The mid 1990s was the formative time for freeskiing. During that time, the regulators and governing bodies defined and controlled what was called ‘freestyle’ – aerials, moguls and ballet – via highly structured competitive formats. But either in response to, or in spite of, this stultifying system, something was happening that was about to blow up and change skiing forever, ‘freeskiing’ – skiing without rules. Primarily led by a few renegades, a truly unleashed counterculture spirit, more like that of skateboarding or snowboarding, would redefine what skiing was and could be.
There have been some defining moments when you knew something was changing, when freeskiing showed it had landed. Moments where you can ask a generation: where were you when you when Julien Regnier and Johnny Moseley pulled their 360 mute in Nagano; where were you when you first saw JP Auclair do a backflip mute, or the rest of the ‘New Canadian Air Force’ invent new tricks daily with D-spins, biryani and flairs…
For me personally this was the first wave of freeskiing and soon park tricks were being pulled on the first twin tips, the 1080, Powair and a handful of others. Twin tips allowed for these skiers’ progression – they could go backwards! With that came an assortment of grabs that allowed more athletes to have style.
Things began to snowball (sorry!) rapidly – the progression was exponential. We soon saw snowparks advance and skiers showcased their talents in Poorboyz and MSP movies such as Propaganda and Happy Dayz. Tricks executed with grabs – we’re talking switch 900s with tail grabs in a variety of axis, corks, rodeos and misty flips!
Shortly after, comp results were printed of a young Swedish skier called Niklas Karlsson winning Freestyle.ch with a switch 1080 and even attempting switch 12 – this was the start of something new, and so began the switch 1080 era.
On the sideline, in film and contest, Mike Wilson landed the first double cork 1080s, but these were brushed under the rug as stunts too close to aerial skiing – which the founders of this sport fought so hard to be disassociated with – and so Wilson was ignored, laughed at for pushing the sport in this direction.
BREAKING THE BARRIER
After the switch 1080 came the switch 1440, landed first try in the finals of the US Open Big Air by TJ Schiller, who took the crown and stayed in the spotlight for many years to come. Around this time the Kangaroo flip was born. Jon Olsson left winter ‘05 for summer and travelled to Australia to learn a new trick on a water ramp: a double flip, with a grab. He was about to change the world of freeskiing forever.
For a while Jon was the only pro attempting these double flips. At his 2006 invitational – the most iconic and prestigious big air contest in freeskiing at that time – he built a jump big enough and smooth enough for himself to showcase what he’d learnt. But he wasn’t the only one skiing. The Jon Olsson Invitational was the biggest and ‘safest’ jump of the season – for about two years we saw progression happen here. Jossi Wells with his switch double 1440, Jacob Wester with his double cork 1260s – all which Jon had inspired.
But it wasn’t until 2008 when PK Hunder accidentally learnt a new double cork/double dip 1080 on a regular park jump (before then these doubles seemed to have been exclusively done in Sweden) – this really broke the barrier and took them to the rest of the field.
In 2010 there was another huge leap, lead by big air specialist Bobby Brown. The triple first triple was landed (flatspin with Japan), along with switch double misty 14s. Gus Kenworthy and TJ Schiller were also landing 1620s ,and not to forget Sammy Carlson’s switch triple. It was a monumental year.
For the next 10 years progression was made in the form of learning each trick in both direction of spinning, something which if you’re a snowboarder you might find intriguing, as there are four ways to spin and you learn them all. For skiers it’s all left and right/natural and unnatural. I feel that might be a rushed ten years without mentioning one highlight of mine: the nose butter triple from Henrik Harlaut – this was out the box, a mix of style and technicality that blew the field away.
In the last three years I’ve seen major changes in ability of athletes. Mainly down to regimented training structures of federations that run national teams and the all elusive air bags/landing bags – an absolute game changer in reducing risk when learning new tricks.
Until now I’ve been speaking and highlighting the male side of the sport, mainly because that’s what I remember watching,. These days my preference (along with many other freeskiers) for viewing is the female competition. The top 10 is very competitive, with every event showcasing an athlete learning something new or adding something new into their run. Sildaru, Ledeux, Gremaud, Tatalina – names you’ll see at the top, with new ones coming through in every event.
This year’s Olympic big air saw Gold medalist Eileen Gu secure the win on her third and final jump by landing a double cork 16, which she’d never tried on snow, let alone landed, but I can only presume the amount of repetitions she had on ‘dry land’ must have been drilled out to perfection.
So where am I going with all of this? From the beginning of freeski it was clear this was a movement, a rebellion! A very successful one judging, by the level we’ve reached and spotlight it’s been given. But for me, sat watching the first big air contest of the 2022/23 season on a scaffolding city jump in Switzerland, I can’t help but feel some anguish. I look back to the start of freeskiing – it was to get away from the formalities and rules of what moguls and aerials enforced, and I’m sat here watching what looks to be a new-age aerial show (the teed-up drop-in, helmet and no goggles, no poles, the team tracksuits). The free part of ‘freeskiing’ will likely always be at risk.
But this is still freeskiing. How do I know? All these skiers are different – they put their own style on these ticks and all move how they please. For all the countless rotations and flips I see, there’s something new, a move I’ve never seen before. Birk Ruud of Norway lands a switch double cork 9; with the set of a switch 12, in the last full rotation he mind-bendingly seems to stall his spin and reverses the trick back the other way of a full rotation, something defying the rules of physics and inertia all at once! For me this trick from Ruud showed me that no matter how controlled freeskiing has been become, there is still room for creativity and a chance to express your own style.
Where will big air go? I’m not sure. All I know is that I’m still as happy to watch those original VHS movies today as I was 20 years go. And I’m as happy to see someone land something new on their social media channel. I don’t see regression in the future but maybe a divide in where we go from here, to keep skiing attainable/relatable somewhere aerials lost the rest of us 30 years ago.