive skiing: the Freeride World Tour. But as she stands on the edge of some of the world’s most dangerous peaks, her thoughts often turn to where she is going to sleep that night. Travelling the world to compete in expensive ski resorts doesn’t come cheap, and Hotter has to juggle multiple jobs to make ends meet.  She risks her life in her events for prize money as low as $500.

Jess Hotter made her breakthrough on to the Freeride World Tour this year, competing as one of the world’s best freeride athletes.

Jess Hotter made her breakthrough on to the Freeride World Tour this year, competing as one of the world’s best freeride athletes.

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After a year working long shifts at an Otago ski-field, mowing lawns and painting houses, Jess Hotter had one night to celebrate her achievements before flying to Europe. 

In the coming northern hemisphere winter, she’d join 50 athletes on the Freeride World Tour, risking their lives on the natural terrain and features of some of the world’s most challenging mountains.

Her placement saw her nominated for a sports award at a glitzy ceremony.

But skiing is an expensive sport. And on her shoe-string budget, even a glass of champagne was too expensive. 

She attended the party in dungarees and drank water all night. When the party was over, she snatched up left-over cheese plates to make packed lunches the next day.

Hotter’s experience reveals a hard truth about what it takes to be the best. 

She’s among a group of New Zealand’s elite athletes, profiled by Stuff,  who are doing it tough to get to the top.

While men like Beauden Barrett, Kane Williamson, Scott Dixon and Steven Adams are often talked about as being the best athletes in the world, New Zealand also has world-class sports men and women, who are living close to the poverty line.

They don’t qualify for funding or get the recognition, media coverage or lavish endorsement deals of other mainstream competitors.

While they should be concentrating on delivering the performance of a lifetime, they are crowdfunding for new equipment and to help them cover their basic living expenses.

Four months later, Hotter is standing on top of a ridge at Canada’s Kicking Horse Mountain resort. 

At the top of the run, the playlist on her phone kicks in: Pennywise’s Bro Hymn, Blur’s Song 2 or maybe an Offspring track are her go tos. “Something to amp me up a little bit,” she says.

Her legs are already “full on jelly” from the hike up. “I am always trying to conserve my energy as much as possible. I will hike up the slowest out of everybody in the competition, just so that I can save my legs.”

Her stomach is full of butterflies. “Some people punch themselves in the legs to try and get a little bit of adrenaline flowing, a little bit more strength back.

“Mostly I’m up there dancing to my music, chewing on my mouth guard.

I have always taken a nervous pee at the top of the course as well...you got to do what you got to do.”

Then, she drops off a small cliff and charges down the steep face.

The moment you drop in everything goes silent and everything blanks out.

Jess Hotter

Choosing a different line from most of her competitors, with fast fluid turns, she soars off an overhanging rock without hesitation and skies away cleanly after landing on a small tree.

The highlight of her run was a huge air [jump] close to the finish. 

“Focus. Pure focus,” she says. “All you are thinking about is your run and where you are going. I am always trying to tell myself, don’t sideslip … turn your skis straight, and then I’ll air and then I’ll land. 

“And it’s like: get control, fast fast fast. Making it down to the bottom, it is pure release. Like aaaah. I made it.”

It was more than a good run: Hotter “stomped” it,  winning the second event of the tour. She is currently ranked third. 

“When you find out the results, you feel super stoked, and it’s pretty unbelievable at the same time. 

“Every trick and even every rock that you jump off is like a little win. I think I get more stoked out of the feeling of making it to the bottom of my run and getting a hug from everybody.”

This was only her first season, but the 26-year-old from Ohakune  was already marked out as a future world star. She dominated the previous year’s qualifying season with three wins in four-star (elite) events. 

Hotter grew up shredding the slopes of Turoa, close to her Ohakune childhood home.

Hotter grew up shredding the slopes of Turoa, close to her Ohakune childhood home.

Skiing down untouched, dangerously steep terrain, covered in fresh powder snow: freeriding is the most exhilarating form of skiing, both to watch and compete in. 

The multi-stage tour kicks off in Japan and runs from February to April. The best freeskiers and snowboard freeriders compete for individual event wins, as well as the overall title of World Champion.

The adrenaline rush-inducing competitions take place in the backcountry, descending on ungroomed snow and jumping over natural obstacles. There is no set course, and few rules.

The athletes amaze spectators by calculating seemingly impossible lines and then ripping down mountain faces with confidence, speed and agility.

Although they inspect the face from below, using binoculars and analysing photos, it looks entirely different as they descend at speeds of over 100kmh. Even a small mistake could be fatal.

Hotter assessing a possible line in the Remarkables.

Hotter assessing a possible line in the Remarkables.

Hotter has to work - and save hard - to get to international competitions and qualifying events. She often risks her life for prize money of just $500.

“Up until now, making it onto the Freeride World Tour, I have definitely struggled. There has been a lot of stress brought about by having money issues. 

“It does suck because it doesn’t feel good. You are competing for your country, on an international stage and I will be competing at the highest level of competition in my sport, in the world, and I’ll basically still be living in people’s cupboards.

“I’m always thinking about spending money. In the past I have had big stresses about money, as far as finding somewhere to sleep that night kind of thing.

Hotter's sponsorship deals mean she must be active on social media.

Hotter's sponsorship deals mean she must be active on social media.

You don’t perform that well if you are worrying about where you are sleeping that night or what you are eating.

Jess Hotter

During the off-season, at home in Ohakune, Hotter cleans holiday lets, paints houses and mows lawns to make ends meet. “I’m really lucky that I have had employers that are willing to have me for a short period of time.”

In the winter, Hotter works on the ski-patrol at Treble Cone. She’s on the mountain five days a week: but there is no time for training.

She longboards for fun. " I just like to go back and forward and carve."

She longboards for fun. " I just like to go back and forward and carve."

“My time would definitely be spent more valuably if I wasn’t working. You have a lot of time to go and ski, which is really cool, but usually I am patrolling in a different pair of boots that I don’t feel as confident in, so I probably wouldn’t push my boundaries while I’m at work.

“And then sometimes you just don’t want to go up the mountain for those two days off. I’ve had issues with chilblains and bunions and all I wanted to do was just not be in boots for a couple of days but sometimes you just have to push through and keep doing it.”

Her position on the NZ Freeride Team brought a grant which paid for a ski-pass in Europe, allowing for consistent training and some physio. She’s also allowed to use Snow Sports NZ’s specialised gym.

Trampolining is good training. "It helps you become aware of where you are in the air at any one time and it teaches you how to control different flips."

Trampolining is good training. "It helps you become aware of where you are in the air at any one time and it teaches you how to control different flips."

But living in Wānaka is often beyond her means. 

“Wānaka and Queenstown are some of the most expensive parts of New Zealand to live in - but it is where the ski community is. It is definitely something that concerns me every season. 

“A lot of the houses are dungeons. The house I lived in last year was a classic example of a cave. The floor was collapsing in the shower.

During the winter, Hotter lives in Wānaka, working as a ski patroller.

During the winter, Hotter lives in Wānaka, working as a ski patroller.

“When you have got mould growing along the whole of your bedroom wall - even though you have bleached it - it has got to make you sick in some ways. It can’t be good for you.

“I think that’s another reason why I get chest infections so easily because of living in damp conditions.”

Slacklining helps Hotter perfect her balance.

Slacklining helps Hotter perfect her balance.

Getting on the property ladder and saving for her future are distant dreams.

“With the amount of money that I have sunk into this so far, I could have put a deposit on a house, easily.

But doing sport, I couldn’t ever afford to buy a house. A lot of All Blacks could buy a house a year and still have money left over.

Jess Hotter

Nutrition on a budget is another worry.  “I haven’t bought a capsicum in Wānaka ever. “This season they were about $4 - or $5 each. They are getting up there with avocados. I don’t buy avocados. I eat potatoes, carrots and onions because it is cheap.”

She credits her parents John and Jude Hotter, and friends, for getting her through the lean times. After working in the US in 2018, she ended up sleeping on the couch in a friend’s hotel room.

“I came home with $50 and because I don’t qualify for a credit card, I don’t have any back up.

Hotter in the Remarkables, high over Lake Wakatipu.

Hotter in the Remarkables, high over Lake Wakatipu.

“If I had been asked to pay for an extra bag on the flight, then there was a chance my skis weren’t coming home with me.  I was really down to the bare bones and the only reason why I got through that was because of the generosity of other people in the free ride community. I wish I could repay everybody and say thank you.”

Hotter’s parents both ski, and met working at Ruapehu. One of her first memories is riding on her father’s shoulders on the ‘nutcracker’ tow ropes at the Tukino skifield.

“If my parents weren’t there I would definitely have been homeless for a little bit. I am just very fortunate that if it really came down to it, that my parents would be able to bail me out.

“But I really don’t ever want to ask that of them because it is not fair. I don’t want to be a burden to anyone else if I can avoid it.”

Financially, things are looking up for Hotter. Her success has brought multiple sponsors - including Mons Royale and Head.

Snow Sports NZ - the national sporting organisation - also step-in where they can. In 2020, they received $2.25m a year from the taxpayer-funded High Performance Sport NZ. (That compares with $5.1m for rowing, $4.4m for cycling, $3.8m to yachting, and $3.25m for athletics).

"Jumping off stuff and landing on the ground quite heavily tends to put a lot of force through the body."

"Jumping off stuff and landing on the ground quite heavily tends to put a lot of force through the body."

“There is a crapload of funding for things like cricket but I feel like in the snow industry, we have got way more people coming out with wins and super successful moments - and there’s just no funding for it. It just kind of sucks.”

High Performance Sport NZ chief executive Michael Scott said the crown agency focuses on supporting New Zealanders to win, or achieve podium finishes, at the Olympics, Paralympic Games and World Championships in specific sports. 

“Our role is to inspire the nation, through more New Zealanders winning on the world stage. And to achieve that, given the small size of the country we are very targeted in how we invest and who we work with,” he says.

“We have an investment strategy that is targeted based on performance. And we have four investment criteria: past performance, future potential, quality of the high performance programme and their campaigns and the individual sport context.

“We certainly acknowledge that anyone who represents New Zealand on the world stage deserves to be celebrated. They deserve recognition for what they've achieved, and their  power to inspire others. 

“However, the reality is it's not possible for us as an organisation to support everybody… There's a finite amount of funding available for us to invest.”

But Scott confirmed that HPSNZ is looking to shake up that model - and that could open the door for more sports. That new strategy is set to be announced after this year’s general election, but could include sports outside Olympic and Paralympic disciplines.

There's a changing demographic in New Zealand. And what inspires the nation now may not be what inspires the nation or young people in the future.

Michael Scott
High Performance Sport NZ chief executive

“We've got the evolution of the Olympic Games, new sports or new disciplines coming onto the programme. For Tokyo, there's surfing, rock climbing, skateboarding. You've got breakdancing coming into Paris in 2024. 

“And there's an emergence of extreme sports, which really attract young people. So we need to be cognisant of that. So, we're currently developing our 2024 strategy, which may include changes to the funding model to improve what we call an aspirational fund.”

Hotter was named Freeride World Tour Rookie of the Year, and was ranked fourth. She returned to Wānaka for the winter season, and to work.

“I think a lot of people just think we are skiing around, having fun. But I’ll still be working at least part time during the winter, maybe even full time. Because I don’t know how much the season is going to cost - I want to plan to have that money just in case, because I don’t have a backup.”

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Words: Andrea Vance

Visuals: Iain McGregor

Design & layout: Aaron Wood

Editor: Ed Scragg