World Ski and Snowboard Festival turns athletes into rock stars

    1 of 1 2 of 1

      When it comes to staging annual events, 20 years is an eternity.

      Exhibit A: the World Ski and Snowboard Festival (WSSF), which debuted in Whistler in 1996. At that time, no one could have forecast the creative innovations that would shape snow sports. Since that inaugural event, the Georgia Straight has chronicled the ascendancy of the spring gathering as it grew into the largest celebration of winter sport in North America.

      In the beginning, founder Doug Perry scheduled eight on-hill contests at what was initially billed, in 1994 at Blackcomb Mountain, as the World Technical Skiing Championships. The following year’s lineup blossomed into a three-pronged arts-culture-sport endeavour featuring outdoor concerts, an action-sports photography challenge, and, yes, skiing’s upstart rival, snowboarding. By necessity, a name change was in order.

      Christina Moore, communications manager for the District of Squamish, recalls her several years as the WSSF’s director of communications, starting in 2000. “When all other winter resorts have closed for the year, April in Whistler is the place to be,” she told the Straight by phone.

      “Doug’s vision to add music and arts components was purely intuitive. He was always one step ahead. Adding a film-making showdown was another creative move that has kept the festival so relevant. You can still see his impact today in events like the Big Air contests that became synonymous with both the festival and Whistler, especially for the athletes. It made them feel like rock stars.”

      This year’s roll call of talent is no exception, especially at the three-day World Skiing Invitational that kicks off the first weekend (April 10 to 12). Canadian halfpipe ski team head coach Trennon Paynter, reached by phone while training at Calgary’s Canada Olympic Park, said that more than pride will be on the line.

      “In a word, our team has had its best year ever,” he said, “especially local athletes Simon d’Artois, who became the first Canadian man to win gold at the Winter X Games in Colorado, in January, and Cassie Sharpe, who just won her first World Cup competition, in France in March. With the exception of Roz Groenewoud [injured at the X Games], the whole team will be there for the world-tour final. This year, for the first time, the AFP [Association of Freeskiing Professionals] champions will be decided in Whistler, so we’re excited to compete in front of our friends.”

      Paynter—profiled in the Straight prior to the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics, in which the Squamish-based mogul specialist competed with the Canadian freestyle ski team—recalled entering the 2003 WSSF’s ski cross and halfpipe contests. “The progression in equipment over the past decade for halfpipe skiers has been interesting, to say the least. I started on stiff, high-performance mogul skis. The introduction of twin-tip skis was a huge innovation, especially in the past six years, when major manufacturers finally started to make quality equipment for us like they do for alpine ski racers.”

      Technically speaking, Paynter said, the skill level has literally gone sky-high. “The first doubles [flipping upside down twice in the air] occurred around 2007. Now skiers do three or four such rotations at a time. Safe to say the degree of difficulty is miles above five years ago, let alone 20.”

      Paynter credited the recent advent of massive air bags—inflatable polymer landing pads—with creating a safe on-hill learning environment. “Action sports, in general, are progressing on all fronts,” he added. “It’s like the four-minute mile. Once it was broken, everyone believed it was possible. When I was a teenager in Kimberley, seeing a back flip was a rarity. The physics are still the same, but now kids view new tricks instantly on the Internet. For them, it’s not scary or hard. Perception becomes the reality. I just watched a 10-year-old doing a double cork 1080: two back flips while simultaneously spinning three times.”

      With championships—and bragging rights—on the line, will there be enough snow? Although North Shore slopes have suffered a drought this winter, elsewhere in the Coast Mountains snow conditions steadily improved during March, particularly at higher elevations. Still, there’s no denying the lack of a white covering around Whistler’s Skiers Plaza, usually the site of the Big Air contests that kick off and conclude the festival.

      Festival director Sue Eckersley, who took over from Perry in 2006, said that adjustments have been made. “Sometimes your hand gets forced to do something different and maybe even better. This year’s Big Air [April 11] will be held in Blackcomb’s Terrain Park, where we’re building the biggest jump of any contest this year, including the X Games. For the snowboarders, we’re planning a monster rail jam in the Village. Since it’s our 20th year, we’re cognizant of not slipping into the notion that if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it. Still, 15,000 people can’t be wrong, so the Big Air isn’t going anywhere.”

      As for judging the WSSF’s long-term prospects, Moore said the combination of youth culture and the feeling of ownership by Whistlerites should stand it in good stead for years to come. “A combination of things keeps festivals going: music festivals, for example, lack that deeper layer of community embrace that you find in Whistler. What won’t change is the youth content. Youth are always pushing boundaries, and that’s what Whistler—and the festival—is all about.”

      Access: The World Ski and Snowboard Festival takes place April 10 to 19. For a complete list of events, see the World Ski and Snowboard Festival website.