In slopestyle skiing, which developed in the late 1990s, every course, made up of jumps and rails, is different — so no one really knows what an Olympic-calibre run will even look like. The road to finding out starts Saturday for Canadian athletes at the Dew Cup in Breckenridge, Colo.
The hands down favourite is Canada’s Kaya Turski who was undefeated last year and the only one on the top step of the X Games podium for the last three years. On the eve of the event, Orillia native Toben Sutherland, the coach of Canada’s slopestyle ski team, talked about what it’s like to coach such a young sport — the majority of his 13-member team are still teenagers — and how the Olympics are changing things. Here’s an edited version of that conversation:
A. In one word, it comes down to ratings. X Games ratings have doubled the last couple years. We’ve got to throw in these sports and keep it young. You go to any ski hill now and there’s a terrain park and it’s packed with kids.
Q. What makes it so popular?
A. It’s new, it’s exciting and it’s accessible everywhere. You can’t go to any ski hill and ski a competitive mogul run, half-pipes are hard to come by and aerials are virtually nonexistent. Also, we don’t have many rules in place. No one is saying you have to do this or do that. You just jump in your little park and play.
Q. So, what’s your job, then?
A. Having an understanding of the biomechanics behind (flipping and twisting) is the big one. They are doing some pretty intense flips in the air with multiple grabs so it’s my job to make sure they are doing those tricks a. as safely as possible and b. as efficiently as possible so they can maximize their rotations. The whole time making sure I’m not compromising their personal style.
Q. The courses are growing and jumps have doubled in size, why?
A. It’s more wow factor for TV. But also over the years the athletes have pushed it. Let’s go bigger, faster, I don’t want to do two rotations, I want to do three or four. A big jump back in the day (he means 1998, here) was a 50-foot jump. Now, we’re seeing 90-, 100-, 120-foot jumps.
Q. Isn’t that more dangerous?
A. No. If you’re doing it right, it’s much safer to hit a bigger feature because you have more time in the air to fix yourself so your feet are where they need to be when you land. We train year round. We use trampolines, water ramps and air bags. No one just goes out and does their first trick on snow. So it’s definitely getting safer. The kids coming up through the program have certain benchmarks to meet before they can go on to the next step, kind of like karate. You get your black belt and off you go.
A. That’s actually what’s really cool, there isn’t one trick that will win the event. The final score comes from the variety of tricks. In the package you need to have multiple doubles in both directions. You’ve got to be able to spin left and right and you’ve got to be able to take off switch (backwards) and take off straight.
Q. What about a triple?
A. Triples are starting to happen. We haven’t seen them in competition yet but we’re keeping our eye open for that and getting ready for it. If we’re going to start doing proper triples that are clean, safe and look good we’ve got to make these jumps even bigger. We’re not quite there but we may be come Russia. It’s evolving that quick.
Q. How has Olympic status pushed that evolution?
A. Before it was pretty free, we’ve got a contest, we’re going to go and somebody is going to win and then we’re going to go home. Now, we show up and it’s big business, there are coaches everywhere, there are team doctors and every nation is taking this seriously now. A year ago we were the only team. Literally two days after this was announced as an Olympic sport (in July 2011) Canada was already taking the steps to create a team and within a month we had a team. That was awesome. We were able to get a jump on the rest of the world.
Q. What moves are Canadians known for?
A. Our rail game. That’s a good thing but it’s also a bad thing because rails are only a portion of the score. We do have to step up our jumping game. In Canada we don’t actually have a lot of big parks that have big jumps for us to train on but there are a ton of parks with a ton of rails. And a lot of the kids go into the city and find urban stuff, they hit rails in a plaza in the summertime just like skateboarders do.
Q. What will the Sochi run look like?
A. It will be two rail features and three jumps but we don’t know what kind of rail features or the size of the jumps.
Q. Who are Canada’s top contenders at the Dew Cup and possible contenders for Sochi?
A. I’m feeling pretty good about Alex Bellemare and Alex Beaulieu-Marchand from Quebec. On the women’s side we’ve got Kaya Turski — three-times X Games champion and three-times European X Games champion — and we’ve got a newcomer coming up Dara Howell from Huntsville.
Q. Slopestyle skiing was popularized by ESPN’s X Games but where did it come from?
A. In 1998 a couple of skiers approached Salomon and said why don’t you make skis that have a turned-up tail so we can ski backwards? If you do that, we’ll do some really cool stuff. So they did and then boom, the sport popped. Every kid wanted a pair of twin tips and here we are.
Q. What are team dynamics like in a sport that relies so much on individual style and creativity?
A. The athletes really feed off one another, the environment, the vibe of the day. Cheesy as that might sound but you really do feel it. I have a hard time telling them to take a day off. They’re just so into it. They see the training as ‘OK, we’re going to play.’ Then they come home and watch (skiing) on social media, videos, YouTube. They live, breath, eat and sleep skiing. I did back in the day myself but we didn’t have the Internet. I guess I’m dating myself. I couldn’t pull out my laptop and watch a ski movie while I’m eating dinner but now the kids are doing that. The wheels are always turning in their heads.
Q. So, how old are you?
A. I’m 36. The kids keep me young. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t jump anymore. If I could jump, I’d be competing.