Francesca Pavillard-Cain was born in Crested Butte to avid skiers, Mary Cain and Jean Pavillard, so she grew up in mountain and snow sports all her life. Although she has many talents to fall back on, she has chosen the life of a freeride competitor—for now.
“I started competing in fun things from the time I was eight to when I was 14 years old,” she says as she packs for Haines, Alaska, where she’s continuing her competition in the Freeride World Tour. “Me and my dad and Mackenzie Mailly and her dad, Art, would go skiing and our dads were excited to get us pumped up about competitions and skiing, never pushing us, but wanting us to have something to look forward to. My dad was director of ski school at Crested Butte Mountain Resort and started Crested Butte Mountain Guides. Back then it was called Adventures to the Edge.”
Francesca’s mother, Mary Cain, volunteered with Adaptive Sports and that involvement was another factor that helped Francesca get into the ski world. “[My mom] was also a ski teacher her whole life and a woman of many trades, but she always had a passion for teaching skiing, and my parents were always there to help us out when we needed it,” says Francesca.
She has many memories of family skiing and says, “It’s such a natural interaction. It’s not something forced. You’re having fun. Then there’s the moment your parents drop you off at the ski area by yourself and you get your independence. I have all sorts of great memories about causing a ruckus on the mountain with friends at a young age.” Francesca says, especially in this community, where there’s always a watchful eye making sure you’re safe. “Our whole town is kind of built on that, helping each other out.”
Competing in the Al Johnson every year, Francesca remembers her dad showing her the fastest way down the North Face for the race and she and all her Buttian kid buddies did anything and everything that was offered in the way of competitions, biding their time until they were old enough to do the Extremes.
“At the age of 14 we could start competing in the Big Mountain Comps for Extremes. It was called Extremes back in the day but now it’s called Freeride Skiing,” Francesca explains. “That had always been our goal. I had my first event in eighth grade, the Telemark Extremes, here in Crested Butte. After that I went to the Crested Butte Academy and did both alpine and telemark competitions. They definitely complement each other. The different techniques keep you on point,” she says and adds she always enjoyed competing.
When the Academy closed its doors, Francesca enrolled at Lowell Whiteman, a winter ski academy in Steamboat Springs, from which she graduated in 2009. “Steamboat opened me up to other skiing disciplines. I got into skier cross, where four to six people all go down a course at the same time with jumps and different sorts of obstacles.”
As children, Francesca and her sister, Madeleine, traveled often to their father’s homeland of Switzerland and when she was ten years old, the family moved to Quito, Ecuador, for a year as a change from ski resort living. After graduation from high school, Francesca went back to Ecuador for a visit.
“My parents had wanted to give us a new experience, to appreciate more of the world,” she says of the one-year residency when she was a child. “We went to an all-Spanish-speaking private school. I got to see poverty first-hand, meet some amazing people, and had some scary moments. We knew French but no Spanish at all and we were in a classroom full of Ecuadoran kids. When you’re one hundred percent immersed in it there’s no way around learning it,” she felt, “So much had changed, some hadn’t. There were memories I didn’t even realize I had.”
When Francesca returned to the U.S., she was clear about what she wanted to do. “I knew I wanted to be back in the snow and I wanted to be in a ski area, so I went back to our hometown of Leysin in Switzerland. I taught skiing and did some competing,” she says, and stayed until the fall of 2010 when she decided to return to school.
“After a year, I was ready. I hadn’t really thought about going to Western State Colorado University [WSCU] but I looked into the ski team there,” Francesca says. She wanted a team and the support that comes with it, along with the coaches. “The freeride team was what drew me to go there, it was such a unique program,” she says and notes that for competitors over 18 it’s rare to find a freeride team. “It’s more of an independent sport and that’s how most athletes approach it.” Francesca enrolled in 2010.
“When I was [at WSCU] the ski team had really started booming,” she says. Francesca witnessed the creation of the WSCU Mountain Sports program, which, she points out, “was the school’s way of giving more support to all the mountain sports athletes.” Francesca explains that the program encompasses trail running, mountain biking, skiing, snowboarding, rando skiing, and Nordic skiing but, “What we’re known for is our freeride program,” she says with a hint of alumni pride. “We recently started developing another race team and the hope and goal is… to get back to the glory of the historic race team that WSC [now WSCU] was famous for.”
Francesca’s junior year at WSCU was epic for competition. “I ended up winning the overall for the Freeride World Qualifier Series, which qualified me for the Freeride World Tour, which is what I’m currently competing in. It’s the highest level of freeride for competition. It’s a very select group of skiers and snowboarders from around the world. Last year was my first on the tour and I was still in school while competing. The tour is predominately in Europe so I went from France to Austria to Utah and Canada. This year it was France, Austria, and Andorra,” Francesca says of her travels.
After Anndora, the number of athletes was cut in half, and Francesca made that cut. “There’s one more final cut after Alaska,” she says and feels great about this season. “I feel really strong knowing that I made the 26 team tour for next year,” which, she explains, was the Alaska cut.
While Francesca was attending WSCU, she also had the opportunity to go abroad to study economics and business in China and Spanish in Costa Rica. “I had this amazing college experience where I got to have a great education and travel experience along with the skiing, and then the opportunity for the Freeride World Tour,” she smiles. “I had the opportunity to compete because I had this great team from WSCU. When I was qualifying, I always had a team with me. It was the expansiveness and diversity of WSCU programs that propelled me,” she says. “I don’t feel trapped, I don’t feel that skiing is my only calling because I have a great degree as well, and this great experience that is so much more than skiing.”
Francesca graduated in 2014 with a bachelor’s degree in business administration and Spanish and a minor in economics. “I thought it was a good move for different options and will open a lot of doors for different possibilities down the road,” she says of her degree. “Competing and skiing has always been my hobby, I really didn’t want to have to choose between my hobby and my academics and WSCU allowed me to do that.”
Although her father is mostly in Switzerland now, guiding all over Europe, and her mom is a ski instructor in Salt Lake City, Francesca’s home is still Crested Butte. “It’s my home base between events but I haven’t been in town much this past year because of competitions. Crested Butte is a perfect spot for freeride and there’s the community. This has been a crazy, exciting, and stressful year and there’s been no lack of support from this community. I see a lot more competing and skiing, a lot of stress and ups and downs with it but it’s very gratifying and it’s what I’m passionate about right now. I don’t have to look too far into the future with plans. For now I’m just staying in the present.”
The Freeride World Tour comps in Haines, Alaska run through March 25, with the finals in Verbier, Switzerland at the end of March. The comps will be on the Freeride World Tour website’s live feed online, where there’s also a schedule. It will be televised as well. After the finals, Francesca says, she’ll be busy getting ready for next season.
”I’ll work, train, and hope to go to South America to ski. If I could have it my way it would be an endless winter,” she laughs and admits, “but it’s always good to take some time off.”