Joey Normandeau, the freestyle program coordinator and coach of the Diamond Dogs youth team at Sugarbush, was doing aerial tricks long before twin tips were in vogue, back when you had to break the ends off skis and mold them if you wanted equipment tailored to jumping and landing backward.
But it wasn’t until last week, when the United States dominated the inaugural Winter Olympics slopestyle events — sweeping the podium in men’s skiing, winning gold medals in men’s and women’s snowboarding, and earning the silver in women’s skiing — that it hit Normandeau how mainstream his niche sport was about to become, literally overnight.
“The day after the sweep I was skiing around and teaching lessons, and at least 10 different people, new faces, came up to me and asked about slopestyle,” Normandeau said. “I was a little bit blown away.”
Ian Bruso, assistant director of the Mountain Sports School at Stratton Mountain, had a similar reaction as he prepared for a freeskiing instructor’s equivalent of a “perfect storm”: a foot of new snow, a holiday weekend leading into school vacation, and endless replays of the home team catching the biggest air and unleashing the most technical tricks on the world’s most prominent stage.
“Kids see the Olympics on TV, and these are the elite athletes that they look up to now,” Bruso said. “These are their models and they aspire to do the same things when they come up and spend time with us. Skiing is just so much more than turning left and right now — it’s jumps, terrain park features, trees, steeps, and bumps. As far as an explosion, we’re in it. It’s happening.”
For generations, emulating Olympians on the slopes meant one thing — fastest down the hill wins. But the Winter Games are evolving, and the current extreme makeover is geared to a younger demographic that craves daredevil action and high-risk maneuvers judged on style and creativity. In a curious feedback loop, recreational snow sports are both driving these changes and benefiting from the stamp of legitimacy the Olympics provides.
“We are able to now show credibility with skiing in terrain parks,” said Bruso. “It’s not just going out and messing around. Having fun is still the goal, but slopestyle is now an elite sport, recognized by the biggest sport governing body in the world.”
That’s a far cry from 25 years ago, when snowboarders were barred from the lifts at some New England resorts and freestylers were looked upon as the dubious counterculture of skiing.
“We think there’s a bump in extreme skiing every Winter Olympics year,” said David Crowley, general manager at Wachusett Mountain, which hosted a US Snowboard and Freeski Association slopestyle competition last weekend. “It translates well on TV and people want to be part of it.
“It’s amazing how things have changed. Right around [the year] 2000, kids would build a little jump out there, and we’d have [staff] go out and shave it down. Now you try to eliminate the hazards by having a good quality surface for them to take off and land on.”
Danger can be a dicey topic in snow sports. It’s a palpable part of the allure in slopestyle and has been magnified by the Olympics.
Before the 2014 Games even started there was controversy over the steepness of the jumps, which one freestyler likened to “flying out a fourth-story window.” The world’s highest-profile boarder, Shaun White, withdrew from the slopestyle event, citing concerns about the course. One rider fractured his collarbone in training, another split her helmet in a fall, and a third broke her jaw.
While kids at New England resorts certainly won’t encounter any 72-foot jumps like the final monster on the Sochi course that unnerved the planet’s most talented slopestylers, safety is paramount to the success of freestyling.
“Safety is the building block for everything,” Bruso said. “Safety, fun, and learning are our three basic principles of snow sports development. If you start working within calculated risks, you’re setting yourself up for success — as opposed to just hucking yourself down the mountain without really having a sense of body awareness and air awareness.”
Although day-class freestyle lessons are uncommon at resorts, many ski areas have controls in place to restrict terrain park access to kids who have viewed a “Smart Style” video sponsored by the National Ski Areas Association. Bruso said the primer teaches “where to stop, when to go, what to look for; how to roll through there and keep yourself and others safe.”
Luke Mathison, who manages the three terrain parks at Waterville Valley, said his goal is to design features and jumps on a scale that matches the progression of a skier or rider’s ability.
“What we do is create parks from a very minimal risk — boxes six inches off the ground — then we go all the way up to standard-size competition jumps in our bigger parks,” Mathison said.
Young skiers and riders can attend weeklong freestyle camps or work their way up to programs that last the season.
“Kids now are sponges. If they have strong athletic ability, the curve of progression is very good,” Bruso said. “Learning how to be balanced in the air, learning how to release the edge of the ski so you can skid around, a lot of little things that make it safer and build you up. It’s really the way we go in skiing as a whole — build on small fundamentals so you can execute on advanced terrain.”
And for the select few who aspire to become Olympians?
“The kids at the top elite level are putting in a lot of time — weekends, vacations, their parents are traveling with them,” Bruso said. “They’re getting involved in regional competitions, kind of getting a feel of what it’s like to be in that arena. For the kids that are really serious about it, they’re going to be going to a full-time academy, where they’re splitting time between schoolwork and training. Depending on the level of athlete and level of commitment and where their goal is to go, that can start as early as seventh grade.”
Normandeau agreed. “I think the best athletes are the kids who just want to ski all day, that’s all they think about,” he said.
Crowley said that even if high-level competition is not in the cards for 99.99 percent of the skiers and boarders entranced by the debut of Olympic slopestyle, it’s worth it if kids are newly inspired to hit the slopes.
“One mother grabbed me [last weekend] and she said, ‘I love the fact that my son snowboards, because now I have something I can threaten to take away if he doesn’t do his homework,’ ” Crowley recalled, laughing.