- Freestyle Skiing
Debating style vs. technicality in freesking
Imagine being an Olympic freeskiing slopestyle judge. One athlete lands a flawless 1080 – three complete spins in the air – during their run and clearly has the trick mastered. A second rider completes a 1440 – one full rotation beyond the 1080 – but looks sloppy in the process as they miss out on grabbing their skis, flail their arms while in the air and nearly topple over during the process of landing. The choice falls to you: Which trick gets rewarded with the better score: the stylish 1080 or the technical 1440?
This question outlines one of the most hotly-debated topics in freeskiing: how to balance technicality and style.
A sport that thrives on progression, freeskiing has seen tricks get more and more technical with each passing year. Freeskiers have had to adapt to this ever-changing landscape, adding more inverts, bigger spins, new grabs and opposite directions to their tricks. Whatever it takes to keep up with the competition and continue leaving fans on the edge of their seats wondering what’s coming next. The athletes consistently on top of the podium are the ones landing the most technical tricks being done at the moment.
The rush to progress to bigger tricks so quickly has left some purists wondering whether style is becoming a lost art in the sport. In judging, “style” is primarily determined by how cleanly a rider lands a certain trick, but putting their own unique twist on a trick can certainly help an athlete’s case as well. If there’s anything in the execution of the trick that suggests that the athlete doesn’t have the trick mastered, even if they land it without falling, it’s going to result in deductions from their overall score.
Embedded video_content_type: Bobby Brown makes it to Sochi
“There will be people out there who see someone do a 1080 and feel they have to do a 1260 or 1440 because it’s the bigger, crazier trick,” noted Bobby Brown, one of the leading United States Olympic medal hopefuls for slopestyle. “But I’ve seen people do crazy tricks and do something in the air and it goes sketchy. Then you see someone do [a] more normal kind of run, but make it look perfect, which will be rewarded more. You can do crazy rotations and land it perfect, and that’s the best of both worlds.”
A similar point was made by Brown’s teammate Tom Wallisch, a respected U.S. slopestyle rider who missed out on qualifying for Sochi despite being one of the most dominant riders in contests over the last few years. “You obviously want to do the hardest run possible because the harder and more technically difficult your run is, the better the skier you are,” he said. “But not everybody can do the hard tricks with the ease and the fluidity that some people can make it look.”
Wallisch is known for his standout style, especially on rail sections. He’s certainly a very technical rider as well, but his tricks are so smooth and effortless – an advantage that doesn’t go unnoticed by the judges.
It’s something that has earned him respect from his peers as well. “Some people do these crazy technical tricks but land perfectly,” Brown said. “Tom Wallisch can go out and do a double cork 1260 – something pretty crazy – and make it look like a 540.”
“I try to be technical, but not the craziest or [most] technical guy out there,” Wallisch explained of his strategy. “I like to try and keep my tricks a little smaller than the other guy but be able to do them better, perform them better and showcase my skills more that way."
Bobby Brown has locked in his roster spot for the first-ever U.S. Olympic slopestyle team. (Photo: USSA)
While Wallisch is known for his style, Brown is known for going big. A frequent competitor in “Big Air” events – contests where freeskiers attempt to land the biggest trick they can on one super-sized jump – Brown helped push the progression of the sport at one such X Games competition in 2010 when he became the first freeskier to land a new trick, called a switch double misty 1440.
“I’m not necessarily a style guy. I like to go out and go as big as I can and do hard tricks,” Brown said, noting that the execution still needs to be there though. “It’s all goes back to being consistent and being sure you have it down and do it in your sleep. Don’t make it look lazy."
When it comes to the Sochi Olympics, technicality will clearly be the leading factor for judging, and that’s a good thing for progression. “That’s what makes it exciting and that’s what [keeps] the sport changing every year, so fresh,” Wallisch said. “The person doing the bigger trick like the triple cork will have an advantage, but style definitely has not been forgotten.”
Wallisch pointed to the creation of the Association of Freeskiing Professionals (AFP) as one measure that will keep style an important component in how runs are evaluated. Officially launched in 2007, the AFP was formed amongst athletes and industry leaders to provide a governing body for the sport and standardize the judging criteria across all the various freeskiing competitions. The International Ski Federation (FIS) which governs freeskiing in the Olympics, commissioned the AFP to provide direction on how halfipe and slopestyle should be judged in Sochi, meaning that freeskiers should already be familiar with the factors that will go into their scores when the time comes.
“With the AFP, the riders have been able to have more of a say with the judging and keeping style and stuff like that a key aspect of scoring,” Wallisch noted. “So that definitely will play a role as well.”
Even without a ticket to Sochi, Tom Wallisch remains one of the best in the game. (Photo: Alli Sports)
It’s a fine line finding the right balance, and while the focus will be on bigger tricks like the triple cork this year, technicality is not always enough to get the job done.
Noted halfpipe phenom Torin Yater-Wallace set the record for biggest spin in a slopestyle contest in March 2012 when he landed a switch 1800 at the Mammoth U.S. Grand Prix at just 16 years of age. The switch 1800 – a trick with five full rotations where the rider both takes off and lands backwards – stole the headlines, but it wasn’t enough to land Torin on the podium. In fact, he was scored lower on that run than a previous run that instead featured a switch 1620, a smaller trick with 180 degrees less rotation.
Josh Loubek, the judging director at the AFP, explained the decision thusly: “We want to make sure that we maintain integrity on execution and style in our judging. From our perspective, Torin's switch 16 [from his first run] was even better. He held the grab longer, it was a better executed trick.”
So, what will it take to win in Sochi? As Wallisch summed things up, “The guy who will win the gold is the guy who can do the hardest run, just as hard as everyone else, but make it look more aesthetically pleasing and more effortless.”
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