I’ve never been in this position. It’s our first Olympics, but it’s pretty exciting. I’ve just been trying to take each competition day by day, not looking at the big ‘O,’ but now that I know I get to compete there I’m pretty excited. —Maddie Bowman
They fought to get their sport into the Winter Olympics.
And now the athletes of ski half-pipe are fighting to represent the U.S. in the inaugural Olympic competition.
That fight is so fierce that one of the pioneers of the sport, Simon Dumont, hasn’t even managed a podium yet. The owner of 10 X Games medals has two more chances, including this weekend at Park City Mountain Resort.
On Sunday, 23-year-old David Wise and 20-year-old Maddie Bowman became the first U.S. athletes to secure their spots on the first-ever freeskiing Olympic team. This is the first year these athletes have had to deal with the pressure of not just winning individual competitions or overall titles, but also accumulating enough grand prix points or podium finishes to earn a spot on the Olympic team.
It’s a pressure Bowman didn’t want to think about, and a pressure Wise is ready to shed.
“I’ve never been in this position,” Bowman said. “It’s our first Olympics, but it’s pretty exciting. I’ve just been trying to take each competition day by day, not looking at the big ‘O,’ but now that I know I get to compete there I’m pretty excited.”
While Bowman said she won’t change much in the way she approaches the grand prix in Park City, Wise said he may.
“The pressure is off for me now,” he said. “I’m so stoked. I’m excited to go ski at Park City. Now the pressure is off I can work my runs a little more and maybe work on some things I still need to hone for Sochi.”
Bowman is the reigning Winter X Games champion, while Wise is a two-time reigning Winter X Games champ, as well as the defending world champion.
Wise has repeatedly said that qualifying for the U.S. team will be more challenging than actually competing in the Olympics.
Ski half-pipe is a thrilling spectator sport that probably should have been included when organizers accepted snowboarding. The explanation was simply that there weren’t the numbers in ski half-pipe as there were in snowboarding.
Frankly, I don’t think organizers understood just how massive the appeal of snowboard half-pipe would be. In its 1998 debut in Nagano, Japan, it was among the most popular sports, based on ticket sales and TV ratings. And in 2010, when Shaun White won his second gold medal with a jaw-dropping new trick, the games gave NBC its first victory over "American Idol." According to Nielsen Company, 30.1 million people tuned into the half-pipe competition as compared to 18.4 who chose the singing competition.
If organizers had understood the potential of freeskiing, they would have included it in 2002 at the latest. Instead, these athletes developed their sport thanks to ESPN’s Winter X Games and the Winter Dew Tour. They didn’t just develop sporting events and their own rules for competition, they operated completely outside the officials structure that took skiers from developmental programs to national teams.
While there were rules and paths to becoming an alpine, mogul or aerial skier, if one wanted to take up freeskiing, you simply had to strap on some skis and do what moves you.
Dumont, now 27, said it’s the freedom that lured him into the sport and away from traditional sports, which were both nurtured and hampered by their official recognition.
“We were just friends helping each other out,” Dumont told the Deseret News in 2011. “I have no coach. Our sport was so new, I never really thought about (the future). We were just inventing everything as we went along.”
Being included in the Olympic family has changed things. Athletes work out, they listen to the coaches, and they think about strategy.
At the U.S. Olympic Committee’s media summit last fall, Dumont said that despite his own efforts on behalf the sport, he is still surprised that the sport was embraced by the IOC.
“I’m proud to see the sport from its infancy,” he said. “I think I’ve been on the podium at every type of competition there is, but there is one that I’m missing and that’s the Olympics.”
And even an athlete who gravitated toward a sport that allowed him the freedom to create spectacular moments wants that deeply traditional experience.
The beauty of freeskiing is that it’s ever-changing.
It belongs to the athletes.
There are rules, but not like there are in other sports. Pushing the limits is encouraged, rewarded. “It’s insane to see the progression,” Dumont said. “Every year it dwarfs the year before. It’s a cool sport to be a part of.”
And it’s a sport that will captivate those who love the Olympics in ways organizers failed to see a decade ago.
Every sport has its start, and every sport has a watershed moment.
Freeskiing was born when some kids on skis decided it was more fun to try to fly on skis than it was to rocket down a mountain.
This February, when people who have no idea the difference between a ghetto grab and a tailgrab fall in love with the high-flying sport, everyone will experience that watershed moment.
No longer will freeskiing be the sport for outsiders.
Fortunately it will always be a sport, and a culture, that cannot help but embrace everything beautiful that being an outsider offers.