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Kyle Smaine, world champion halfpipe skier, dies in avalanche in Japan

Kyle Smaine from the U.S. celebrates his gold medal at the men's freestyle ski half pipe event.
Kyle Smaine celebrates after winning gold at the Freestyle Ski and Snowboard World Championships in Austria in January 2015. Smaine died after getting buried in an avalanche in Japan over the weekend. (Darko Bandic / Associated Press)

Kyle Smaine, a professional skier from South Lake Tahoe, was killed Sunday in an avalanche in Japan, according to friends and family.

Smaine, 31, traveled the world as a professional freestyle skier and took home a gold medal in the halfpipe competition at the 2015 International Ski Federation's world championships.

The Japan Times reported that an unknown number of skiers were hit by an avalanche outside the Tsugaike Mountain Resort in the village of Otari about 2:30 p.m. Sunday.

Photographer Grant Gunderson skied with Smaine earlier that day on the eastern slope of Mt. Hakuba, but skipped the final run of free skiing, which involves some acrobatic tricks to get around the terrain and descending slopes at a high speed. Smaine's friends described it as exhilarating but sometimes dangerous.

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Smaine and another skier continued to ski the same route they were on earlier in the day, and when they got to the bottom they were joined by a third skier. Higher up on the terrain, another skier triggered the avalanche, Gunderson wrote in an Instagram post.

Smaine and the other two skiers could not outrun the avalanche. A group of doctors and nurses were in the area and helped with the rescue effort. One person survived and two people died in the avalanche, a Nagano police spokesperson told Reuters.

The Mountain Gazette reported Smaine was found unresponsive and was one of the two skiers who died.

Smaine grew up in South Lake Tahoe and was most in his element while outdoors.

At 4 years old, he encouraged the older kids to ski with him on the more difficult slopes.

"I started out getting to know him by chasing him around the mountain as a little kid," said Becca Gardner, who first met Smaine when she was about 5 in South Lake Tahoe.

While Smaine was inseparable from his father, Bill, and his brother, Justin, relatives said, he was like a brother to the Gardner family. He often captained the family's ski boat near Nevada Beach on the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe. He relished being out on the water or in the back country, and was described by friends as a natural athlete who seemed to effortlessly carry his body through some of the most difficult maneuvers.

"Watching Kyle rip on a wakeboard or surfboard or ski or whatever it was, it was astonishing to watch," said 28-year-old Whitney Gardner.

He was larger than life, but humble with his talents.

Becca Gardner, 32, recalls how Smaine gave so much of himself when he cheered on his friends or simply listened to someone share a story.

The third Gardner sister, Michael Gardner, 25, remembered how Smaine never made her feel like a younger sibling. She looked forward to going out on the slopes with him.

He always kept snacks in his pocket, including honey sticks.

Her last conversation with him was in her driveway.

"He was catching a flight to Japan and he had about five minutes to spare, so he stopped at our house," she said as her voice broke. "He was like, 'I just wanted to give you a hug before I left.'"

Smaine relished traveling into uncharted territory. He loved to mountain bike with his father, Bill, and he seemed to dance when he skied in the back country, according to his childhood friend Adam Kingman.

Kingman, 30, and Smaine skied together in Tahoe a week before he left for Japan.

"I learned so much from him while skiing," Kingman said. "I told him 'I love following you, because I just watch your form and I immediately learn so much.'"

Smaine and his wife, Jenna Dramise, married in a private ceremony in November with a handful of friends and family in attendance. The couple were planning a destination wedding in New Zealand at the end of the year. The two met in 2010, when Smaine was hitchhiking and Dramise gave him a ride, friends said.

Childhood friend Abe Greenspan, 35, said the South Lake Tahoe community is reeling from the news of Smaine's death. So many people knew of Smaine, even if they never actually met him, Greenspan said.

While Greenspan was a snowboarder and Smaine skied, the two always got along on the slopes, always egging the other on to stay out and relish nature.

"He was always trying to get another lap," Greenspan said, referring to another run and staying out a bit longer. "He would say or I would say, 'When are you going to get to ski again?' I always kind of had that mentality. You never know if this is your last lap."

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.