Park and pipe dreams

Olympic medal hopeful Jossi Wells watches younger brother Byron hitting the pipe at Cardrona Alpine Resort Photo: Tim Pierce for Cardrona Alpine Resort/ Atomic Skis

Olympic medal hopeful Jossi Wells watches younger brother Byron hitting the pipe at Cardrona, NZ
Photo: Tim Pierce for Cardrona Alpine Resort/ Atomic Skis

 

With ski halfpipe and ski slopestyle now on the Olympic programme, New Zealand has gone from mountain minnow to Winter Olympic contender, and park and pipe skiing are now entering the national consciousness. Not sure what they’re about? LAURA WILLIAMSON checks out these two new Olympic disciplines, and asks, will 2014 be our year?

If you’ve never heard of a double cork, a back-to-back nine or a switch takeoff, you soon will have. Welcome to freeskiing. Two of its disciplines, ski halfpipe and ski slopestyle, will make their Winter Olympic debut at the Sochi Games in Russia. For New Zealand, this is good news. We may be better known for our rugby pitches than for our ski hills, but in freeskiing we rank with the best in the world.

New Zealand has only medalled once in skiing, when Annelise Coberger took second place in slalom at Albertville in 1992. (In fact, Coberger’s silver represents our only Winter Olympic medal ever. This puts us last-equal with Romania and Denmark, but well behind Norway. They’ve won 303.)

This could change at Sochi. New Zealand is sending six skiers to Sochi to compete in pipe and slopestyle. One, Jossi Wells, is a former world champion, finished the last northern winter ranked second in the world by the Association of Freeskiing Professionals (AFP) and just took out World Cup slopestyle gold in Gstaad, Switzerland. Four more have had top 10 finishes in international events in the past year. By comparison, in 2010 we sent three alpine racers to Vancouver, none of whom cracked the top 30.

Ski halfpipe and ski slopestyle came of age in the nineties when skiers started to take to the snowboard parks. “Twin tip” skis were pioneered during this time. Curved up at the tip and the tail, they slide both forwards and backwards, like a snowboard.

Both the halfpipe and slopestyle are run on purpose-built facilities: the halfpipe a deep sloping trench dug in the snow, the slopestyle park a series of jumps and metal rails. In each, skiers perform aerial tricks, launching themselves off the walls of the halfpipe or off the ramps and rails in slopestyle, spinning, flipping and grabbing their skis while airborne. It’s part skiing, part gymnastics and part skateboarding—the aesthetic of pipe and park has its roots in urban skate culture, street moves translated to snow.

In competition athletes are marked on “overall impression”, with judges taking into account jump height, trick difficulty and style. The goal? Steez. Slang for “style with ease”, you know steez when you see it—a skier soaring impossibly high, rotating so calmly it looks slow motion. You half expect them to yawn and check their watch while they’re up there.

Previously, the pinnacle for ski pipe and slopestyle has been the Winter X Games, a sort of Olympics for alternative sport. The freeskiing world first took notice of New Zealand in 2007, when Jossi Wells, at 16, was the youngest athlete to compete at the X Games. In 2008 he took silver in slopestyle and earned the title of World Superpipe Champion.

That we, with our short winters and small resorts, can take on the world in freeskiing comes down to several factors, says to Ashley Light, High Performance Director for Snow Sports NZ. One is money. Because these events have not been in the Olympics, dominant skiing nations such as Austria (ski racing to them is like rugby to New Zealanders) have not poured funding, and therefore training, into them.

As important, though, is our national character: our knocked-the-bugger-off approach to danger and, yes, good old ingenuity. “Kiwis are a bit mad,” Light points out. “We were the first to fly, to climb the highest mountain, to design and build bungee jumps.” Halfpipe and slopestyle are sports with a “risk nature”, and risk is something we are good at.

As for ingenuity, New Zealand has been “innovative in embracing these disciplines.” We were early adapters of halfpipe. Our first one was built at Cardrona in 1989 using hay bales and a home-made steel shaper welded up in the on-mountain workshop—this at a time when man-made pipes were still a rarity overseas. Snow Park NZ opened in 2002 as the world’s first dedicated freestyle terrain park, consisting of a halfpipe, a quarterpipe, and a jump and rail park. Unlike in racing, Kiwi freeskiers and snowboarders had access to on-snow features as good as those in Europe and America. “New Zealand has led the way because we had the facilities early,” Light explains.

Our pipes and parks in turn attracted high-calibre athletes from around the globe, keen to train here during the northern summer. For Wanaka-based pipe skier Lyndon Sheehan, watching them go to work on his home turf was inspiring. “For the last 10 years, the world’s best have trained here in their off-season. Having them in your backyard motivates you towards that international level, making the dream of reaching it tangible,” he explains.

It’s a level that’s getting higher all the time. With the Olympics comes great opportunity, but great challenge as well.  According to Sheehan, the looming Games have “brought the level of pipe riding up another notch.”

To medal, our skiers will have to nail runs unthinkable until recently. Sheehan’s coach, Tom Willmott, describes what it takes for a male skier to podium: “multiple double corks in the same run are the current top end, including back-to-back double cork 1260s in the halfpipe, and four different double cork variations in slopestyle.” Triple corks, he adds, will soon be the norm.

A partial translation: a double cork 1260 requires the skier to spin around three and a half times in the air (the 1260) and flip upside down twice (the double cork), all the while doing something cool with his skis, like grabbing a tip. “Back to back” means repeating the trick from one wall to the next in the halfpipe. (For women, 900s–two and a half rotations–are common, with double corks entering competition.)

In halfpipe, popping off the wall too much causes the skier to drop straight down onto the icy floor of the 6.5 metre-high pipe. Too little, and the skier hits the rock-hard rim. In slopestyle, there are myriad ways to smash: going to big and missing the landing area, landing sideways, too far forward or too far back, or kooking it on a rail and suffering the consequence of steel meeting skin and bone.

If our athletes perform well, though, Sochi will be a crossroads for New Zealand, one at which New Zealand skiers take to the global stage as world-class competitors and become household names at home.

Here are a few to watch.

The Wells brothers

Discussing the high number of New Zealand skiers ranked at the top Willmott points out, “We do have to thank the Wells family freeskiing dynasty for continuing to boost our numbers!”

Jossi Wells is the best-known Wells, but skiing fans will know that he is one of four Wanaka-born-and-bred brothers, all of whom are freeskiers. Two more, Byron (21) and Beau-James (17) are headed for Sochi too. While Jossi has won four Winter X Games medals (including a silver in March 2013, in Tignes, France), as well as his recent win in Switzerland, his younger siblings are threatening to catch up. Byron finished fifth ahead of Jossi’s sixth in halfpipe at the 2010 European X Games and took fourth at the Olympic test halfpipe event in Russia this year. Meanwhile, Beau-James came eighth in slopestyle at the FIS Freestyle World Ski Championships in Norway last March.

Medals or not, the Wells will be making history at Sochi: this will be the first time New Zealand has sent three siblings to an Olympics.

Lyndon Sheehan

Sheehan competed in his first pipe comp at Cardrona Alpine Resort when he was 12 years old, and the same year won the under-18s junior national big mountain title. In the past month he has twice made it though to the finals in World Cup halfpipe competitions. Sheehan is also a writer, and has published a children’s book, The Dragon in the Wardrobe.  “An underlying theme of the book is about overcoming fears,” he explains, relevant when your day job involves sailing upside-down seven meters above a large frozen trough.

Janina Kuzma

An ex-competitive speed skater, Janina Kuzma was born in Australia, spent her early childhood in Papua New Guinea and began her skiing career in Canada, where she was the two-time Canadian Freeskiing Champion. When ski halfpipe was added to the Sochi schedule, she switched from big mountain competition (think dropping off big cliffs and dodging crevasses) to halfpipe.  Turns out she’s pretty good at it. She came 14th at this year’s Olympic test event and took 10th place at the World Champs in Norway. “I always wanted to be an Olympian as a kid. To have this opportunity is a dream come true for me,” she says.

Will our skiers’ Olympic pipe and park dreams come true? Either way, February 2014 will be their chance to shine. As Jossi Wells says, “with the Olympics, people will soon know exactly what it is that we do.”

LAURA WILLIAMSON

This article first appeared in ‘Your Weekend’ magazine in August 2013. 

On Wanaka and Mons Royale have created a hub for you to get amongst the Winter Olympic Games live from Sochi, Russia! Come ON down to Lake Bar and watch our Kiwi athletes compete against the world’s best. The Games will be screened from 7 – 23 February, plus we’re hosting two Slopestyle dinners on 9 February and 13 February with a set menu, a New Zealand Olympic charity raffle, live blogging and photography and heaps of Ruski fun! Dinner bookings essential, phone (03)443 2920 to reserve your table.


 

 

 

 

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