I’m from Southern California, and I’ve been in a snowstorm.
Understand that this is not normal. I know many people from my home state who have never even seen snow, much less been skiing. So when I sat down with Nikken Cullman — I was feeling overdressed in three layers of clothing, while he lounged comfortably in a simple black pullover, sipping his coffee — at least the story he told me of his skiing career wasn’t completely foreign to me. Close, though.
Cullman grew up in Colorado and spent most of his life bouncing around between its many ski towns before eventually ending up in Vail. Skiing was a way of life for almost everyone there, and the atmosphere provided him with some of the nation’s best competition.
“In Colorado, if you were good, you raced for a ski club,” explained Cullman. “Then those who were kind of burned out, like me, could go to the high school team. You still trained every day and raced every weekend — everything was pretty competitive still — but it wasn’t as serious as the club level.” He speaks with a laid-back air — not in a Southern drawl, certainly, but nowhere near the pace of a Californian on a cell phone. His style reminds me of denim, relaxed and comfy. Strange, but also somehow fitting, for a guy who’s spent much of his life falling down mountains as fast as possible. Maybe the rest of the world seems a little less intense after that.
“I was a ski bum growing up,” he continued. “Ski bums are a lot like surf bums, you know? Get a job where you have to work as little as possible, so you can surf every day but still manage to stay somewhere close to the good beaches and have enough money to go out, too.”
Though much of his life has been spent on the slopes, Cullman’s favorite sport is not even skiing. He prefers ice hockey, soccer, and baseball — the first two of which he plays at the intramural level. While he’d like to do sports more seriously, he joined the less intense Yale ski club last year as a sophomore. Yet, his joining the team has already had a big influence on Yale’s performance in the sport.
“The ski team is famous for its training trip over Christmas break, but I didn’t go on that,” he said. “I just showed up at the first race, and that’s where I met everybody.
“We won the men’s McBrien division, and I won overall, which was pretty awesome because I never used to win races when I was younger. We got to go to Regionals — that was legitimate college ski racing, where they recruit people and everything. We got smoked. I think I finished halfway through the pack. It was just like being back home: I was not that good compared to the kids I grew up with, but in the McBrien division, it’s like ‘big fish, small pond.’ You get to know all the people you’re racing against, and, compared to where I ski in Colorado, a good percentage of the competitors are hung over — badly. There’s a lot of drinking going on post-race — It’s pretty funny. You have a lot of wrecks, so half the skill is being able to fall down, get back up, and continue. The courses are poorly maintained, there’s one guy running the race — it’s just like total beer league, backwoods style.
“It’s one thing if you race in the NCAA, but even that is second-tier to the national level. College racing is kind of in the twilight of people’s careers. [When I won] at Andover Glen, people were like, ‘Wow, you’re good at skiing.’ Well — not really.”
Poorly maintained courses weren’t the only difficulty Cullman faced in exchanging Colorado for the East Coast. Coming from California, home to the tallest mountain peak in the contiguous United States, I was certainly able to sympathize with Cullman’s evident dislike of Northeastern slopes.
“The mountains are so pathetic here. I was very disappointed. I had heard all along, but last year I was like, ‘What is this?’ I’ve been spoiled, growing up in Colorado, living at a bunch of ski areas,” he said.
“I’ve also got really good equipment, which gives me a leg up on other kids. Once you get good enough, you’ll either get sponsored or at least get free stuff along the way. My sister has been sponsored since she was 13 or 14 years old, so I can always get her old stuff. It’s such a technology sport. It gets cheaper and cheaper as you get better, but if you’re not into it, if you’re kind of on the fringe, you’re shelling out a lot of money. Not the most economical sport. But living in Vail, you can always score free stuff from somebody who’s grown out of it or doesn’t want it anymore.”
Cullman does both slalom and giant slalom, preferring the former because of its speed. He was voted team manager for this year, which, as he pointed out somewhat regretfully, means he’ll have to attend at least part of the training trip. Or maybe even plan the whole thing.
“We don’t train at all,” said Cullman. “I guess they train on the training trip, but I think they train more in the drinking area. [Last year] I went home, and my old club let me train with them, so I did that over Christmas break. It’s a pretty good way of doing sports — no pressure. You’re really only sacrificing the first four or five weeks of second semester. You don’t do anything over the weekend because it’s a two-day race event every weekend, but it’s worth it.”
Even after talking with Cullman for quite a while, I found it hard to get a read on him — an economics major who admittedly spends most of his life in a highly uneconomical activity, a ski bum whose favorite sport is not even skiing.
But Cullman has a very good idea of where he stands in the mix.
“This last year, we stepped it up a notch — even though stepping it up a notch in beer league is kinda — it’s a very rough sport.” n