You won’t find this season’s craziest sport at the 2010 Winter Olympics. Away from the glitz and glitter of the Games, there’s a new school of freestyle skiing that is pushing boundaries like never before.
“The rate of progression right now is just astounding,” Trennon Paynter told the Straight. “Runs that would have won events last year are barely going to make finals this year.”
Paynter, coach and team manager of the Canadian Halfpipe Ski Team, said that it is in the terrain parks and halfpipes that skiing is breaking new ground. He recalled J. F. Cusson winning the 1999 Winter X-Games big air competition with an unnatural switch 720. Today, Paynter said, it is rare to see a rotation performed in a competition without a double inversion.
Cusson couldn’t have performed that 720 without the innovation of a Whistler local named Mike Douglas. Because Cusson performed the trick while riding switch (backward), he required a ski called a twin tip—slightly curled at both ends.
Back in the mid-1990s, Douglas and a group of skiers calling themselves the Canadian Air Force saw snowboarding advancing in ways that skiing never had.
“We were all skiers and we were like, ”˜Hey, we can do that kind of stuff on skis too,’ ” Douglas said in a telephone interview. He sent out proposals for twin-tip skis to a number of manufacturers, and shortly thereafter the Solomon 1080 hit the shelves. As of last year, Douglas continued, twin tips are the top-selling ski in North America.
“Blackcomb is really where we pushed it in the early days, and the evolution sort of continues up there,” Douglas said. “The kids are just taking the ball and running with it.”
Peter Young is Whistler Blackcomb’s events manager. He told the Straight that on the two mountains there are eight Snowcat grooming machines working exclusively on terrain parks and halfpipes—more than most mountains have for their entire grooming operations.
“We take it very seriously,” Young said, noting that a Snowcat costs between $350,000 and $500,000, depending on how it’s outfitted.
Putting Whistler Blackcomb at the forefront of freestyle skiing is Blackcomb’s Highest Level terrain park. Simply entering the area requires skiers and snowboarders to wear a helmet, pay a small annual fee, and sign a lengthy waiver warning that “injuries are a common and expected part” of using the park.
“In the Highest Level,” Young explained, “they just have the large and extra-large jumps, which can mean covering a distance on a tabletop of 75 feet.”
Flying this far puts riders 20-plus feet in the air, Young noted. And it’s at that height that 1080- and 1260-degree spins are performed in combination with single and—increasingly more often—double flips.
“It’s incredible, the level of riding in that park and how it has grown over the years,” Young boasted.
Earlier this year, extreme skiing lost a man who was pushing the sport farther than almost anybody else on Earth. Vancouver-born Shane McConkey died on March 26. He was ski-BASE jumping (skiing off cliffs and parachuting to the ground) in Italy and experienced a midair malfunction that cost him his life.
“His death was something so far out on the limits of the sport that it really is hard to relate to for just about anyone,” Douglas said. “I mean, he was one of my good friends and I still couldn’t fully relate to what he was doing.”
As popular as McConkey was in the world of extreme sports, Douglas noted, he was simply too advanced to serve as an indication of where the sport is heading.
“I think creativity is the future of the freestyle skiing world,” Douglas said.
Paynter echoed Douglas’s words. He described a significant backlash in the world of freestyle skiing that argues against the further technical progression of the sport.
“People don’t want it to become as strict, formwise, as traditional aerials and gymnastics,” Paynter explained. “There are some people really pushing technicality, but if it’s not done with enough style it just doesn’t really get the credit or the respect.”
Paynter maintained that it will be style that sets freestyle skiing apart from other disciplines. For example, he offered, some skiers have recently added hand drags to their takeoffs, increasing a trick’s aesthetic appeal without significantly raising the level of risk. This, he said, is where the sport will continue to advance.
You can follow Travis Lupick on Twitter at twitter.com/tlupick.