Youth skiers leaving their mark on Olympics

Nobody ever accused the Olympics of being on the cutting edge.

When slopestyle skiing made its Olympic debut Thursday, it came 17 years after it first appeared in the X Games. And the Feb. 18 unveiling of half-pipe skiing comes 12 years after it was added to the X Games.

“The Olympics always has a pretty big lag factor when it comes to anything newschool,” said Guy Lawrence, the marketing director at the Summit at Snoqualmie.

Freeskiers, the label given slopestyle and pipe skiing athletes, have been a fixture at ski resorts since the 1990s, and they started changing the ski industry long before they changed the Winter Games.

“It’s pretty incredible,” said Kelly Davis, director of research for SnowSports Industries America. “More than half the people ages 18-34 consider themselves freeskiers.”

While freeskiing will be presented to the world as a competition during the Olympics, for most people it is not. Just as traditional Alpine skiing is not a competition for most of its participants.

Freeskiers are the ones at the resort (or in the backcountry) with twin-tip skis who are as comfortable skiing backward as they are forward. They grind rails, perform tricks, launch themselves off jumps and take on other obstacles in the terrain park, the essence of slopestyle. And if they’re lucky enough to find a halfpipe, they take them on in a similar fashion as snowboarders.

Before it was the home of the freeskier, the terrain park was the land of the snowboarder.

“Seven years ago you still would have seen predominantly snowboarders in our park,” Lawrence said. “But today it is pretty much 50-50.”

Freeskiing owes its rise to the evolution of its equipment and a generation of young skiers pushing the boundaries of the sport.

“The creativity that skiers and snowboarders have never ends,” Lawrence said. “There were certain limits to the designs of the skinny skis people used for so long and the design had not changed in a long time.”

But as snowboarding grew in popularity, ski manufacturers started borrowing ideas from the sport. Skis went from thin to fat, from long to shorter, from straight to shaped and some even added twin tips.

Not only did the changes open the door for skiers to share the terrain park with boarders, but Alpine skiers found these new designs helped them more easily ski traditional terrain.

“Generation Y is taking over the market,” Davis said.

Since the 2009-10 season, the number of skiers has remained relatively even, according to SnowSports Industries America numbers. However, the number of those who consider themselves Alpine skiers has dropped 24.5 percent while those considering themselves freeskiers has climbed 81.6 percent.

Ski areas and the ski industry are taking advantage of the growth. Terrain parks are growing. North Face, a San Francisco-based outdoor clothing company, signed on to sponsor the Olympics for the first time this season. It will outfit the freeskiing team.

“This is the direction the sport is heading,” Davis said.

A ride on the lift above Central Park at the Summit can leave skiers with some false impressions about freesking. In the park, skiers often effortlessly catch big air then land facing backward at full speed before sliding across a rail.

“You see kids all the time trying stuff in the park,” Lawrence said. “They are creative and they want to learn.”

But while they make it look easy, Lawrence said, it is not.

“It’s all about easing into it,” Lawrence said. “That is so important.”

The progression from rookie to freeskiing artist starts with a video and safety instruction at the Summit. Same goes for snowboarders.

When participants complete the safety program, they receive a pass that is required to use Central Park, the state’s largest terrain park, and Greenhorn Acres, the resort’s beginner terrain park.

From there, freeskiers seem to follow a natural evolution. They learn to handle the rails and obstacles and how to catch air. Some skiers seem to live in the terrain park, but eventually “they start looking for a new experience,” Lawrence said. “That’s when they hit Alpental.”

Alpental offers the most challenging terrain at The Summit, as well as access to backcountry terrain.

“A lot of skiers are pushing into the fringes of the ski area looking for new challenges,” Lawrence said.

One challenge freeskiers won’t find at The Summit and most ski hills is the superpipe. Snowboarding superpipe quickly became one of the most popular Olympic sports over the last decade, thanks to the likes of Shaun White. When skiers drop in for the first time in Sochi, they’re hoping to be equally as popular.

But building a halfpipe with 22-foot walls is a massive and expensive undertaking that’s not cost effective for most ski areas.

“And they’re fairly intimidating and punishing,” Lawrence said.

The Summit was one of the few with a halfpipe but it was discontinued before the 2011-12 season.

Lawrence said the pipe required 200 cubic yards of snow. Sometimes the ski area didn’t have enough snow around the halfpipe, so it had to harvest it from other areas. Sometimes that meant pulling snow from the main runs.

“It was a huge commitment and it cost us tons of money and time,” Lawrence said. “We gave it a pretty good go for a long time.”

While some were disappointed to see it go, Lawrence said most skiers preferred the jumps and other features that now take its place.

That’s not to say the days of the pipe are gone forever. The Summit still has its pipe grooming equipment and Lawrence says it’s keeping an open mind about adding smaller pipes in the future.

“It’s always changing,” Lawrence said. “And we will keep trying to give them what they want.”

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