Baltimore-based Zipline Ski aims to give Olympic freestylists an edge

Nick Plunkett, an office assistant at Zipline Ski, looks at some of the company's ski poles. Several American and international freestyle skiers are using the 4-year-old firm's products in the winter Olympics.
Nick Plunkett, an office assistant at Zipline Ski, looks at some of the company's ski poles. Several American and international freestyle skiers are using the 4-year-old firm's products in the winter Olympics. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

Chuck Heidenreich had no hope for Olympic glory when he skied freestyle on the U.S. Ski Team in the mid-1980s.

It wasn’t until 1992 that the mix of speed, skill, acrobatics and showmanship on the slopes became a medal sport, years after Heidenreich retired from the World Cup circuit.


But now, Heidenreich has a second chance. Products he created at Baltimore-based Zipline Ski are making their way to this year’s Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, which kicked off Friday. Zipline’s ski poles, goggles and other gear will be used by skiers from the United States, Norway, Finland and Germany as they compete on the high-profile world stage.

Heidenreich, president of the four-year-old Zipline, traveled last Monday to South Korea, where he will visit a ski shop that sells the company’s products and attend Olympic mogul skiing events.


“To have started a company that now supplies some of the skiers, [who have] the same goals and aspirations for competition and life is a great joy for me personally,” Heidenreich said in an email from South Korea last week. “I have spent the past month being sure that the skiers have the right equipment with them…

“My goal, I have always told the skiers, is to be a cheerleader in their corner. I know how great it was having people cheer for me.”

After a disastrous performance at the 2014 Winter Games, the U.S. speedskating team has doubled down on its partnership with Under Armour, its outfitter and sponsor whose speed suits were ditched by some of the skaters in Sochi.

Zipline designs its own brand of ski poles, goggles, gloves, mogul pants and other apparel. It also sells the Shaman skis, a Finnish brand designed for freestyle mogul skiing.

In December 2016, the company became an official team supplier for the U.S. Freestyle Ski team, supplying goggles, poles and Shaman skis. The contract extends through 2020 and allows the company to use the U.S. Ski Team logo on products and sponsor athletes with equipment. Athletes can choose to ski with other brands but can’t display those products on the podium.


Zipline has four athletes competing in the Olympics, including one U.S. Ski Team member, David Wise, the defending gold medalist from the 2014 Sochi games. He will be skiing the halfpipe with Zipline’s “Blurr” Graphite composite poles.

Others include Jimi Salonen, a two-time Olympian in mogul skiiing from Finland, who uses the brand’s Kevlar Graphite Hybrid poles, goggles and gloves, as well as Shaman skis; Vinjar Slatten, a two-time Olympian in mogul skiing from Norway, who uses Kevlar Graphite Hybrid poles and Zipline clothing; and Katharina Foerster, a German mogul skier, who switched to Zipline Podium goggles just before the games.

Another female mogul skier, who Zipline agreed not to name, will be wearing the brand’s ski pants because her official sponsor was unable to provide pants to her specifications, Heidenreich said. Zipline agreed to remove its logo from the pants.

Zipline joins another, much more prominent Baltimore-based brand in helping to outfit Olympians this year. Under Armour designed the racing suits for the U.S. speed skaters and is helping the athletes with training. The sports apparel brand also is outfitting the U.S. and Nigerian bobsled teams and supplied boots to the Canadian team. In all, more than 400 athletes in 14 sports are using Under Armour gear.

Regardless of whether a brand is global or fledgling, exposure at the Olympics can be immeasurable. An Olympic connection can give brands visibility and authenticity and allow for story telling, said Adam Peake, executive in residence in the marketing department at Loyola Unviersity Maryland’s Sellinger School of Business.

“Olympians are role models and can be in the spotlight for years, even a lifetime,” said Peake, a former sports category management executive at Under Armour. “The opportunity to build such an enduring relationship can be a powerful endorsement for any brand… Your product is being used by the best when it’s most important. They’ve committed and trained their entire lives for this moment and have to be certain that everything is perfect, including their gear.”

Under Armour has unveiled a Lindsey Vonn film as part of its Unlike Any campaign three days before opening of the Olympics in South Korea

Heidenreich said Zipline uses high-tech materials, including Kevlar and Graphite combinations, in its ski poles to make them both durable and lightweight.

“The lighter the pole, the easier and quicker you are [able] to make your pole plant, plus the graphite reduces the vibration the skiers feel,” he said.

The goggles feature a magnetic lens attachment system that can be adjusted based on light conditions and include a special clear lens meant to be worn at night. The pants are designed to be warm and offer range of motion, with colored knee pads allowing judges to see the angle of knees and how skiers absorb each mogul, he said. In 2016, the company expanded into all-leather, high-performance men’s and women’s gloves.

Zipline athlete Wise said he likes Zipline poles because they are both light and strong. He said he has won three times since switching to Zipline poles, including his fourth X Games title. He has won two of the three World Cup competitions this season leading up to the Olympics.

“When you are spinning high in the air in the halfpipe, having light poles is crucial to perform the maneuvers and achieve the best scores,” Wise said in an email.

Heidenreich said he met Wise after the skier started to follow the brand on Instagram last fall. Heidenreich followed up with him, and he ended up trying the poles. Slatten, the skier from Norway, started using the poles at the suggestion of a fellow Norwegian mogul skier, while Salonen, of Finland was referred to the Zipline poles by Sami Mustonen, the Olympic bronze medalist who started Shaman Skis.

Heidenreich, who is originally from Massachusetts, competed as a mogul skier for three years. He moved to Baltimore in 1999, when he left a 10-year job as a product manager at Spalding Sporting Goods to attend Maryland Bible College and Seminary. After graduating, he moved to Ghana in 2002 with his family of four children to work as a missionary. After returning, he started a business-related ministry called Bible In My Language, which acquires and sells bibles in more than 600 languages.

He also decided to get back into sporting goods and began testing the concept of a ski pole business. He drew on his background at Spalding, where he was in charge of tennis rackets in the racquetball division, designed golf bags and received four patents for the company.

“I learned enough about composites to see the benefit of using them in ski products,” he said.


He first tested black, green and blue poles, but a friend and coach suggested painting the poles white. That way, he said, “they would be liked by the mogul skiers because the judges would not see their poles like they would a dark color ski pole.”


He launched Zipline for the 2014 ski season. While declining to provide specific numbers, he said annual sales for the most recent year doubled over the previous year, with strong growth online of the more moderately priced graphite poles in colors that coordinate with skis, boots or bindings.

Products are sold on Amazon and the company’s web site, at some ski resort shops and locally at The Ski Shoppe in Reisterstown. Zipline has expanded to a shop in Germany and now one in Korea.

While in Pyeongchang, Heidenreich plans to attend the mogul skiing competition. Qualifications are Friday.

"Hopefully some skiers with Zipline will pass into the final stages,” Heidenreich said last week in an email.

Business videos

Recommended on Baltimore Sun