Two-time Olympian and seven-time X Games gold medallist Henrik Harlaut has a simple recipe for success when it comes to freestyle skiing big air: practise, practise, practise and then, no matter the logic, convince yourself that you can do it.
Sweden’s Henrik Harlaut completely understands the jolt of terror most people feel when they look at a big air jump. In fact, he believes it is primarily the ability to accept and even embrace this feeling which has made him one of the best freestyle skiers in the world.
“I have had to overcome it so many times so now I am pretty used to getting that feeling,” said Harlaut, who is the most decorated male big air X Games competitor of all time. “I just feed myself with as much confidence as I can before I do it, that’s the main thing. You have to really believe you are going to be able to pull it off. If you don’t believe it you might as well try another day. If you don’t feel it I would rather wait another day or month or year even.
“But to overcome that fear and land it is an indescribable feeling. It’s probably the happiest feeling I have reached and a big part of why I love it so much.”
The 28-year-old was introduced to freestyle skiing 19 years ago. Within a year he had done his first backflip and by the time he was 14 he was regularly landing switch 1440s. It is fair to say the pursuit of new tricks has become something of an obsession ever since. And as the flips, twists and grabs have become ever more complicated, so the Swede has had to adjust his approach.
“I used to do a lot of trampolining but now since the tricks are so big I don’t get enough airtime on a trampoline,” Harlaut explained with a grin. “So it’s almost more crazy for me to do it on a trampoline than on skis.”
Instead, he practises in a manner which may seem even more hair-raising.
“I live in Andorra and they have an indoor facility with a big roller ramp into a big foam pit so I ride on roller skates,” he said. “It’s not quite like skiing but at least you get the feeling of travelling forward the same as you do on a ski jump. Then you just have to apply it to skis after.
“No matter what the trick is though, the first try on snow, especially when no one else has done it before, is always going to be pretty nerve-racking.”
Harlaut, who won silver in big air at the 2019 World Ski Championships, is a self-confessed obsessive. From afar it appears his whole life is dedicated to doing ever more outrageous stunts on snow and it is not an impression he does anything to dispel.
“I mainly try and combine two easier or smaller versions of tricks, put them together into one big one,” he said. “What I like is the freedom of expressing yourself. There are no rules of what direction to push the sport or what tricks to do necessarily. It’s free and you can use your creativity to come up with new cool rotations and different grabs.
“There is always something new to learn and progress your skiing with.”
It is no surprise that Harlaut values two skills most of all when it comes to advising keen young wannabes on how to get to the top in freestyle.
“You need quite a good ski background, just to be able to have good edge control to get into the jump nicely and land nicely,” he said. “And then somewhat of an acrobatic edge. You need to have spent some time doing trampoline or something and getting air awareness.”
Harlaut has added joyful dedication to this package, and it has paid off handsomely. While he rates himself as a big air specialist, he is no slouch in slopestyle, having finished sixth at the Olympic Winter Games Sochi 2014 and picked up a World Cup win in 2018.
A strict fitness regime and a relentlessly healthy diet have helped keep him near the top of both disciplines for most of the past decade. And he has no intention of letting that situation change any time soon.
“I don’t see the end, it never really comes closer,” he said. “Skiing is the most fun thing I know in this world. It is what brings the most joy to me out of anything I have tried so far in my life. I am very, very thankful always for every opportunity I get to ski. I get more thankful every day I get to spend in the mountains.”
With his flowing dreadlocks and always-baggy attire, Harlaut is an instantly recognisable and indeed celebrated figure on the world’s sporting slopes. While he and almost all his peers look to skateboarding for inspiration as they contemplate new tricks, Harlaut has also always got his style from the renegade sport as well.
Not that he is advising anyone to follow his lead.
“I definitely got the whole baggy influence from late 90s skateboarding. A lot of my style comes from around that time, I should really let go of it,” said the man whose trousers were so baggy at Sochi 2014 that they famously fell down during one of his slopestyle runs.
“It’s the style I started skiing with when I was about 12 years old and what I looked up at when I first started watching ski videos.
“I am kind of like that. If I fall in love with something, I will stick with it pretty much for ever. It’s the same even with the music I listen to. I really like 90s hip hop and ever since I started listening to it, I can’t let it go because I like it so much. I go super far into things.”
If he can put the cherry on the top of his outstanding career by securing gold when freestyle skiing big air makes its Olympic debut in Beijing in two years’ time, perhaps the baggy trousers look will catch on once again. Harlaut, who won his sixth Big Air X Games title in January 2020, certainly cannot wait for the opportunity to try.
“I definitely was hoping for it to happen, I am super happy it’s in,” he said. “Not necessarily because I have got good results in big air, but because I have another opportunity to ski in another event at an Olympics. It’s so cool.”