"I didn't know you could do that on skis!" is the likely response you'll hear from stick-and-ball spectators when freeskiing, in the form of slopestyle and halfpipe, finally makes its Winter Olympic debut in Sochi on February 11 with women's Slopestyle.
If there's a Cold War story brewing
at the 2014 Games, it's the friendly one between the USA and neighbors to the
north (or is it Canada and our neighbours to the south?). The Mighty Canucks
are equally as stacked.
THE MIGHTY BEAVER
On the slope side, France is surprisingly thin. Jules Bonnaire finished 17th in the 2012-13 rankings, with no women finishing in the top 20. All this leads to one of the most interesting questions about the French slopestyle team: Will Candide Thovex come out of slopestyle retirement? He competed at the Copper Grand Prix but did not get out of the qualification round, much to the dismay of skiers over 25. We'll see about the French enigma if he can earn a spot to walk in the opening ceremonies.
The once-dominant super power in halfpipe, the French, led by Xavier Bertoni and Kevin Rolland, will look to regain their time in the limelight. Newish comer Joffrey Pollet-Villard is the one to watch, however, with his massive airs and impeccable style, but an injury in New Zealand will likely keep him out of the Games. The underrated Thomas Krief and Benoit Valentin will round out a quietly strong French halfpipe team, with Anais Caradeux and Marie Martinod having a solid shot at the top five.
THE COUNTRY OF WELLS
Although there is only a slim chance of it happening, New Zealand could be heading to Sochi with four members of the Wells family in tow (no, we're not including their dad, Bruce, in that figure). Jossi and Byron are sure to be locks, perhaps in both slope and pipe. Jossi, the oldest Wells brother, took second at last year's Euro X Games in slopestyle and at the X Games Superpipe in 2010, while halfpipe specialist Byron took third at the 2010 Aspen Open. Younger brothers Beau-James and Jackson also stand a chance to make the team, though they might not quite be ready for the primetime of Sochi. Bruce will serve as coach, begging the question: who does he root for? Lyndon Sheehan and Rose Battersby could round out the team from down under, with freeski world tour competitor Janina Kuzma looking to secure the women's halfpipe spot.
Russ Henshaw finished second in overall slopestyle rankings last year, less than 100 points below overall winner Nick Goepper from the U.S. Henshaw took the Winter Dew Tour event at Breckenridge in December 2013 but has never been able to put together a winning run at X, where the competition is stiffer. That said, he has a bag of tricks as big as the outback, making him a threat for the podium. We were hoping for Dane Tudor, Australian-born and Rossland, British Columbia-raised, to make a push for a spot on the Aussie slope team, but he seems quite happy skiing pow across the globe and filming with TGR this upcoming season. In pipe, not a single Australian man or woman finished in the top 50 last year, meaning they're still very much joeys in the pouch on the world's halfpipe stage.
THE HOUSE THAT TIRIL BUILT
On the halfpipe side, the Norwegians are uncharacteristically weak. In slope, however, former X Games gold medalist Andreas Håtveit and last year's X Games gold medalist Tiril Sjåstad Christiansen will lead the men and women, respectively. Christiansen is a favorite for gold, regardless of whether Canadian Kaya Turski can make it back in time from her knee injury. Christiansen earned the number one spot in the AFP world rankings last winter at just 17 and was the first person to beat Turski at the X Games in three years. Johan Berg, a former Youngblood-POWDER's annual ranking of the best skiers 18 and under-will hope to round out the team on the slope side.
A KNIGHT IN DRY SLOPE ARMOR
James "Woodsy" Woods will be the most talked about slopestyle skier in the event as he grew up in Sheffield, England, skiing on dry slope. Despite the carpet, the young Brit ranked third in the world last year. His style and fluidity is present in all of his tricks, and Woodsy would love nothing more than to bring the first Winter Olympic pride back to his home country since Eddie the Eagle, with a little more style and street cred.
All eyes will have to be on the dreadlocked Henrik Harlaut, one of the most interesting characters and stylish skiers in any field of any sport. The co-founder of Inspired Media with Tanner Hall and Phil Casabon, last year Harlaut won the X Games' Big Air event with the first-ever nose butter triple cork 1620, and he has plenty more up his baggy sleeves. With enough tricks to put the Trix Bunny into rehab, Harlaut is not only a favorite to win, but the odds on favorite to shout out Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls on the podium. If you only watch one athlete at the Winter Games, watch Harlaut. He wears his emotions on his sleeves and only has a smile on his face when he's skiing. The Swedes are light in the field of halfpipe and slopestyle, though former slope and big air master Jon Olsson is making a push to make the downhill team. Seriously.
This is one stacked field, with the last four slopestyle X Games gold medalists all vying for spots-specifically, Nick Goepper, who has already secured a spot on the U.S. squad (2013), Tom Wallisch (2012), Sammy Carlson (2011), and Bobby Brown (2010). Throw in big air specialists like Gus Kenworthy and Alex Schlopy and you have an Avengers-like cast of American superheroes. In a perfect world, slope coach Skogen Sprang would like to see his male skiers sweep. If not, there's a good chance one or two of these skiers will at least medal. For the women, Devin Logan currently leads the pack for Team USA, in addition to Keri Herman, who finished fourth overall in last year's AFP rankings and recently took home a win in the USSA Qualifier at Breckenridge. Don't count out 15-year-old Maggie Voison, either, who podiumed at the Winter Dew Tour.
The merits of slopestyle and halfpipe (finally) entering
Winter Olympiad competition has been oft-debated amid the ski community since
the announcement of their inclusion in 2011. Regardless of the I.O.C. trying to
make their five-ring brand appeal more to a younger demographic and the
inherent hypocrisy of freeskiing
being sanctioned and regulated by F.I.S., it's indisputable that the Olympics will
bring more recognition to the alternative genres of skiing. Will it be healthy
for the sport and industry? It's certainly too early to tell and it too will draw debate for years to come. But the two genres will
certainly attract more eyeballs than ever. And maybe that stick-and-ball
Olympic audience will see slopestyle favorite Nick Goepper enter their living
room while sitting down with Bob Costas with a gold medal draped around his
neck, proving his athletic worth to a traditional audience.
Nevertheless, which country's high-flying antics will land its athletes on the podium? While the last few X Games have seen a reemergence of Team America, don't count out several other countries that could make a move for a medal. Here's a look at a few top contenders whose nose butters and alley-oops could bounce the stars and stripes from the podium.
BY: MIKE ROGGE
Although it seems like spots for slopestyle are more competitive than halfpipe, U.S. Freeskiing Halfpipe Coach Andy Woods might take issue with that. Led by Torin Yater-Wallace, who is coming back from broken ribs suffered at the Breckenridge Dew Tour, and David Wise, who recently locked up his spot, Team USA is deep on the bench with talent, like big air lover Wing-Tai Barrymore, newcomer Aaron Blunck (another guy that came out of nowhere and locked up a position on the team), style master Duncan Adams, and, oh yeah, Simon Dumont, one of the winningest halfpipe skiers in history. After the Dew Tour and Breckenridge Grand Prix, it's been 17-year-old Blunck that has surprised most. On the women's side, Devin Logan, Brita Sigourney (secured an Olympic spot), and Maddie Bowman (also on the team), among others, will also be vying for spots in the big show.
MAKES ITS DEBUT IN SOCHI
On the men's side, both Alex
Bellemare and Alex Beaulieu-Marchand are virtually locks to make the team,
while former Euro X Games gold medalist J.F. Houle would be a welcomed
addition to the Canadian squad. Bellemare has the all-around slopestyle skills.
If he puts it together, he could come out of nowhere to shock the world with a
win. It's unlikely Phil Casabon will qualify for the team, much to the dismay
of Newschoolers.com. On the women's front, the most dominant slope skier in
history, Kaya Turski, is rehabbing a knee, but looks like she'll be back in
time to grab a spot on the roster.
The Canucks also have a good chance in the pipe. On any given day, any one of them could win this event. Coach Trennon Paynter's team is closer to doing so than most other countries, thanks largely to being guided by their Spirit Goddess, the late-Sarah Burke. Like Burke, this team is dominant. Fellow competitors call Justin Dorey the best pipe skier in the game, if only he lands a solid run. Perhaps Sochi will be his time. Mike Riddle, Roz Groenewoud, along with Noah Bowman, Matt Margetts, Megan Gunning, and Keltie Hansen are all vying to get a spot and bring some hardware back to Canada.
Clockwise from top left: Bobby Brown flashes through the night at X Games Big Air. (PHOTO: Christian Pondella/Red Bull Content Pool); American Devin Logan could easily medal in halfpipe and slopestyle in Sochi. (PHOTO: Sarah Brunson/U.S. Freeskiing); Aaron Blunck, 17, has been the surprise of the season thus far. Will he continue his unexpected rise in Russia? (PHOTO: Mark Epstein/U.S. Freeskiing); David Wise has boosted his way to the top of the X Games podium the last two years (2013, 2012) and is the prohibitive favorite for the Olympics. (PHOTO: Erik Seo)
Above: Alex Bellemare grabs for gold. PHOTO: Josh Bishop/Armada