By Chris Casula
BRECKENRIDGE, Colo. — After four days of fierce competition, the 2011 Winter Dew Tour/Nike Open here wrapped up Sunday afternoon with the highly anticipated Freeski Slopestyle Finals. Beginning with Wednesday's qualifiers and continuing through Friday's semifinal, 80-plus podium seeking competitors were mercilessly reduced to a mere dozen by the start of Sunday's final proceedings.
Bobby Brown, Russ Henshaw and Alex Schlopy—last year's overall Cup point leaders—finally took to the pristine slopestyle course after several days of anxious waiting and watching. As Sunday's events played out, I couldn't help but wonder if the free trip to the finale ultimately proved to be as advantageous as it appeared at first glance.
Granted, not having to worry about having a fluke-ish off day in either the qualifier or the semifinal is a luxury—particularly when considering that those who make it to finals are guaranteed at least some points towards the overall Dew Tour Cup championship. However, what effect did not having the extra scored runs ultimately have on the riders?
Admittedly, this is speculation and a point only made with the benefit of hindsight, but consider what Russ Henshaw might have done differently had he known how is chosen run would sit with the judges. Would Russ, possibly disappointed with how he was scored, opt to switch up his run? Would another day and another two or four scored runs have allowed Alex Schlopy or Bobby Brown to work through any nerves they might have been battling on Sunday?
I don't know the answers to those questions, and I don't even know for sure that Russ was disappointed in his score, or that either Schlopy or Brown were battling nerves. I do, though, find it compelling that out of the combined six athletes "pre-qualified" into pipe and slope finals, only one, Kevin Rolland, managed to land on the podium. It could be pure coincidence or even just indicative of the parity that exists within the freeski elite, but I find it interesting to consider nonetheless.
To willingly judge a top-tier slopestyle event is, at this point, almost certainly an act of masochism. Not only is it a nearly thankless job, but the only real constant or guarantee is that, no matter the outcome, a lot of people are going to be mad at you. For starters, it's almost impossible to definitively compare two different tricks in terms of technical difficulty. Most slope courses, this one included, feature multiple options/obstacles of debatable inherent difficulty, making it hard to compare tricks across different features. (Example of a fictitious internal judge monologue: "OK… the wallride is more difficult than the cannon rail… but is a switch 270 onto the cannon followed by a misty 4 off a better trick than a wallride lipslide to blind 4 out?!"… See how messy this can get?). And as if all of that wasn't bad enough, trying to quantify "style" or to objectify "overall impression” is like trying to carry water in your hands.
I say all of that to hopefully dull the edge of what will almost certainly sound like naked criticism.
With all due respect, I think the judges got a couple things wrong Sunday.
It's not unusual in either slope or pipe contests to see somewhat lower scores awarded to runs taken early on in the running order. There's always something of a calibration process that takes place as the judges sort of "feel out" what the field is capable of on a given course in given conditions. Meaning, scores aren't static and they don't really reflect how closely a particular athlete approached an abstract, theoretical ideal performance, but rather, scores are largely determined by considering relative success. I suspect that this phenomenon serves as at least a partial explanation for why Gus Kenworthy was scored relatively low for his stellar first run.
Something I can't really explain however, is why exactly Russ Henshaw's run was deemed to be unworthy of a podium spot. Russ put on an absolute clinic, topped off by a left dub cork 1080 into a right dub cork 1260—a combination almost no other competitor is capable of, save probably Andreas Hatveit, another absurdly ambidextrous skier with no apparent natural spinning direction.
Though I may not have seen eye to eye with the judges about everything, one thing almost everyone in attendance seemed to agree with the judges about was this: Tom Wallisch deserved to hoist the Nike Open Freeski Slopestyle trophy.
Riding the momentum of a fantastic performance in Friday's semifinal, Tom dropped on his first of two runs with obvious confidence. Wallisch put together a strong, if slightly unpolished run that ultimately ended on a sour note as he failed to clear the knuckle on his final jump. Knowing that he would have to land a flawless second run in order to compete for a podium spot, Tom found himself in a very different place than after his first run Friday.
Unfazed, Wallisch proceeded to execute an almost identical, carbon copy of his run from semifinals; made all the more evident by the fact that the two runs scored an identical 92.75. Once again, Wallisch wowed the judges and spectators alike with his back-to-back switch left and right double rodeo 1080 Japan and his unparalleled landings and jibbing prowess.
Nick Goepper and last year's Nike Open champion, Alexis Godbout, rounded out the podium in second and third respectively. Interestingly enough, Goepper and Godbout opted for very different runs, stylistically speaking, yet they scored fairly close to one another. Goepper clearly decided to pull out all of the stops and to attempt to spin and double flip his way to the promise land, whereas in stark contrast, Alexis took a more creative, stylish approach choosing to incorporate unique axes and grabs into his run.
Despite the minor issues I may have taken with some of the judging decisions, the contest overall was just absolutely mind-blowing in terms of the level of riding on display. The opening stop of the 2011/12 Winter Dew Tour was a resounding success and with its conclusion, the 2011/12 contest season has officially kicked into high gear. It remains to be seen what shape the season will take and who will emerge as the heavy favorites moving forward, but one thing's for certain. If the next half dozen events on the contest calendar are half as progressive as the Nike Open proved to be, we as fans of this crazy thing called freeskiing are in for a heck of a ride.
Men's Freeski Slopestyle Final
Sunday at Breckenridge
1. Tom Wallisch, Pittsburgh, Penn., 92.75
2. Nick Goepper, Lawrenceburg, Ind., 88.00
3. Alexis Godbout, Canada, 87.00
4. Gus Kenworthy, Telluride, Colo., 86.25
5. Russ Henshaw, Australia, 85.00
6. Bobby Brown, Breckenridge, Colo., 83.75
7. Alex Schlopy, Park City, Ut., 82.25
8. PK Hunder, Norway, 80.00
9. Joss Christensen, Park City, Ut., 76.25
10. Jamieson Irvine, Canada, 74.75
11. Chris Logan, Mammoth Lakes, Calif., 68.50
12. Andreas Hatveit, Norway, 52.00.