What Malem McDaniel remembers about his first snowboard competition at about age 7 isn't the promise he showed, or even the hint that he would be good at all.
"I certainly wasn't the best—I think I could have gotten last place," he recalls. "I've always had this spark when it comes to sports to be my best and progress … so, certainly when I got dead last, it kind of started this fire in me that made me want to just continue doing it."
That pursuit took him from his family in Santa Fe to Aspen this fall, where he's begun training full-time as a slopestyle snowboarder, with an eye on the 2022 Olympics.
"I'm pretty much just having the most fun I've ever had snowboarding," he says.
Malem, 14, now lives with his 25-year-old brother and is responsible for his own cooking, cleaning and grocery shopping. He squeezes online school in around a training schedule that sees him on his snowboard five days a week from 9:30 am to 2:30 pm, working on trick progressions, upping the ante from the day before by adding spins, flips or grabs.
After years as a regular podium-finisher in the USA Snowboard and Freeski Association regional events in New Mexico—a series his parents, Fred and Kele McDaniel, directed for four years—he and his family decided it made sense for him to move up, both to challenge himself in a new field and to open this one to the next rising athletes. Last winter, that meant driving to Colorado week after week to spend one day practicing and then the weekend competing. Even as one of few kids in those competitions who wasn't on the snow full-time, Fred points out, he was still finishing in the top 10.
Since moving to Colorado, Malem says, "I've gotten homesick a couple times, but [my parents] like to come up almost every weekend, and it's been awesome having my older brother here to help me and be there for me."
He's training with the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club and coach Nichole Mason. Mason also works with Chris Corning, one of the first riders to secure a spot on the US snowboarding team for the 2018 Olympics. The United States Ski and Snowboard Association named Mason Snowboarding Domestic Coach of the Year and USSA Development Coach of the Year in 2017, the latter of which is one of the organization's highest honors.
This season Malem is competing in a more challenging circuit, including his first international competition, for which he traveled to Canada sans parents in January to ride among kids who were close to making the Canadian Olympic team.
"It was great for me to be able to learn about what they're doing and what I need to be able to work on and how I need to get better," he says. "It's kind of come to a point where I have a lot of these tricks, and it's just a mental game now."
To that end, his parents, who provide movement therapy at their business, Human Performance Center, are helping him use a couple brain-training tools to stay positive and focused. The hope is that he'll learn to handle the pressure that comes when another competitor lands a high-scoring run and he needs to try to do even better.
For his parents, too, this experience has been an exercise in not letting fear run wild.
"It's been an interesting journey in letting go," Kele says, to which Fred adds: "Being present. Anything other than that is dangerous. … We're spending a lot of time in meditation."
As Malem steps up to bigger competitions and life on his own, they're constantly assessing the course they've set.
"We're taking it year by year," Fred says. "We made the choice to pursue this because it's going to give him direction in his life. … It's about helping him identify who he is and who he's going to be in the world."
His parents are supportive, Malem says, but they're not pushing. Especially with the distance, his mom often reminds him: He can always come home. Instead, he's got his sights set on his first "never summer" year, which would see him spending weeks in New Zealand and Switzerland. That's not their idea, he says; "It's me leading the way."
With the Winter Olympics starting Feb. 9, he's got years before he needs to earn scores that qualify him for the team. Setting that goal comes back to the drive that propelled him to work hard, rather than quit, after a dismal rank in his first competition.
"It's just the biggest achievement in a lot of these snowsports right now," he says. "It's pretty much the farthest you can go."