PARK CITY, Utah – At Monday’s press conference introducing the U.S. freestyle world championships team, the added excitement of including halfpipe and slopestyle skiers to the FIS Freestyle World Ski Championships was undoubtedly the hot topic. But when the four U.S. athletes on the dais – a mix of worlds and Olympic moguls and aerials champs – were asked about the expansion of freestyle’s event program, they seemed almost agitated.
At first I figured they bristled at the subject because they preferred to talk about their discipline. So I went a new direction with my line of questioning, asking which of the new events were they most likely to venture out to watch.
“You’re allowed to like the other sports,” I said, starting to feel awkward for the dozen other U.S. skiers – a mix of skier cross, slopestyle and halfpipe athletes – who were standing in the back of the room waiting for the team’s formal announcement and introduction to the media.
Finally Bryon Wilson, Olympic bronze medalist in moguls in Vancouver, said, “Moguls!”
From the crowd someone shot back: “So all you watch is moguls?”
Finally, aerialist Ryan St. Onge, the 2009 world champion and two-time Olympian, threw his version of an olive branch: “As new athletes come on to my team, become my teammates, I realize I still have a lot to learn. I thought I knew a lot about waxing skis, but the ski cross guys have taught me more than I ever wanted to know. Not to mention, those ski cross athletes sure know how to crash.”
And crash they did on Friday at Deer Valley Resort, serving up plenty of the carnage – thankfully without serious injury – that made the event popular out of the gate. Chris Del Bosco and Kelsey Serwa emerged unscathed and swept gold for Canada in the men’s and women’s ski cross. Del Bosco, coming off a silver at Winter X Games, said he felt vindicated after missing the gold in Aspen and the podium at last year’s Olympics (he finished fourth).
Serwa, however, was mildly shocked at herself after last week’s X Games, which ended with a gold medal but also featured a screeching skid across the finish line resulting in a fat lip, scraped face, a bruised tailbone and ribs so sore that she taped her entire ribcage. “I could barely get out of bed two days ago,” said Serwa. “But then we started racing and the adrenaline gets going and next thing you know … ”
When asked his take on the continued expansion of events under the freestyle umbrella, Del Bosco said, “Ski cross is a bit different than the rest. We’re not a full-blown alpine event, and we’re not like other freestyle events because we’re not judged, but we are evolving with the times. People want to see slopestyle and halfpipe. It’s huge, and it’s great to have them in freestyle. It just brings that much more exposure.”
“It’s kind of like what makes X Games so exciting,” added Serwa, who finished fifth at the Olympics. “We can watch the slopestyle guys and the halfpipe guys and go, ‘Holy crap, those guys are crazy.’ And they probably look at us and think the same thing.”
While she dropped a nod to moguls and aerials somewhere in there, for Serwa – or any of the other athletes I spoke with in three days – there is no obvious connection.
As the world championships have unfolded this past week (halfpipe and dual moguls are still on tap for Saturday), the disconnect between the freestyle veterans and the “freshmen” freeskiing athletes is becoming all the more striking. Next to today’s breed of modern, action-sports athletes, the traditional moguls and aerials set seems harder to identify with. Their sports – which have enjoyed only minor blips of anticipation during Olympic years (think moguls skier Johnny Mosley’s “Dinner roll” in ’02 and Jeret “Speedy” Peterson’s “Hurricane” that won him aerials silver in ’10) – are quickly becoming the dinosaurs of the freestyle world.
Which begs the question, how can the U.S. Ski Team, which is so proud of its new freeskiing program, put athletes who can’t speak to the events that now make up two thirds of their sport in front of the media for a worlds team announcement?
I took one last stab on Monday, asking a question that would allow the veterans to brag about their influence: “Do you see anything in these new disciplines that you feel was inspired by what you’ve accomplished in your sports, something that has helped the evolution of these new events?”
Truth is, moguls and aerials are near maxing out their degree of difficulty. How much higher can aerialists jump without significantly putting themselves at risk? How much longer or steeper or more technically difficult can they build moguls courses, incorporating kickers that allow athletes to throw dazzling tricks while also preserving safety? How can moguls and aerials recapture the attention – and ultimately the dollars – of fans and media who have seemed to move on? I’m stumped at the answer, but not at the realization: We might be looking at sports that are looking at extinction.
FIS Secretary General Sarah Lewis said Thursday that if any sports were going to be cut from the 2014 Olympic program in Sochi, Russia, word would have come down by now. That’s good news, as aerials and moguls are two of the most spectator-friendly events in all of winter sports. But will the high price tag that comes with building those courses, which also require continual upkeep and maintenance, become something that gives way to sports that are not only fun to watch, but also fun for the fans to potentially emulate?
The IOC and Olympic host cities love to talk about “legacy” – especially when it comes to justifying the cost of facilities built for the Games. Park City Mountain Resort, which played host to slopestyle and halfpipe skiing for worlds (and Olympic halfpipe in ’02), maintains a halfipipe and terrain park all season long. Deer Valley builds Olympic-caliber moguls and aerials courses once a year that are maintained for a week and never open to the public.
Most troubling is my final question, which has me stumped. How will moguls and aerials stay relevant in the future? I don’t pretend to have the answer, but worse, I’m coming up short on solutions. Here’s hoping somebody does. — Lisa Antonucci
Rank Name Year Nation Points
1 DELBOSCO Chris 1982 CAN 1000.00
2 PELLINEN Jouni 1983 FIN 800.00
3 MATT Andreas 1982 AUT 600.00
1 SERWA Kelsey 1989 CAN 1000.00
2 MURRAY Julia 1988 CAN 800.00
3 HOLMLUND Anna 1987 SWE 600.00