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The daring young freestyle skiers competing at the Winter Youth Olympic Games in Lillehammer put on a marvellous spectacle, enthralling the crowds in the halfpipe, slopestyle and ski cross events, all of which will be on the menu again at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018.
The freestyle skiing action at the Winter Youth Olympic Games Lillehammer 2016 began on 14 February with the halfpipe, held at Oslo’s Vinterpark. In the women’s competition, Madison Rowlands (GBR) produced a fantastic second run to earn her an overall score of 88.60, which was enough for a resounding victory over American Paula Cooper (79.00), who finished second, and Austrian Lara Wolf (72.20), who took the bronze medal.
For Rowlands, a gold medal at the YOG was the culmination of years of hard work, after having been introduced to skiing at the tender age of two during a family holiday to Les Deux Alpes in France. “I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t skiing,” said the Kent-born 15-year-old. “I’m ecstatic. Honestly, I couldn’t be happier. When I called home, they were all crying with joy.”
Madison Rowlands GBR © Jon Buckle for YIS/IOC
In the men’s competition, Birk Irving (USA), whose astonishing second run included a superb “down the pipe, double flat nine”, earned a remarkable score of 93.00 that enabled him to bypass his third run. New Zealand’s Finn Blous (92.20) and Norway’s Sunde Andreassen (80.20) took silver and bronze respectively.
It was a not entirely unexpected success for Irving, who is famous for having achieved his first 360° at the age of five. “I grew up on a ski resort and all of my family members are skiers, so I guess I was born with it,” said the victorious American. “I have a fractured fibula, so I wasn’t able to train this week. There was a little bit of pain, but I was OK once the adrenaline kicked in.”
Birk Irving USA © Jon Buckle for YIS/IOC
On 15 February, freestylists headed to the Hafjell Freepark for the ski cross. Switzerland’s Talina Gentebein went into the women’s final wearing the red bib that is assigned to the skier having amassed the highest number of points in the qualifying rounds, a status that enabled her to choose her starting gate. Zali Offord (AUS) immediately surged to the front, holding the lead for the opening section of the race. However, Gentebein dug deep and skilfully slipped inside Offord on a crucial bend before pulling away to secure a memorable victory. Offord picked up the silver medal, while Klara Kasparova (CZE) took the bronze.
Zali Offord AUS (Silver), Talina Gantenbein SUI (Gold) and Klara Kasparova CZE (Bronze) © Simon Bruty for YIS/IOC
“I can’t believe it!” exclaimed Gentebein, close to tears. “My parents are here; my mum was crying. This means such a lot to me. You don’t win a race like that every day. It’s just fantastic.”
In the men’s event, Reece Howden (CAN) had won his five qualifying rounds as well as his semi-final and consequently had the honour of wearing red in the final. At the outset of the race, the Canadian was put under serious pressure by Australia’s Louis Muhlen, who attempted to pass the leader on a curve and crashed out after a slight contact. Howden stretched away for a comfortable triumph, ahead of Xander Vercammen (BEL) and Muhlen, who had impressively got back on his feet to finish third.
Xander Vercammen BEL (Silver), Reece Howden CAN (Gold) and Louis Muhlen AUS (Bronze) © Simon Bruty for YIS/IOC
Still in Hafjell, the ski slopestyle competitions were concluded in style on 19 February. Exhibiting masterful control of her tricks as well as her landings, Lana Prusakova (RUS) was awarded the gold medal with a score of 77.00, ahead of France’s Lou Barin (silver, 72.80) and Madison Rowlands (bronze, 67.80), who thereby pocketed her second medal of the Games.
Lana Prusakova RUS © Bob Martin for YIS/IOC
“I can’t believe that I’ve won two medals at the Youth Olympic Games,” she admitted. “I probably do more slopestyle training than halfpipe. I try to learn all the tricks on the trampoline and on airbags before taking it over to the jumps. It’s a bit scary when you do it for real, but you soon get used to it.”
In the men’s competition Norway’s Birk Ruud emerged triumphant, after a first run featuring a host of jaw-dropping flips and turns that earned him a score of 89.20 points, a benchmark that no-one else would be able to surpass. American skier Alexander Hall (87.40), the last athlete to set off, did manage a second run worth 87.40 points, courtesy of which he claimed second place ahead of New Zealander Finn Bilous (86.00), who had already bagged a silver medal in the halfpipe.
Birk Ruud NOR © Bob Martin for YIS/IOC
“It’s amazing to win at home, in my own country,” said Ruud. “It’s brilliant. And to cap it all off, my family was here to see it!”
As for Hall, he was able to look at the wider picture. “It’s really great to have met so many athletes my age here. The trip has been really satisfying in terms of my skiing, but also in terms of the overall experience.”
Just like during the snowboard slopestyle competition held concurrently, the enthusiastic Hafjell crowds ensured that a wonderful, festive atmosphere typical of the YOG in Lillehammer prevailed throughout the day.