Freeskiing's rise causes drop in aerials

Sarah Brunson/U.S. Ski Team

Dylan Ferguson is one of the only U.S. athletes who skis slopestyle and also competes in aerials.

Freeskiing's rise in popularity over the past decade, particularly the new Olympic disciplines of slopestyle and halfpipe, has created ripple effects throughout the winter sports industry.

There are more competitions (61 on the AFP world tour this winter), more twin-tip ski sales (even when other gear isn't selling well) and more participants than ever. Freeskiing's participation numbers jumped 47 percent last winter while the number of alpine skiers dropped 19 percent, according to SnowSports Industries America.

Yet the growth has perhaps come at the expense of traditional Olympic freestyle skiing disciplines, especially aerials, whose already finite stable of athletes has been shrinking since the freeskiing revolution began, coaches say.

"There's no doubt the rise in freeskiing has affected the talent pool in aerials," U.S. ski team aerials head coach Todd Ossian said.

"It was always a marginal number," added Canadian aerials head coach Daniel Murphy. "But maybe because of freeskiing, that marginal number went down over the last 10 years. And when you go from a small number to an even smaller number, it has an impact. We need to identify athletes and find them."

As a result of freeskiing's growth, a longstanding contrarian trend among nations that support Olympic aerials programs has boomed: Skiers are no longer the target population when national teams recruit athletes.

This summer, both the U.S. and Canadian freestyle ski teams staged open tryout camps to identify potential Olympians, just as they have done in the past. Very few of their prospects knew how to ski. But as elite-level gymnasts, they knew how to flip and twist simultaneously, and for Olympic aerials coaches, that's enough.

"I think they'd like to have skiers, but the athletes who are going to be lured to aerials are not coming from skiing anymore," said Matt Christensen, a longtime U.S. Olympic aerials coach who left the team in 2010 to run Red Bull's high performance camps. Now, he coaches Olympic slopestyle hopefuls such as Bobby Brown, Kaya Turski, Nick Goepper and Grete Eliassen on their air awareness and acrobatic skills.

Brett Wilhelm/ESPN

Freeskiers like Simon Dumont got their start as mogul skiers and transitioned into halfpipe or slopestyle.

"If park and pipe was around when I was 15 years old, I certainly would've done that before I went into aerials," Christensen said. "A lot of people just don't want to hear that. Freestyle aerials, everyone had their own style back in the day. Now you look at it and everyone looks the same. It looks like gymnastics on skis, really. When I watch the strong nations in aerials now, like China and Australia and even Russia, those are not skiers. They all have trampoline and gymnastics backgrounds. None of them ski."

Many of the powerhouse aerials countries began recruiting gymnasts and trampolinists nearly two decades ago, Murphy said. He and Ossian used to work as coaches for the Australian team, and they garnered convincing results down under before overseeing similar recruitment efforts in North America. Two of the past three women to win Olympic gold medals in aerials -- Alisa Camplin in 2002 and Lydia Lassila in 2010 -- were former gymnasts from Australia.

"I think the U.S. and Canada saw that that was working," Ossian said.

The U.S. ski team has been running tryout camps for gymnasts since 2007. This year the team hosted weeklong sessions in Lake Placid, N.Y., and Park City, Utah, that attracted 45 athletes, most between the target ages of 15 and 19. The U.S. team also ran an online recruiting campaign, where prospects posted videos and viewers voted on who should be invited to train with the U.S. team.

Doug Haney/U.S. Ski Team

Welcome to the U.S. Ski Team's Aerials Tryout Camp at Lake Placid, N.Y., this summer.

Aerials has always been a unique Olympic discipline in that only a handful of nations maintain programs -- between eight and a dozen, said Murphy. Funding is so scarce that most of the stronger nations subsidize their weaker rivals to keep the sport alive.

The U.S., for instance, has adopted two British skiers who train with the Americans in Park City. "They traveled with our team to world championships this past season, and we coached them," Ossian said.

Still, the sport remains in good standing with the International Olympic Committee because it is spectacular to watch.

"Every Olympic Games, aerials is always one of the first events to sell out," Murphy said. "It's never a problem to sell tickets, it's never a problem to sell TV rights. So as far as the IOC is concerned, freestyle aerials is good."

Murphy remains hopeful that the trend will come full circle. "When there are 150 kids doing slopestyle and it's saturated with talent," he said, "maybe five or seven or 10 of them who really like jumping will switch to aerials."

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