A look back at freeskiing's roots
In less than 100 days, the sport of freeskiing will enter the Olympic pantheon when the disciplines of slopestyle and halfpipe debut at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
Freeskiing's Olympic debut is reason for celebration for many in the sport. From aspiring young park skiers with visions of gold medals in their eyes to ski-industry company managers with sales figures in theirs, Sochi promises a new influx of interest in the sport.
The once unruly and rebellious style of skiing that emerged in the 1990s as a counterculture sport is now well on its way into the mainstream.
"It's truly unbelievable," says founding freeskier Julien Regnier. "What we were working for and what we were envisioning 15 years ago is happening now … There are many kids in the park, the sport is big, companies are selling skis and many new companies have appeared. It's a healthy industry."
In recent years, the freeskiing movement has helped reverse declining gear sales trends in the ski industry. Last winter in the U.S., twin tip ski sales were up 2 percent in dollars sold from the year prior, now bringing in $55 million of the $2.6 billion snowsports gear industry, according to the Snowsports Industries of America.
But there's another side of the story, one with more ominous forebodings for the sport. When slopestyle and halfpipe are introduced to millions of new viewers in Sochi, most will be unaware that the fresh, new sport they're watching on television was founded in large part by skiers who turned their backs on organized competitions, including the Olympics.
A majority of freeskiing's founders were mogul skiers who ditched the regulated constraints of bump skiing in order to ski more freely -- hence the name, freeskiing -- in terrain parks and the backcountry. They abandoned Olympic dreams in the moguls to create a brand-new incarnation of skiing far removed from the regulations imposed on freestyle skiing by the International Ski Federation (FIS).
In fact, FIS's hold on freestyle skiing in the last three decades is often credited as one of the driving factors in the emergence of modern freeskiing, according to the sport's pioneers.
"We were going as far away from [competitions] as we possibly could go," says Mike Douglas, a freeskiing pioneer and former mogul skier. "Screw the rules, screw people telling us what to do. Let's go out and make our own rules."
The skiers who were part of that founding era question whether Olympic freeskiing is a good thing for the sport or a wrong turn, citing a fear that freeskiing might lose some of its rebellious luster under the Olympic spotlight.
"We created the sport by being different and diverse," says filmmaker Eric Iberg. "Now they're going to make all these [freeskiing] Olympians look like mogul or ballet or aerials skiers, in that they're all wearing the same clothes."
In the long run, will Olympic freeskiing help or harm the sport? Even a founding father like Mike Douglas still isn't sure.We were going as far away from [competitions] as we possibly could go. Screw the rules, screw people telling us what to do. Let's go out and make our own rulesMike Douglas
"I'm a fence rider," Douglas admits. "Those [halfpipe and slopestyle] competitions aren't at the root of what we started, but they're a byproduct of it. They're one of the branches that has grown off the tree, and it's totally valid."
Adds Regnier, "It could be dangerous and it could be problematic. Especially for pipe skiing. But that's not the only part of freeskiing."
That, at least, appears to be a saving grace. Freeskiing is too broad of a sport, the pioneers say, to be herded into change and obsolescence in the same way freestyle skiing was 20 years ago.
"If the only way to make it as a freeskier was to be on an Olympic team and go to Sochi and win a gold medal, then I would be pissed right now. But I'm not, because there are 50 different ways to make it as a freeskier," says Douglas. "Mogul skiing was only about competition. Freeskiing is much more diverse. Therefore I think it's not the same story."