We talked to the German freeski champion about overcoming fears, traveling the world and finding yourself on the slopes.
Meet Kea Kühnel—freestyle skier, world traveller and all around rad lady. The 25 year old freestyle skier’s story starts in her small hometown in the North of Germany: after leaving a few times and moving to China on a whim, she finally settled in Innsbruck in 2012 to study management and economics. Meanwhile, since 2015, Kea’s been a driving force on the German Freeski team— balancing her life between new destinations, skiing, studying and talking to people like us,
Kea’s one of those girls with a no-nonsense, infectious personality and an insatiable interest for exploring cultures and lifestyles. Plus, she’s a badass skier—so we took some time to catch up with her about cultural exploration, overcoming your fears and being yourself on the slopes.
GIRLS ARE AWESOME: Hey, Kea. You grew up in the North of Germany, then went to China, then to the Alps, and now you are freeskiing. What attracted you in this sport?
Kea Kühnel: I feel honored to say that I have been a ski enthusiast since I was two years old. My parents always gave me the opportunity to ski as much as possible and shared their passion for skiing with me. Also, gymnastics has been a huge part of my life, which helped me learn tricks easier, have better body control and gave me more confidence on the mountains—even though it took a while till I actually reached the mountains.
I got to the Alps after a few major experiences. I got to spend some years abroad in China during and after my high school time. I am totally in love with China, its culture, its people and the way of living, so I was planning to stay there, start college and find a job. But then, a random ski trip to Laax made me change my future plans. I saw kids in the Snowpark, doing crazy flips and stuff. I felt welcomed into a world where any individual could freely express their passion. This seemed to be the way to go: no limitations, no troubles. I liked the idea of seeing myself in the middle of this environment defined by performing your own style with people who think like you.
Reviewing my own story makes me laugh and it still feels like a dream that I never imagined would happen.
You went to China? What attracted you there and what did the experience give you?
China has always been my passion. I guess I got attracted by it because I didn’t know what life is like over there. There aren’t that many realistic news sources covering China in our “world”, and there is less information about foreigners going there. In general, China has a deep and complicated history that shaped its population, which doesn’t get much acceptance or understanding in the western world. Being there, I got more of an understanding about Chinese behavior. Despite what we know about China – the Chinese economy is growing, skyscrapers are being built and the gap between poor and rich is growing – I was happy to witness individuals growing out of the mass, doing their own thing, being able to express themselves. I like to imagine myself walking through the old Chinese Hutongs, watching the old men play mahjong outside of their houses, grabbing some local food and listening to interesting stories from my Chinese friends.
Those experiences helped me understand China and its culture. These new perspectives allowed me to grow a new personal mindset, without being prejudiced by media or assertions.
What defines a winter sportswoman?
As a winter sports woman you definitely need to like cold temperatures. Also you should be able to adapt yourself to different conditions on the mountains, whether it’s sunny, stormy, snowy or even rainy days. Being flexible is also an important factor, because one can never trust the weather forecast. Bad weather forecasts could appear to be one of the sunniest days ever and for that, you better be ready! Also, you have to satisfy yourself with simple comforts. You might often share a flat or room with many people who don’t share your perspective on “cleaning”.
It’s hard to start a freestyle sport so late. Do you have fears? What’s your scariest memory?
I have respect when I am standing in front of a big jump, which I think is really important. I remember when I was younger I didn’t really think much about what’s going to happen: I was basically just going for it. But getting older, you definitely think twice before you leap. I do have fears when I am not confident with the trick that I want to land—when I don’t have the feeling of being able to stick it. With the trust of my coach and the motivation of friends, it’s easier to overcome this fear. My most scary memory was probably an under-rotated backflip that made me fly into the hospital. Also, I have to admit that I don’t really have any memories of this accident. To this day, I haven’t done a backflip on skis again.
What helps you overcome your fears and do the step to send a new trick?
As mentioned above, I love to ski with friends who believe and trust me, who smile and laugh with me and who give me motivational positive vibes. To sum it up, I can say that these are the most important and fundamental elements to overcoming my fear and learning new tricks. At this point, I would like to thank all the people and team G for helping me through this process every day on the mountain. I appreciate any help that brings me to the next level. Thank you!
You learned a lot from your trips abroad, but what did freeskiing teach you?
Overall I can say that freeskiing helps me deal with certain situations on short notice. I am able to handle my dual career (skiing and studying) and be progressive on both parts. Through this I am more organized, independent and able to evaluate myself critically. On the other hand, I am forced to deal with overcoming fears that I would normally avoid. The power of overcoming fears and situations shows me that there is a part of me that has all the knowledge and resources to make it. Basically, freeskiing helps me embrace my inner self and self-discovery.
Do you feel that girls team up in this sport or get competitive?
Girls’ freeskiing has progressed so fast in the last couple of years. There are many girls out there that I admire for their style, power, braveness and huge repertoire of tricks.
I don’t think we need to debate about being competitive, since freeskiing is an Olympic discipline. Furthermore, I think being competitive is very important: it helps push each other and brings girls’ freeskiing to the next level.
In this sport, girls team up when it comes to rumors or jokes that men like to make fun of when they see girls skiing. For us girls, it is important to stick together and protect the future of girls’ freeskiing and encourage youngsters to join.
At the moment you are studying and freeskiing. What’s next?
As for many of us, being a freeskier is probably one of the best things in my life, but also as we know there is a high risk of injury. To develop a second mainstay was as important for me as pursuing my career in freeskiing. I don’t know what the future will bring, but I know what I want: being able to combine my dual careers as well as possible. Skiing alone is not enough to fulfil my dream. For me it is important to confront my brain with other issues as well. To be clearheaded I love to study, face daily problems and read tons of books. I always need something to cool down and live life without regrets.