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Freestyle skiing 101: Origins and Olympic history

Gus Kenworthy, Joss Christensen and Nick Goepper sweep Sochi slopestyle podium
Sarah Brunson/U.S. Freeskiing

Freestyle skiing 101: Origins and Olympic history

Since becoming an official Olympic sport in 1992, what have been the most memorable moments in freestyle skiing?

Jump to a section: Origins | 1992 | 1994 | 1998 | 2002 | 2006 | 2010 | 2014

Origins
The origins of freestyle skiing date as far back as the 1930s, when stunt skiing began to take shape. This was later escalated by acrobatic exhibitions in the 1950s. One skier who crossed over to perform such acrobatic displays was Norway's Stein Eriksen, who had won two medals in alpine skiing at the 1952 Olympics. Eriksen charged $1,000 for each show.

The first actual competition to include this type of performance was the Ski Masters, held in January 1996 in Attitash, New Hampshire. A large portion of the event required skiers to perform "compulsory" predetermined maneuvers, while the rest of the event was dedicated to "freestyle" skiing.

This form of skiing continued to gain popularity in the ensuing years. Skiers started attempting to go down moguls in the flashiest ways possible – incorporating air time and stylish maneuvers into their runs down the slope. This showmanship gained a new term: "hot dog skiing."

In 1971, the first hot dog competition took place, with skiers taking turns going down a large mogul hill in the most entertaining way they could muster. Scores were based largely off the reactions of the crowd, and oftentimes, the spectators cheered the loudest when competitors were able to recover from spectacular crashes. Within a few years, a circuit was established, and hot dog skiing became known simply as freestyle skiing.

Around the same time, inverted somersaulting tricks off bigger jumps were becoming prominent among skiers. By 1972, "aerial acrobatics" competitions began attracting skiers from all over.

With the FIS recognizing it as an official sport in 1979, freestyle skiing became more regimented over time. In mogul competitions, rather than flashy maneuvers, focus was placed on being able to ski down the course in a controlled, precise manor. In aerial contests, the jumps became bigger, and the maneuvers that skiers could attempt became stricter.

Freestyle skiing made its first Olympic appearance as a demonstration sport at the 1988 Calgary Winter Games. Aerials, moguls and ski ballet, also known as acro-skiing, were all unofficially contested, but were viewed more as an entertaining curiosity than a sport. Moguls was the first freestyle skiing discipline to officially join the Olympic program when it made its debut as a medal sport at the 1992 Albertville Olympics. Aerials and ballet remained demonstration sports until the Lillehammer Games in 1994, when aerials was officially added and ballet was dropped.

The 1990s also saw rise to a new revolution in the sport: the birth of "freeskiing."

With moguls and aerials placing restrictions on maneuvers that could be attempted — done in an effort to improve athlete safety — many skiers began to question whether their sport was in danger of losing its creativity and its ability to progress. Chief among them was a mogul skier, Mike Douglas.

Douglas and others were drawn to what was happening in the world of snowboarding, which had recently undergone a freestyle revolution of its own. Many resorts now had halfpipes and terrain parks but restricted them to snowboarders only. Skiers started storming those parks to prove that they could land the same tricks that snowboarders were doing, and over time, credibility for freeskiing was earned. Douglas also helped pioneer the invention of twin-tip skis — skis that featured tips on both ends, allowing skiers to take-off and land switch (backwards).

Freeskiing currently includes the disciplines of halfpipe and slopestyle, which were both added to the Olympic program for the 2014 Sochi Games, as well as big air, which will be an Olympic event for snowboarders in PyeongChang but not freeskiers.

The other discipline to fall under the umbrella of freestyle skiing at the Olympics is ski cross. Ski racing has been around for over 100 years, but this "new-school" incarnation takes place on motocross-style courses built into mountains. The first "boardercross" competition — called that because it was originally designed for snowboarders — took place in 1991, and snowboard cross debuted as an Olympic sport in 2006. Its ski cross counterpart premiered four years later at the 2010 Vancouver Games.

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1992 Albertville
Four years after debuting as a demonstration sport, moguls was added to the Olympic program as the first official freestyle skiing discipline. In the men's event, a pair of Frenchmen, Edgar Grospiron and Olivier Allamand, took the top two spots on home soil, much to the delight of the crowd. With Eric Berthon in fourth, it could have been a sweep for the home nation were it not for American Nelson Carmichael taking bronze. After the event, fans broke through a security fence to hoist Olympic champion Grospiron on their shoulders. In the women's moguls competition, heavily-favored Donna Weinbrecht of the United States emerged with the gold medal thanks to a conservative but clean run.

Gold medalists:
 Edgar Grospiron (men's moguls)
 Donna Weinbrecht (women's moguls)

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1994 Lillehammer
Aerials officially became the second freestyle skiing event on the Olympic program. North Americans dominated the men's event, with athletes from the United States and Canada taking six of the top seven spots. The exception was Switzerland’s Sonny Schoenbaechler, who took the biggest prize of all — the gold medal.

In the women's aerials competition, Uzbekistan's Lina Cheryazova entered as the favorite thanks to her ability to consistently land triple flips. After barely qualifying for the final — she earned the 12th and final spot — Cheryazova bounced back to win gold by a narrow margin. But the joy of victory would be short-lived, as she was later informed that her mother had died of gangrene 22 days earlier. Her mother's dying wish had been for her passing to be withheld from Cheryazova until after her competition. Cheryazova remains the only athlete from Uzbekistan to win a medal at the Winter Olympics.

Gold medalists:
 Jean-Luc Brassard (men's moguls)
 Stine Lise Hattestad (women's moguls)
 Sonny Schoenbaechler (men's aerials)
 Lina Cheryazova (women's aerials)

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1998 Nagano
The U.S. won three out of four gold medals at the Nagano Games, perhaps none more memorable than that won by Jonny Moseley in the men’s moguls competition. Using his patented 360 mute grab — the move that made him a national celebrity for a period of time and helped launch freestyle skiing into the national consciousness — on the last jump in the final, Moseley took off, and did a complete spin while grabbing his inside ski. When he stuck a perfect landing, he knew the result. "As soon as I landed [the trick] at the bottom, I knew I was golden," Moseley said.

The aerials events saw an American gold-medal sweep. In the men's competition, Eric Bergoust overcame a hard crash in practice — he thought his ribs were broken at the time — to win with a world-record score. In women’s aerials, Nikki Stone, who had nearly retired after a disappointing finish at the 1994 Olympics, returned in Nagano to win gold.

Gold medalists:
 Jonny Moseley (men's moguls)
 Tae Satoya (women's moguls)
 Eric Bergoust (men's aerials)
 Nikki Stone (women's aerials)

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2002 Salt Lake
Australian skier Alisa Camplin’s training conditions prior to the Salt Lake Games were anything but ideal — for a few summers, she practiced at a facility in her native country that emptied into a murky, leech-filled dam. But those poor conditions didn’t stop Camplin from becoming one of the top aerialists in the world, a distinction she confirmed in Salt Lake City, where the 27-year-old won gold in her Olympic debut. With the victory, she became the first Australian woman to win gold at the Olympic Winter Games.

In men’s aerials, Ales Valenta of the Czech Republic executed a daring quintuple-twisting triple flip — three back flips done simultaneously with five twists — to help him win a surprise Olympic gold medal. In 10 years on the World Cup circuit, he had never won a major championship medal before. Defending gold medalist Eric Bergoust crashed on his second jump of the finals and went from first place to 12th. Fellow American Joe Pack took silver.

Gold medalists:
 Janne Lahtela (men's moguls)
 Kari Traa (women's moguls)
 Ales Valenta (men's aerials)
 Alisa Camplin (women's aerials)

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Toby Dawson at the 2006 Olympics

After winning bronze in men's moguls at the Torino Olympics, Toby Dawson was reunited with his biological father. Credit: USA TODAY Sports

2006 Torino
In men’s moguls, Australia’s Dale Begg-Smith, a 21-year-old with a controversial online marketing company, was all business on his way to winning Australia’s third gold medal in the Winter Games. Born in Canada, Begg-Smith switched to compete for Australia because he felt that Canadian coaches weren't allowing him to devote the necessary time to his online business, which faced allegations of installing malicious spyware on users' computers.

But moguls bronze medalist Toby Dawson had the most notable post-Olympic experience. The 27-year-old, born in South Korea but adopted by an American family, was reunited with his biological father thanks to the media attention brought by an Olympic medal. In the months following the 2006 Olympics, Dawson received contact from dozens of people claiming to be his biological parents. Genetic tests confirmed that Kim Jae-Su was Dawson’s biological father, and the two met almost a year to the day after the Torino Games. Kim told the reporters at a press conference that his son had been lost in a market and they were unable to find him at the local orphanages.



Han Xiaopeng at the 2006 Olympics

Han Xiaopeng's victory in men's moguls at the 2006 Games marked the first-ever Olympic skiing gold medal for China. Credit: USA TODAY Sports

China’s Han Xiaopeng stood atop the podium in the men’s aerials event, capturing his country’s first Olympic skiing gold medal. Dmitry Dashinski of Belarus won silver while Vladimir Lebedev of Russia picked up a surprise bronze. Much attention surrounded American favorite Jeret "Speedy" Peterson, who hoped to win gold in aerials with his signature jump, the "hurricane," a quintuple-twisting triple flip that was the sport’s most difficult trick at the time. However, Peterson bobbled the landing on his second jump and finished seventh. With just Toby Dawson’s bronze in men’s moguls, the Americans left Torino with only one freestyle skiing medal, which marked their worst performance in the sport since 1994.

Gold medalists:
 Dale Begg-Smith (men's moguls)
 Jennifer Heil (women's moguls)
 Han Xiaopeng (men's aerials)
 Evelyne Leu (women's aerials)

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Hannah Kearney at the 2010 Olympics

At Vancouver 2010, Hannah Kearney won the first U.S. gold medal in women's moguls since 1992. Credit: Kyle Terada/USA TODAY Sports

2010 Vancouver
In her second Olympic appearance, 23-year-old Hannah Kearney of the U.S. topped defending Olympic champion Jennifer Heil of Canada to win gold in women's moguls. Heil took silver, and American Shannon Bahrke joined her teammate Kearney on the podium with a bronze.

In the men's moguls competition, Canadians had every reason to celebrate Alexandre Bilodeau's victory. Not only was it Team Canada’s first gold medal of the 2010 Olympics, it was the first gold medal ever won by a Canadian at an Olympics in Canada, and it came against a reviled foe: 2006 Olympic champion Dale Begg-Smith. Although Begg-Smith grew up in Vancouver, he had become an Australian citizen as a teenager so he could pursue his controversial online marketing business, which the Canadian skiing federation didn't support. Between his defection from Canada and the shady nature of his online business — Canadian press nicknamed him "Spam Man" because of his company's alleged ties to internet spyware — Begg-Smith was not well-liked in Canada. Bilodeau’s defeat of Begg-Smith, who ended up with silver, led to a night of spontaneous Canadian flag-waving and anthem-singing in downtown Vancouver.



Speedy Peterson at the 2010 Olympics

Speedy Peterson celebrated a silver medal in men's aerials at the 2010 Olympics. Credit: Byron Hetzler/USA TODAY Sports

Belarus' Aleksey Grishin, making his fourth Olympic appearance, won gold in the men’s aerials event. It was the first time an athlete from Belarus won gold at a Winter Olympics. Earning silver was the United States’ Jeret "Speedy" Peterson, who successfully executed his signature "hurricane" — five twists with three flips — that had gone awry four years earlier. Seventeen months after the Vancouver Games, Peterson died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

The Vancouver Games also featured the Olympic debut of ski cross. Canada’s Ashleigh McIvor withstood the windy, snowy conditions to easily win the inaugural women’s title. Switzerland’s Michael Schmid won all four of his races, including the final, to claim the men’s title.

Gold medalists:
 Alexandre Bilodeau (men's moguls)
 Hannah Kearney (women's moguls)
 Aleksey Grishin (men's aerials)
 Lydia Lassila (women's aerials)
 Mike Schmid (men's ski cross)
 Ashleigh McIvor (women's ski cross)

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Gus Kenworthy, Joss Christensen and Nick Goepper sweep Sochi slopestyle podium

The U.S. trio of Gus Kenworthy (left, silver), Joss Christensen (center, gold) and Nick Goepper (right, bronze) made history in the inaugural freeski slopestyle comp. Credit: Sarah Brunson/U.S. Freeskiing

2014 Sochi
The Sochi Games marked the debut of the first two freeskiing disciplines to join the Olympic program: slopestyle and halfpipe.

The freeski slopestyle event delivered a history-making podium sweep in the men's final. For only the third time in Winter Olympic history, U.S. athletes won gold, silver and bronze in one event: Joss Christensen took the top spot, followed by Gus Kenworthy and Nick Goepper. The women's contest was won by Canadian Dara Howell.

In the halfpipe competitions, a pair of Americans, David Wise and Maddie Bowman, were crowned Olympic champions. The most celebrated halfpipe skier, however, was one absent from Sochi's competition. Canada's Sarah Burke was a pioneer for her sport who successfully lobbied for freeski halfpipe to be added to the Olympic program. She tragically died in 2012 after suffering an injury while training. To honor her memory, the volunteer sweepers paid tribute to Burke by skiing down the pipe in a heart formation. Her former coach also brought her ashes to Sochi to spread in several places, including the Olympic halfpipe.



David Wise and Maddie Bowman at the 2014 Olympics

David Wise and Maddie Bowman gave the U.S. a gold medal sweep of the men's and women's halfpipe events in Sochi, Credit: USA TODAY Sports

Both the 2010 Olympic champions in moguls, the United States' Hannah Kearney and Canada's Alex Bilodeau, were favorites to defend their titles. Bilodeau succeeded, becoming the first freestyle skier to win two gold medals. Kearney, however, wobbled during her final run and was outscored by two Canadian sisters, Justine and Chloe Dufour-Lapointe. After earning the bronze medal, Kearney announced her retirement.

Three French skiers helped their country to a historic medal tally in Sochi when they swept the men's ski cross podium. Jean-Frederic Chapuis, Arnaud Bovolenta and Jonathan Midol finished 1-2-3, but not without controversy. Canadian and Slovenian officials alleged that the three had worn aerodynamic suits that gave them an illegal advantage in the final, and should be disqualified. The Court of Arbitration for Sport dismissed the protest, and the French skiers kept their medals. France won 15 total Olympic medals in Sochi, their highest tally at a Winter Games.

Gold medalists:
 David Wise (men's halfpipe)
 Maddie Bowman (women's halfpipe)
 Joss Christensen (men's slopestyle)
 Dara Howell (women's slopestyle)
 Alexandre Bilodeau (men's moguls)
 Justine Dufour-Lapointe (women's moguls)
 Anton Kushnir (men's aerials)
 Alla Tsuper (women's aerials)
 Jean-Frederic Chapuis (men's ski cross)
 Marielle Thompson (women's ski cross)

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Freestyle Skiing

Everything you need to know about freestyle skiing at the 2018 Olympics

Basics | Judging | Glossary | Equipment | Qualifying | Olympic history

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