In addition to racing down icy slopes and through gates in competition for the fastest times, elite skiers will also be boosting high out of the halfpipe, spinning off big jumps, and sliding on rails for their chance to earn an Olympic medal this winter.
With the addition of ski halfpipe and ski slopestyle events, freeskiing will make its Olympic debut at the Sochi Winter Games in Russia this year, although the industry has mixed feelings about the mainstream future of the sport.
“The Olympics need us a lot more than we need them,” said Jeff Schmuck, communications manager for the Association of Freeskiing Professionals. “We are excited about the Olympics and see it as a great opportunity to showcase our sport, but it is by no means the end-all be-all.”
Freeskiing, which was once a rebellious departure from ski racing, has already become widely popular. Even though the counterculture sport has an established professional competition circuit, freeskiing will inevitably gain additional global recognition with its first Olympic appearance and take another step into the mainstream sports market.
Grete Eliassen, the 27-year-old Freeskiing World Tour bronze medalist, started ski racing when she was ten years old because “there was not much powder or any real freeskiing movement going on.”
“After my second year racing FIS and traveling from race to race my passion for the sport disappeared,” said Eliassen. “I wanted to ski powder, go off jumps and ski for fun with my friends.” As a ski racer, Eliassen dreamed of becoming an Olympian, but she eventually let that dream go.
Since Freestyle skiing was added to the Winter Games, Eliassen joined the U.S. Slopestyle team; she decided to “sacrifice powder skiing for a while” and started training in the terrain park again.
“It's crazy that the possibility of going to the Olympics is in front of me again,” Eliassen said. “There has been a lot more structure and competitions in my schedule, but I'm still having fun.”
Snowboard halfpipe made its Olympic debut at the 1998 Nagano Games and has become widely popular since. Skiers will finally have their turn to showcase their skills in the halfpipe this year, and both skiers and snowboarders will compete in the slopestyle discipline for the first time at the Sochi Games. Like halfpipe, slopestyle is a judged competition; points are given for style, amplitude, and difficulty of tricks, but the event takes place on a series of jumps and rails on a ski slope.
Some Olympic hopefuls are returning to competition because of the allure of the Games, while other athletes see it as just another event on the competition schedule—albeit a very big one on the global stage.
“It's a big deal, the whole world is telling us that,” said Canadian slopestyle skier, Kaya Turski. “I think if I can go in feeling good and having fun, it will be like any other event, except with the whole world watching.”
Turski, a 25-year-old five-time world champion and seven-time X Games gold medalist, says she is most looking forward to representing her country and waiving the hypothetical freeskiing flag.
In a snow sports industry that has struggled financially over the past four years, freeskiing participation and sales are on the rise. Sales of twin-tip skis, which are designed specifically for freeskiing, are up 4 percent in North America according to the SnowSports Industries of America’s annual “Market Intelligence Report.” The industry also reported that participation in slopestyle and halfpipe increased by 30 percent to 5.4 million skiers last year.
Traditional alpine skiing participation has steadily decreased over the past three years, dropping from 11.5 million skiers to 8.2 million, according to the report. Snowboard participation also dropped over the past three years.
“Freeskiing is the new and cool side of the sport, but it’s not that new,” Schmuck said. “It has been around since the 90s when people started taking off backwards and landing backwards on their skis, and doing snowboard inspired tricks.”
Everyone from athletes to coaches and ski industry professionals expect freeskiing’s popularity to increase even more after the sport’s Olympic debut, but with the positive global recognition of the Olympics comes the worry of the distribution of money.
“We’ve broken the mold of being the ugly red-headed step-child of action sports and in some ways it’s become a bit mainstream already,” Schmuck said. “With our sport now being in the Olympics, we’ll see a lot more kids who will go to their parents and say ‘I don't necessarily want to ski race or ski moguls anymore; I want to freeski. I want to do slopestyle or I want to ski halfpipe.’ And the parents will get behind it because they saw it in the Olympics.”
Theoretically, freeskiing’s inclusion in the Winter Games will lead to a higher participation and increased revenue as a result. The Association of Freeskiing Professionals is aware that Olympic exposure could funnel more money strictly into competitive athletes, Schmuck said. While the association is excited to showcase the sport, it hopes that the additional exposure does not cause financial harm to non-Olympic athletes.
Most people cannot name a professional skier other than Lindsey Vonn or Bodie Miller, Schmuck said. Olympic success means mainstream fame, but can also creates superstars and decreases financial support for other athletes.
“The biggest change is all the media attention we are getting,” Eliassen said. “I have been very lucky because I have had sponsors standing behind my skiing even before the Olympics, but what I am most excited about is women's skiing is going to be showcased to the world equally, finally!”
With the invention of twin tip skis, skiers today have an abundance of opportunities for recreation in addition to traditional downhill skiing. From slopestyle and halfpipe competitions to all-mountain and backcountry riding, the freeski movement has opened new doors for adventurous athletes. And now there is another major competition on the circuit.
A number of professional freeskiers are known in the industry for starring roles in ski films. They perform similar spinning and flipping tricks as competitive athletes, but on natural terrain outside ski area boundaries. Schmuck hopes that these athletes continue to receive equal funding and sponsorship after freeskiing’s Olympic debut.
“We don't want the Olympics to be such a pinnacle moment to the point that the younger generation only wants to compete,” Schmuck said. “There is so much more to freeskiing than that.”