Freeskiing: The New, New Thing on the Slopes
By BILL PENNINGTON
LUDLOW, Vt. - So, what to do when Mom and Dad are snowboarders and you want to be different?
Lucky for you, it does not mean taking out Grandpa's dusty old 220-centimeter skiing boards and trying to make some turns on the slopes. These days, it can mean getting two twin-tipped skis and heading for the rails in the nearest terrain park. It can mean tricks in a superpipe, or a race on a banked, twisting skiercross course, with three other racers jockeying for position on the rollers, ramps and jumps.
This is the freeskiing movement, sometimes known as new school skiing. But what it really is, is skiing trying to take the style in snow sports back from snowboarding.
Snowboarding may have once been countercultural. Freeskiing is counter-countercultural.
"Everything is a pendulum," said Brett Buckles, the female winner in skiercross at the East Coast Freeskiing Open held March 4-6 at the Okemo Mountain Resort in Vermont. "Snowboarding reacted to some of the regimentation of Alpine skiing and created this looser, fun atmosphere. Now things are swinging back the other way. We are taking some of the coolness of snowboarding and putting it in skiing. We can have the same atmosphere, do the same tricks, play music, have the same fun."
Freeskiing is not freestyle skiing, a judged Olympic sport with competitions in moguls and aerials. Freeskiing actually takes many forms, as seen in cosmic gatherings like the Winter X Games and the Winter Gravity Games. But there are specific freeskiing events like the one at Okemo, where athletes competed in a terrain park, over rails and tabletops, in the halfpipe and in skiercross, which is best likened to Nascar on skis - if Nascar tracks had huge, periodic jumps.
It is a nascent movement, to be sure. And it is borrowing liberally from snowboarding, which borrowed a lot of these competition ideas from skateboarding. But it is about pushing the envelope, and freeskiing has a following with vast potential because it appeals to both new skiers and veteran skiers who are looking for something new.
Most of the competitors on the night of March 5 in the rail jam at Okemo were under 16. Most of the competitors in the skiercross the next day were former Alpine racers in their 20's, some of them United States Ski Team exiles.
There are other facts driving the freeskiing movement. The percentage of people on the mountain who are snowboarding has remained fixed at roughly 33 percent. Snowboarding has established its place, but it has not taken over as some suspected it would. That leaves a lot of younger skiers looking for new thrills.
"Snowboarding has become more mainstream," Adam Comey, the East Coast Freeskiing Open event director, said. "It's in the Olympics, it's all over television. It has major exposure everywhere - in advertising and marketing. Freeskiing is a new choice.
"You look at some of our competitors and you realize that their older brothers and sisters might have chosen snowboarding to be different. Now these kids have another option."
It is also a cultural choice. It is about the clothing, the music, the pursuit of big air and the outrageous attempt at a new trick. The ambience is loose and convivial.
"There are no rules, no governing body," Danny Jendral, 27, of Steamboat Springs, Colo., said. "It's run by the athletes and we're a tight group. If we don't like something, we change it."
When ski season ends, Jendral goes off to his other vocation: professional bull-riding.
"Both sports suit me," Jendral said. "They're both dangerous. They're both extreme. The adrenaline rush in each is just insane. But you have to be an athlete in both, and that's what I like the most."
Tyler Shepherd is a former United States Ski Team racer who is now one of the elite competitors in skiercross.
"Freeskiing is only going to get bigger," Shepherd said. "It's still a race and it takes excellent ski-racing fundamentals, but it's a little bit about looking good while you do it. And we make sure it's open to anyone who wants to sign up. The freeskiing movement is a rebirth of skiing."
Freeskiers hope to get a boost from the 2010 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, where skiing halfpipe is expected to be made an official event. Others are lobbying for skiercross to be recognized at the Olympics as well. That event was included in last week's freestyle world championships in Finland.
"I loved traditional ski racing," said Jendral, who began Alpine racing when he was 7. "I would do it the same way again. But freeskiing gives other kids a chance to express themselves without being in a regimented training program. It's versatile, it's not restrictive and it's fun."
Which says it all. Except for one thing. It takes enough daring, elasticity and youthful, bounce-off-the-snow-without-injury recovery powers that you can be sure Mom and Dad are not going to try it.