The Lure of Sochi
Shortly after snowboard slopestyle was announced as an Olympic discipline in July 2011, two people on seemingly opposite sides of the sport bumped into each other at Mt. Hood, Ore. U.S. Snowboarding head coach Mike Jankowski and Hana Beaman, a three-time X Games Snowboard Slopestyle silver medalist, knew each other from the pro circuit, albeit less so lately.
It had been four years since Beaman, now an elite backcountry film rider, won her last X Games medal, and it had been even longer since she'd put serious emphasis on competing. When Jankowski asked Beaman if she might try and make the 2014 Olympic team, the answer was easy.
"I kind of laughed it off, like, no, I'm not really into it," Beaman recalls.
Over the next year, Beaman thought harder about the Olympics and realized she wasn't so sure about not wanting to qualify. She still loved riding terrain parks, and she knew she was good enough. The opportunity gradually went from "no thanks" to irresistible. "If I didn't at least try," she says, "I might be kicking myself down the road."
Last month, Beaman entered her first FIS World Cup contest at age 30. She finished 16th in slopestyle at Copper Mountain, Colo., officially making her eligible for the 2014 Olympics. She says she won't be heartbroken if she doesn't make the team, which could include up to four women. But she has made it clear to the U.S. federation that she's serious about her attempt.
"I think they see potential in me," she says. "I hope they do."
Beaman's change of heart on Sochi isn't anomalous. On the contrary, with less than a year to go before the Opening Ceremonies and three new events on the docket -- ski and snowboard slopestyle and ski halfpipe -- a handful of big-name snowboarders and freeskiers have either come out of retirement or postponed it to chase a ticket to Russia.
This week, many of the athletes have traveled to Sochi for an Olympic test event. Although this week's World Cup slopestyle contests were canceled due to snow conditions, the ski and snowboard halfpipe contests are still scheduled. It'll be many of the athletes' first chance to see what the 2014 Olympic venue will look like.
Of those athletes who say they're staying in the game for a chance to compete at Sochi, some are medal threats while others are long shots, but they all are drawn by what French big-mountain rider and snowboard slopestyle hopeful Victor de Le Rue calls "an experience that happens once in a life" -- the experience of being part of a sport's Olympic debut.
The phenomenon is most visible in ski halfpipe, where past X Games champions Tanner Hall, 29, and Simon Dumont, 26, resurrected and extended their respective careers to vie for Sochi. "My main goal is to leave skiing in an iconic fashion," Dumont, who has made 11 consecutive X Games finals, says of his Olympic aspirations.
I was looking forward to doing some other things, but when you hear about the Olympics, it's such an opportunity that you have to try and make a push for it.Sammy Carlson
Grete Eliassen, meanwhile, brings a simpler goal to her quest. Eight years removed from her first of six X Games medals and having spent much of her career trying to increase interest in women's freeskiing, the 26-year-old hopes to be in the field when the women slopestyle skiers take their turn on the biggest stage in sports. "That's what's so cool about the Olympics," Eliassen says. "It's the only time the media portrays men's and women's sports equally."
It also might be the only time mainstream superstars regard action sports athletes as their peers. Partly because of that, Canadian halfpipe snowboarder Justin Lamoureux, a two-time Olympian who is gunning for a third appearance at age 37, calls the five-ringed festival "addictive."
"Everybody gets behind everybody," Lamoureux says. "I finished halfpipe in Vancouver and I'd been hanging out with Sidney Crosby and the Canadian hockey players, and we meet up the next day and they're like, 'Dude, we watched your event last night, you're crazy! We had no idea!' It's really cool. They get into it at least for that moment, and it's such a different trip from start to finish."
Getting there doesn't happen without unique tensions, though. According to U.S. ski slopestyle contender Sammy Carlson, part of what drives athletes away from competition is the same anxiety that defines an Olympic qualification run. Carlson, 24, said he almost walked away from competition after winning the X Games gold medal in 2011, but the Olympics kept him in it.
"There's a crazy amount of pressure that people from the outside don't see. When you're in it, you really feel it. It's hard to explain, but it definitely exists," Carlson says. "I was looking forward to doing some other things [after winning X Games], but when you hear about the Olympics, it's such an opportunity that you have to try and make a push for it. It's like a new carrot that comes into the picture."
For competitors trying to keep up with rivals a decade younger, the challenges are amplified. "I think the biggest difference is the older you get, the more you start thinking about how not to get hurt," says Slovenian snowboarder Marko Grilc, 29, who hopes to qualify in slopestyle. "For me, when the conditions get right and when I feel good about riding, for sure I can throw down. But sometimes it's just shattered ice or bad weather, and then it's a whole different story. What's so amazing about the younger guys is I feel like they can do it in any conditions."
Freeskier Charles Gagnier, the oldest member of the Canadian slopestyle team at 27, said he forced himself to learn more difficult tricks to keep pace. "I never thought I would do any double corks in skiing, but that's something that I have to do now," says Gagnier, who won X Games gold at 19. "I started last year, pretty much after I heard that slopestyle was going to be in the Olympics."
Of course, one athlete's rough road is another's easy street. For Beaman, who last followed a full competition circuit seven years ago, the most stressful aspect of re-entering "the machine," as she puts it, isn't related to snow. "All the political stuff, like being part of the national drug-testing pool and informing everybody of your whereabouts, is the hardest part for me," she says. "I don't think about that 'real athlete' stuff; that's not how I function. The snowboarding is the easy part."