An excerpt from "The Winter Olympics: An Insider's Guide to the Legends, the Lore, and the Games" by Ron C. Judd, a Seattle Times staff reporter.
Freestyle skiing venues are the most manmade of all sites for snow-sports events, with ski jumps constructed of wood and steel and then covered with snow, or deep moguls carved by machine and shovel into hillsides. But the results are spectacular, with enough big-air thrills—always set to rock music—to make the event a fan favorite at every Olympics.
Field of Play
In aerials, athletes ski down a short, steep slope, reaching speeds of 25 to 30 mph (40 to 48 kilometers per hour) before skiing off steeply banked jumps. The jumps propel skiers 12 to 15 meters (40 to 50 feet) into the air, where they perform multiple acrobatic maneuvers all the way back down to the snow below, landing, it is hoped, on their skis.
The landing hill is at a pitch of 34 to 39 degrees and is about 30 meters (100 feet) long. Top male aerials jumpers can perform triple backflips with as many as five twists built in. Quadruple backflips have been attempted and landed by a handful of skiers but to date are not legal in competition on the World Cup or at the Olympics.
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Moguls skiers, performing to raucous music of their own choosing, make their way down a steep slope studded with deep moguls, or bumps interspersed between troughs, and two manmade ski jumps. With their knees pistoning at blinding speeds and their hips pivoting from side to side, they essentially bounce off the tops of the moguls, their upper bodies appearing to travel straight down the fall line, with nary a bounce or jiggle.
When they hit one of the course’s prescribed jumps, they launch into the air and typically perform an aerial maneuver like a somersault or flip with one or more twists, then land on their skis and ski the next line of bumps to the next jump, until reaching the bottom—all as a rule in less than 30 seconds of frenetic activity.
The event itself is something like a cross between a rock concert and an elementary school field day, with blaring music and a party atmosphere.
“There’s always a lot of energy flowing at our events,” U.S. aerialist Trace Worthington told the Washington Post. “We are kind of a beach volleyball of the wintertime.”
In ski cross, racers break out of a starting gate like horses and ski, in a pack of four, down a course with sharp curves, fast straightaways, and a series of whoop-de-do bumps that send them flying skyward. Good starts are crucial; it’s difficult, although by no means impossible, to pass other skiers on the course. Wipeouts are fairly common, making ski cross an exciting visual spectacle.
The sport, which originated with the action-oriented Winter X Games, has been likened to motocross on skis. Racers can reach speeds exceeding 50 mph (80 kilometers per hour), and while bodily contact is prohibited, accidental bumping is not unusual.
All three disciplines are now skied in the Olympics by both men and women, with ski cross debuting at the 2010 Games at Cypress Mountain, on the outskirts of Vancouver.
Format, Rules, and Strategy
All freestyle skiing events except the newest, ski cross, have a scoring system.
In aerials, competitors are judged on jump takeoff style (20 percent), jump technique and form (50 percent), and the landing (30 percent). As in other sports such as platform diving, a degree-of-difficulty factor is then applied to determine a total score. Aerials competitions are split into two categories: upright, in which the skier’s feet can’t go over his or her head, and inverted, which opens the door to the most complicated flips, turns, and spins.
In moguls skiing, racers are judged on mogul turns (50 percent), jump quality (25 percent), and speed (25 percent) by seven judges. The high and low scores are tossed out. The full field skis one run, with the top 16 advancing to a second round, which is either a single ski run or a dual run, in which competitors race side by side.
In ski cross, the first skier across the finish line—barring disqualifications or penalties—is the winner. In preliminary rounds, the first two skiers typically advance. In the final round, the top four race in a winner-take-all.
Training and Equipment
Aerials and moguls skiers use short, lightweight skis and generally wear typical ski clothing—not skintight bodysuits. Because speed is not as crucial here, the aerodynamic properties of garments are not a major issue.
Most first-time observers marveling at the graceful aerial ballet conducted by aerials and moguls skiers wonder how the skier took that first leap into a complicated jump without killing himself or herself. The answer is simple: off-snow training. All freestyle skiers begin by practicing their jumps into water, usually a large swimming pool.
The in-run ramp is made of wood covered with a specialized plastic mat lubricated with sprinklers. A skier’s splashdown is softened by a burst of air bubbles from the bottom of the pool, which breaks up the surface of the water. Freestyle skiers also train in the summer on trampolines, diving boards, and gymnastic equipment, as well as the full range of conditioning equipment.