Let the games begin: Freeskiing at the Beijing Winter Olympics


Let the games begin: Freeskiing at the Beijing Winter Olympics

Once considered a niche sport, freeskiing has been thrust into the global spotlight since its Olympic debut in 2014. The Sochi Games

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Once considered a niche sport, freeskiing has been thrust into the global spotlight since its Olympic debut in 2014. The Sochi Games marked the first time the slopestyle and halfpipe disciplines were showcased in the Winter Olympics. And, boy, did Team USA make a statement, delivering a podium sweep in the men’s slopestyle event. For only the third time in Winter Olympic history, U.S. athletes went one-two-three in one event, with Joss Christensen claiming gold, followed by Gus Kenworthy and Nick Goepper. And American pipemasters, David Wise and Maddie Bowman, captured gold in the halfpipe competitions. The Americans made another strong showing at the 2018 Pyeongchang Games, with Goepper grabbing a silver, Wise defending his gold and countryman Alex Ferreira less than a point behind him with a silver. Meanwhile, Brita Sigourney took home a bronze in freeski pipe.

The freeskiing action that will be on display at the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing is going to be next-level for multiple reasons. First, there’s been an explosion of talent in the last few years. Those winning tricks from 2014 now seem like staples in every athlete’s toolkit. No one does the same trick the same way anymore. “There used to be 10 or 12 guys to watch and now you can’t underestimate anyone,” says U.S. Slopestyle Pro Team Head Coach Skogen Sprang. “It’s going to take someone really well-rounded to win [slopestyle]. They have to be creative with their rail tricks and pull off the most cutting-edge big jump tricks with perfect grabs and landings.”

Second, the U.S. men’s slopestyle and halfpipe teams are two of the deepest in the world. Veterans like Wise and Ferreira are back and hungry for more medals, while reigning halfpipe world champion Aaron Blunck is eyeing his first Olympic podium finish. Teammates Hunter Hess and Birk Irving have been proving they’re also serious contenders with outstanding performances in 2020. On the women’s side, slopestyle veterans Brita Sigourney and Devin Logan, and halfpipe queen Sigourney, are mentoring some exciting young talent.

And third, Big Air is making its first Olympic appearance and while Covid might prevent concert-like crowds, the venue is still a showstopper. If you qualify for slopestyle, you get to compete in Big Air as well, and based on early season competitions, athletes like France’s Tess Ledeux, Austria’s Matěj Švancer and Sarah Hoefflin of Switzerland are pushing the limits in terms of both amplitude and creativity. ​​

“The freeski events are going to deliver some serious surprises,” predicts Mike Jankowski, United States Olympic Head Coach for Snowboarding and Freeskiing Teams. “The pace of progression I’ve seen in international competition, even in the past month, is unreal. Athletes are definitely preparing to lay it all out in Beijing.”

Cliff Notes

There are plenty of amazing stories unfolding at the Games, here are the juiciest narratives.

Teenage Triple Threats

The female freeski contenders have never been fiercer, but 19-year-old Kelly Sildaru and 18-year-old Eileen Gu stand out with their rare ability to excel in all three disciplines. Estonia’s ski sweetheart, Sildaru, missed Pyeongchang due to a torn ACL, but returned stronger than ever in 2019 and 2020, nabbing five X Games medals, only to be sidelined by knee trouble in 2021. Chinese-American freeski prodigy Gu capitalized on Sildaru’s absence and had a breakout performance at her first-ever X Games, with two golds and a bronze. Although she’s trained by U.S. coaches, Gu will be competing for China and is destined to be one the Games’ biggest stars as well as a role model for young Chinese women.

Resilience for Team USA

Following an unpredictable pandemic season, Team USA has miraculously maintained its momentum navigating unfathomable challenges and curveballs. Back-to-back World Championships in the U.S. plus a condensed World Cup season haven’t daunted these athletes. If anything, it’s fueled their competitive fires. Maggie Voisin’s comeback has been a particular inspiration. The youngest person to qualify for the 2014 U.S. Olympic team missed the Sochi Games after fracturing her ankle in practice. Undergoing her second career ACL surgery in 2019 she put together one of her most impressive seasons to-date. Then, last year, she was dealt the heartbreaking blow of losing a close family member. It’s been an emotional rollercoaster for Voisin, yet she continues to shine on the snow.

Three-peater Swan Song

This Olympics marks a changing of the guard for the Americans and younger athletes, like Colby Stevenson and Hanna Faulhaber, are stepping up to the challenge thanks to incredible mentorship from their peers. This will be the third and most likely final Olympic run for Devin Logan, who earned silver in slopestyle’s 2014 debut, as well as halfpipe veteran Brita Sigourney, who captured bronze in 2018. On the men’s side,  while David Wise eyes a third halfpipe gold, Aaron Blunck has hopes of adding some Olympic hardware to his many halfpipe awards. Then there’s slopestyle star Nick Goepper. He’s had to cope with mental health and alcohol issues, as well as haters who say he’s too mechanized for freeskiing, but like fine wine, he’s peaking with age. Gold is the only Olympic medal missing from his collection and recent performances are proof, he’s motivated to own the trifecta.

It’s Anybody’s Gold

The sheer depth of contenders from every country underscores that freeskiing has become an international phenomenon. Yes, the U.S. has fielded its strongest teams ever. But it’s anyone’s guess who could end up on the podiums. The Swiss men have a killer mix of veterans and young guns, including Kim Gubser and Fabian Bösch, and if Andri Ragettli can bounce back from nagging injuries he’s always one to watch; the Swiss women pose a big threat with Mathilde Gremaud, Giulia Tanno and Sarah Hoefflin all at the top of their game in slopestyle; Canada will be a top contender spearheaded by slopestyle talents Teal Harle, Megan Oldham and Evan McEachran, as well as pipe powerhouses Cassie Sharpe and Rachael Karker. And the list goes on… Sweden, Norway and Austria all have heavy hitters who, too, could pull off upsets.

What’s the impact of the Olympics on freeskiing?

There’s no question that freeskiing has brought a youthful energy to the Winter Olympics. “I think the Olympics needs freeskiing more than freeskiing needs the Olympics,” says freeskiing legend and regular Winter Olympics commentator Chris Davenport. “It’s such a vibrant sport and adds a lot of cool factor and star power to the Games.”

In many ways, slopestyle, big air and halfpipe are perfect Olympic fits as you can build venues around these sports. But, at its heart, freeskiing has always been about expressing individuality on the snow. That’s what makes it so thrilling to watch. Some traditionalists fear the Olympics could stifle that creativity. “As wonderful of a tradition as the Olympics is, it can sterilize sports by being overly rigorous on judging,” cautions Davenport. “Freesking is supposed to be just that. It’s about your own individual interpretation of moves and tricks.”

Others in the freeski world echo Davenport’s concern that athletes might start feeling pressure to put together robotic runs that they know will score well, similar to closely critiqued Olympic sports like gymnastics or figure skating. Freeski athletes receive scores from 1-100 from a team of judges based on the skill and variety of their tricks, as well as progression and execution. In the case of big air, competitors are also scored on the height and distance of their jumps.

In its first two Olympics, athletes stayed true to freeski culture. Rather than be pushed into a box, they’ve used the Olympics to push the sport forward. And there’s no arguing the Olympic stage commands a wider audience than, say, the X Games or even World Cup events, its broad reach casting a wide net sure to inspire a future generation of freeskiers. “As someone who competed in both the X Games and the Olympics, I can say that the Olympics is the Super Bowl,” says U.S. Ski Team Halfpipe Coach, Mike Riddle. “It transcends your sport. There are people who will never watch the X Games but they’ll watch the Olympics, even if they live in a country where they’ve never seen snow. The X Games is our sport’s marquee event, except in an Olympic year.” 

Destination: Beijing

China isn’t a winter sports mecca. And Beijing, an urban center home to 90 million-plus people, is the antithesis of a mountain town. But athletes and coaches also dealt with an untraditional Winter Games setting in Pyeongchang—is anyone else excited for Cortina in 2026? And China has an edge since the country has already hosted an Olympics, with several venues from the 2008 Summer Games being reused. The iconic Birds Nest (AKA the National Stadium), for example, will once again be the site for the Opening and Closing Ceremonies of the Games.

Venues have been divided into three zones: Beijing, home to a spectacular new Big Air venue (more on that later), the mountainous suburb of Yanqing and Zhangjiakou, a ski area just over 100 miles northwest of the city. The latter is home to Genting Resort Secret Garden, a Poconos-esque ski hill, where slopestyle and halfpipe will take place.

Topping out at around 6,900 feet, with about a 1,300-foot vertical drop, it’s certainly far from a bucket list destination. It’s small, windy, very cold and the snow is mostly all man-made. On the positive side, a former Mammoth Mountain executive who now lives in China was tasked with transforming the site into an Olympic-worthy venue. Almost everything is brand-spankin’ new, from the heated chairlifts to restaurants like Old Beijing and Green Dragon that serve belly-warming hot pots. Snowpark geniuses Schneestern were also hired to build the slopestyle course (sneak peek on pg. 70) and a new high-speed train cuts travel time from Beijing to Zhangjiakou down to 50 minutes from five hours.

The unique setting is just one reason these Games will feel different. The two Olympic Villages—one in Beijing and one in Zhangjiakou—will be party-free due to Covid restrictions and venues will have few, if any, crowds. There’s also China’s troubling human rights record and the ongoing call from activists for a global boycott of the Games. Global dramas aside, the Winter Olympics has always been a stage for the world’s athletes to shine. It’s a time to set aside political and cultural differences and come together around a shared love of sport. China has hosted the Games before and knows how to put on a dazzling show. And if anything can distract us from the doom and gloom of our newsfeeds, it’s definitely going to be a switch right quad cork 1620 or a pretzel double flip.

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