Described as a “circus on the snow”, the freestyle skiing competition is an artistic event comprising twists, backflips and gravity-defying leaps as athletes launch themselves from ramps and into halfpipes at breakneck velocity.
According to 2017 world champion and US Olympic team member McRae Williams, it’s one of the most exciting events at the Olympic Winter Games. “To someone who hasn’t seen it before, watching us hit those huge jumps and grinding rails on skis is really cool.”
The freestyle skiing competition at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 is made up of five thrilling disciplines: moguls, halfpipe, ski cross, aerials and ski slopestyle, with each one taking place at the Phoenix Snow Park.
Bravery, speed and acrobatic endeavour are key in all five events, and each discipline requires the riders to be both technically adept on their skis and competent when executing large jumps. What sets the events apart are the courses on which they’re held. Ski cross is a race set on a track of jumps and wide turns; while ski slopestyle is a judged event on a terrain run of ramps and rails; the halfpipe requires riders to ski along a tube-like slope; moguls is a held on a slope of bumps and jumps; while in aerials, athletes launch themselves from two-to-four-metre jumps to get the biggest air possible.
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“Aerials and acrobatics is one of the biggest parts of freestyle skiing because we’re out there flipping and spinning around. You need to know where you are in the air and you need to be able to find yourself if you get lost,” Williams said.
“Staying on your feet is a big part of it, and when it comes to grinding rails, practice makes perfect. I’ve been sliding rails ever since I was 10 years old, so I’ve gotten used to it, as have all the other guys in the field. Balance is the big thing.”
A former X Games gold medallist, and a silver medallist from the 2017 X Games, McRae is one of the more experienced heads in the US Olympic freestyle team at the age of 27.
“The judges are looking at degree of difficulty, creativity and style,” Williams said. “Holding your grabs is a big thing they’re looking at these days because everyone is so good now it’s really hard to pick which run is better than the other. Setting yourself apart from the rest of the field goes a long way.”
While this isn’t an event that Williams has competed in, he is aware of the attributes required to be a successful moguls skier.
“Beast knees,” he laughed. “I don’t know how they survive so much trauma, so good genetics are vital as are aerials and gymnastic skills for when they hit the jumps. They do some straight backflipping and twists, but they’ll do some corks too.
“There’s more ski skill on moguls and they’re using their edges when they bounce down those bumps, controlling their speed and approaching the jumps right. It’s pretty crazy stuff.”
One of the showpiece events of any winter sports competition, the halfpipe is a stylistic event in which athletes race through a ‘half-pipe’ carved into the snow performing jumps and turns as they fly from the top.
“Those guys are insane,” said Williams. “Half the time the pipe is sheer ice and you have very little margin for error when you’re coming back into it after a jump.
“One foot outside when you’re coming back in and you’re landing on the deck. Three feet inside and you’re landing in the middle of the pipe so you have to be precise. “
The ski cross event is an adrenalised race in which four athletes race down a track featuring jumps, rollers and banks. Thrills and spills are commonplace.
“It’s great to watch when there are several people in there,” said Williams “It gets pretty aggressive when riders are pushing themselves around trying to fight to the finish.
“I enjoy that more than Alpine racing. Obviously, Alpine racers are going insanely fast, but ski cross has more variables to it, which is fun on the spectator sides of things.”
A judged discipline, aerials is a spectacular jump event in which riders launch themselves off jumps, propelling themselves into the air before performing a series of spins, flips and twists.
“I have a lot of respect for those guys,” Williams said. “They’re crazy, going 60 feet in the air, flipping three times. It’s hard for me to even grasp where they are.“This really comes from a gymnastic background. They do a lot of tilt twisting, where they stand perfectly straight coming into the jump and they let the jump do the work.”