Williams Bay grad creates the skis that win the gold
When Matt Sterbenz and a packed house broke into boisterous cheers as they watched David Wise clinch the gold in the men's freestyle skiing halfpipe at the Winter Olympics in Sochi Tuesday, it wasn't just pride in an American athlete that brought out the shouts. It was pride in the hardware that helped Wise dominate a sport that's trending on the fast track.
Sterbenz, a former Williams Bay resident, is the owner and founder of 4FRNT Skis, a Salt Lake City company which designs skis for freestyle skiers—including a custom designed signature model called the WISE.
“We are exceptionally proud to be the manufacturer of (Wise's) skis. He, like our other pros, is a part owner, reinforcing the rider owned concept,” Sterbenz said in an email. “We took his needs seriously when no one else would and built him a thoroughbred half pipe ski which is pretty rare, but necessary to compete at the level which he is capable of. Once we got the skis on his feet, he started winning and hasn't stopped. He just took his third consecutive X Games gold last month in Aspen, which complements previous results including the FIS Worlds, Dew Tour and several Grand Prix's. It wasn't the first time we've seen him sink his teeth into gold but we couldn't have imagined how rewarding it was to see him get it done yet again on the biggest stage our young sport's ever been a part of.”
Sterbenz, a lifelong skier, has competed in big air and slopestyle contests around the world—including the X Games.
“(Back in 2000) everything was really new so the rules then were exceptionally loose. I would almost relate those days to the moguls hot-dog era back in the 70's before it got all strict,” he said.
Sterbenz skied for European ski companies, and even designed a new ski for Fischer, a former sponsor. But when he wanted more of his own suggestions incorporated into the design, Fischer responded with “be happy with what you got,” Sterbenz said.
“We said, 'We've had enough.' It was time for us (North Americans) to cement change. And so 4FRNT Skis was born in the fall of 2002 as a way to connect our passions for the emerging freeskiing trends to the consumer without diluting our interests with foreign sponsors. The goal was eventually to turn our sponsors into our suppliers,” Sterbenz said. “This gave birth to the first rider-owned ski company and paved a road of innovations that has now led several European non-believing ski brands into latecomers to the sport and ultimately obsolete to the youth interest. The Euros had egos beyond our imagination and so now they deal with the fact they are not selling race skis anymore, and freeskiing--where all the participation is at, or at least is trending--is too far-fetched for their 70-plus-year-old ski brand.”
After a move from Truckee, Calif., 4FRNT relocated to Utah in 2005. Its current Salt Lake City location is an 8,000-square-foot building that includes a retail store, offices, a warehouse and a micro ski factory and skate ramp. For the eight full-time employees at 4FRNT, the focus is on developing designs.
“Inside the factory we develop all our shapes and occasionally, like in David Wise's case, we actually produce his signature model, the WISE, direct to consumers from SLC. Having control of the skis we design on site gives us all the advantages of making them yourself but without the pressures and overhead of production,” Sterbenz said.
“Of the 13 models we have out, we only make two, going on three models in house. The rest are produced by Elan in Slovenia. The factories in Europe are so sophisticated and have so much capacity that it just makes sense to have them build the bulk. After all, it was the plan all along to turn our sponsors into our suppliers not because the skis sucked--they didn't-- but the shapes did and, fair enough, they didn't born the trend of freeskiing, we did, so how could they understand what we wanted?”
Sterbenz grew up in Johnsburg, Ill., but by his freshman year of high school, his family moved to Lake Geneva, where his older sister, Jaime, graduated from Badger High School. After football season during his junior year, he, his parents and his younger sister, Brooke, relocated to Williams Bay. He graduated from Williams Bay High School in 1996, noting his was the last class to graduate from the original schoolhouse that housed kindergarten through 12th-grade students.
Sterbenz jokes one of his earliest memories is wearing “a lot of white denim in fifth grade” to hide a knee brace that was the result of a skiing accident.
“I skied a lot in the area all while growing up. Naturally like most southeastern Wisconsin natives, I took my first ski steps in neighborhood backyards. My parents started me out on cross country, thinking that would be (a better way) to get around to see my friends,” he said.
When Sterbenz was 5, an uncle introduced him to downhill skis.
“We shredded some hill at a bar off the chain of lakes to get a feel before proceeding to Wilmot where I would continue on skiing all the way until I would move away for college.” He recalled.
While living in Lake Geneva, he was a regular at the Grand Geneva.
“We caused a lot of ruckus there and at Wilmot,” he said. “I had a great ski posse between both my Illinois life with friends at Wilmot and my developing friendship network in Lake Geneva at Grand Geneva. We had passes at both places and often skied both in the same night.
“Our discipline back then was moguls--the only area on the hill where you didn't get in trouble for jumping. We traveled around a bit on our own or loosely supervised at various different USSA Central Division Freestyle contests, mainly in Wisconsin and Minnesota. Rarely did we ski during the day so we didn't need goggles and certainly didn't wear helmets back then. A lot has changed since.”
From Williams Bay, Sterbenz headed for the University of Minneapolis-Twin Cities, still skiing.
“(M)y posse had moved out to Lake Tahoe to keep competing. I visited them my freshman year in College and that pretty much accelerated my ambition to graduate and move there. I would spend a few weeks per year, once a whole winter semester, getting acquainted with my future life. I drove out west the day after my last final and never looked back,” he said.
Eventually the passion for the sport fueled the passion for seeing the sport develop.
“We paved the road for those today,” Sterbenz said.