Freeskiing in Sochi: Stories, Highlights and Impact on the sport

Freeskiing has come a long way since its roots as a sport for stoner rockstars and college drop-outs. After all the political debates, sponsorship ordeals and dealing with the largely frowned-upon FIS (International Ski Federation), ski slopestyle and halfpipe have made it to the World’s biggest sporting event, the Olympic Games.

Olympic Slopestyle, photo by Ethan Stone

Olympic Slopestyle, photo by Ethan Stone

Here at the International Freeski Film Festival, we take pride in presenting the other side of the medal: the cultural and artistic side of freeskiing. We show the sport on screen the way we see it and have always known it: epic tricks, creativity, deep powder and wild fun in a laid back setting with best friends. However, this year is pretty special for our great sport and we thought it would be appropriate to document this competition, being its biggest showcase yet.

These Games have been in the back of athletes’ minds since halfpipe and slopestyle were announced in 2011. The build-up has put an enormous amount of pressure on skiers to work towards the major objective of making their respective Olympic teams. Progression accelerated as new tricks emerged.

A lot of the big names you would expect to be there made it to the Games both on the women’s and on the men’s side.

One controversy that caused a lot of noise in the freeski community was the coaches’ choice of Joss Christensen on the American slopestyle team over Tom Wallisch, an extremely respected pioneer of style in the sport who got famous through the internet by posting creative videos on Newschoolers.com and winning the Superunknown video contest in 2007. He is also a favorite to watch in ski movies for many fans and has been involved with Level 1 Productions since 2008. In 2013, he made his first own full-length movie called The Wallisch Project. He became dominant in slopestyle during both 2012 and 2013 seasons. Tom was suffering from a torn ACL while competing for his spot on the team. He was not chosen as the discretionary pick but had he made it, he would not have been the only injured athlete at Sochi. To name a couple, Kaya Turski on the Canadian slopestyle team had also been operated on her knee this past summer and hadn’t fully recovered yet while James Woods from the UK was skiing with a hip injury. The magnitude of the Olympics made athletes push their bodies to the limit and even further, to a dangerous extent.

It’s been a rocky road to Sochi and everyone has seen images of what the journalists’ accommodations look like and everyone has heard of the terrorist threats and questionable procedures of “cleaning up” Sochi by kicking residents out and eliminating stray dogs. Many things could have definitely gone smoother in the process, but hey. This is Putin’s Russia.

Women’s slopestyle highlights


Women’s slopestyle was the first Olympic freeski event. It was predicted that a Canadian lady would claim the Gold and one did. But not the one you expected. Kaya Turski, internationally reknown for her very technical rail tricks and dominance in slopestyle for the past years did not qualify for the finals. Kaya didn’t make excuses, but her road to Sochi was about as bumpy as it gets. Recovering from a surgery for her torn ACL and a two-week virus leading-up to the event, Kaya dislocated her shoulder in her first qualifying run. She popped it back in place and still attempted another run to qualify but fell once again. Say what you will about the result, but Kaya showed the determination of a truly passionate competitor and a tough-as-hell freeskier. Watch her second run here:

It was Dara Howell who stole the show with what she described as the “best run I’ve ever done in my entire life” with an astounding score of 94.20. The 19 year-old from Huntsville, Ontario threw-down an extremely solid performance on this course that raised the standards substantially from other regular season competitions such as X-Games and Dew Tour with its jumps reaching sizes that exceed 80 feet!

Watch the video of Dara Howell’s Gold medal run here:

Close behind Dara were American Devin Logan with the Silver and Canadian Kim Lamarre with the bronze. With more than half the athletes falling in the finals, it’s the ladies who proved they could handle the gigantic Rosa Khutor Extreme Park while stomping their biggest tricks that came-out on top.

Video of Devin Logan’s Silver medal run:

Video of Kim Lamarre’s Bronze medal run:


Men’s slopestyle highlights


This event has been an unprecedented Cinderella story, mainly for the American team who swept the podium. Joss Christensen was under the microscope for taking Tom Wallisch’s spot and absolutely delivered the goods. While learning new tricks in the process, he was consistently stomping his runs in practice, qualifications and then in finals, resulting in the jaw-dropping score of 95.80. A lot of emotion was in the air as the crowd roared the chant “USA! USA!” and as Joss dedicated this Gold medal to his lately deceased father JD.


Video of Joss Christensen’s victory lap (Gold medal):

Puppy adopting American superstar Gus Kenworthy took home the Silver with a flawless run ended by his signature switch triple rodeo 1440 Japan grab. Heavily favorited Nick Goepper won the Bronze with another extremely solid run with some of the most creative grab combinations we’ve ever witnessed. Commenting about the event, Nick said: “I feel amazing. I think today was the best display of skiing we have ever seen in our sport, so I am so happy.”

Video of Gus Kenworthy’s Silver medal run:

Video of Nick Goepper’s Bronze medal run:

And a great day it was for freeskiing. Athletes performed the best runs we have ever seen in slopestyle history. Many eyes were locked on Henrik Harlaut AKA E-Dollo, Swedish ski icon that is unique in so many ways who has known great success in competition as well as on the ski movie scene with Inspired Media and his web series The B&E Show with fellow pro skier Phil Casabon.

Henrik also landed what was without a doubt the craziest run of his life. On his first jump, he sent a nose butter triple cork 1620 to the bottom of the landing, a trick that only Henrik has ever pulled-off and that is arguably the most difficult in freeskiing at the moment. He continued with another trick that no one else in the game is doing: the switch tail butter double cork 1080 to perfection. It was on his final hit that he punched the landing on his switch right side double cork 1080 and undoubtedly costing him a lot of points. His result: 84.40.

Watch video of Henrik Harlaut’s run:

Harlaut’s score was another topic that shook-up some involved opinions about the judging. This was also an issue in the snowboarding slopestyle event, where riders were rather confused with inconsistent judging from the panel, where it was hard to tell if they were looking for big rotations or nice style. This is a challenge that action sports competitions will always have to deal with.


Drama in the media


Getting a sport like ski slopestyle in the Olympics is bound to make people talk. Especially when you have marginal characters like Henrik as one of the top medal contenders. For people who don’t understand the roots and the culture of where this sport came from, it is difficult to understand why Henrik skis with his pants hanging from his knees or why he gives a shout-out to the Wu-Tang Clan on international television. On a side note, Henrik got a reply on facebook from Wu-Tang, as well as a video dedicated to him from the rapper Redman.

It is also difficult for them to understand why Jossi Wells decided to do zero spins on all three jumps of his second run after a slight slip off one rail in his top section. Let it be known that despite what Dana Johannsen believes, he didn’t just give-up. He knew his run would not score as high as his first one because of that one mistake so decided to put on a stylish show for the fans.

Ignorance of the sport’s background is why several condescending articles were published by mainstream media journalists regarding the event and the athletes.

Many articles and blog posts have focused more on Henrik nearly losing his pants than on his stylish and unique runs such as this one: http://ca.eonline.com/news/510529/sochi-olympics-swedish-freestyle-skier-henrik-harlaut-crashes-and-loses-his-pants

And here is a different opinion about Henrik that circulated quite a bit: http://www.buzzfeed.com/mrloganrhoades/15-reasons-why-swedish-freeskier-henrik-harlaut-is-your-new

Articles like these and the one by Dana Johannsen lead us to the following two questions: was the big crowd ready for slopestyle and was slopestyle ready for the big crowd?

Both answers can be and have been argued on threads and editorials. Whatever ends-up happening, some of the athletes seem to be loving the crazy amount of attention right now. Silver medalist Gus Kenworthy may have scored a date with Miley Cirus, charming her with his adorable addiction to adopt stray dogs from Sochi while Bronze medalist Nick Goepper started a social media contest for one girl to win a date with him. On his end, halfpipe skier Torin Yater-Wallace may have seduced Taylor Swift by revealing publicly she is his dream date.

Today.com reports the story of all this Olympic gossip (with video application to date Nick)


Torin and Taylor’s little love story video


The Olympics have suddenly made these athletes extremely popular to the uninvolved public which is seen as both a threat and an opportunity to the industry, a debate that can also be argued quite well in both directions.

Men’s halfpipe highlights


After two weeks of constant gorgeous weather at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park came the ski halfpipe competition as heavy wet snow dumped over the crowd and venue. The athletes had great conditions for practice leading up to the qualifications but come game day, the fresh stuff got in the way, affecting visibility and slowing skiers down in between hits.

Qualifications went down and most expected athletes made it to the final rounds. Canadian Justin Dorey AKA J-Bone came-out on top with his first run reaching a solid 91.60. The big surprise was seeing one of the American favorites Torin Yater-Wallace fall on both runs and fail to qualify. Torin is only 18 and has already seen some major podium finishes including X-Games and Dew Tour medals.

When the finals came around, the American “rad dad” David Wise kicked it off strongly in his first run, leading the scoreboard with 92.00. This was enough for him to maintain his first spot position throughout the rest of the finals. Mike Riddle from Canada and Kevin Rolland from France landed spectacular runs as well placing them into second and third positions respectively. A close fourth place finish was New Zealand’s Jossi Wells with a score of 85.40. Jossi and his brother Beau James Wells are the only two Olympic skiers to have competed in both slopestyle and halfpipe. Jossi qualified for both finals and put together a clinic of style and smooth skiing in his first run. The top qualifier Justin Dorey could not finish a full run to give Mr. Wise a race for his money, leaving him with an undisputed Gold medal.

David Wise Gold medal run video:

Mike Riddle Silver medal run video:

Kevin Rolland’s Bronze medal run video:

Several athletes (mainly snowboarders) were complaining about the quality and maintenance of the pipe. One recurring comment was the fact that the top of the walls had too much vertical angle. This left very little room for mistakes on landings and may have been responsible for the crashing of several athletes such as Shaun White. Though skiers were generally less critical of the conditions, the layer of fresh snow that coated the pipe visibly made a difference in the possible amplitude the skiers could achieve. Franchman Kevin Rolland admitted: “The conditions tonight were really tough. Especially for me, because I’m not that good when it’s slow.”


Women’s halfpipe


An important acknowledgement to make before getting into this event is the contribution of ski legend Sarah Burke for the acceptance of this discipline into the Olympics. Sarah was the dominant athlete in ski halfpipe with six X-Games medals in her repertory and was among the loudest voices lobbying for the opportunity to win the Olympics.


When she passed away at the age of 29 following a brutal crash in a practice run, not only the ski community was brought together in mourning this huge loss. Her tragedy was reported by mainstream media, and riders from all over are today rocking stickers “I ride for Sarah” on their helmets and skis or boards.

I ride for sarah stickers

These stickers were not allowed to be shown during the Games to the disappointment of many, but Sarah’s name and her influence were mentioned  time and time again throughout slopestyle and halfpipe events.

Video report following Sarah’s passing:

The event began with qualifications and most of the expected athletes made it through to the finals. The American favorite Maddie Bowman, who won the halfpipe event in Aspen for the X-Games, landed a run that put her in the lead with 900s on both walls of the pipe. Her second run boosted her score even more, reaching a commanding 89.00. The runner-up was Marie Martinod from France, the returning athlete who proved she was far from washed-up after staying 7 years out of the competition scene and giving birth. She landed two extremely solid runs in finals which were both worthy of a Silver medal. Ayana Onozuka also landed an exceptionally stylish run and showed technical skill in particular with her switch tricks. She won the bronze medal for Japan.


Maddie Bowman’s Gold medal run video (embedding was disabled):


Marie Martinod’s Silver medal run video (embedding was disabled):


Ayana Onozuka Bronze medal run video:

Closing words


All things considered, these Games were a wild ride of ups and downs. The men and women of freeskiing displayed incredible talent and took a major step forward in the advancement of our sport. Halfpipe and slopestyle were presented on the widest of media exposures and the athletes delivered.

There is an enormous impact on skiing that we are already starting to notice and will see grow exponentially with athlete interviews on national television and pictures on cereal boxes. The business and sponsorship side is changing as mainstream media and consumer brands are getting interested and involved.

Box of Corn Flakes cereal that appeared on The Tonight Show with David Letterman

For better or for worse, freeskiing has reached a point of no return. The standard of today’s talent has surpassed what anyone could imagine even only 5 years ago. We see this insane level of progression every year at iF3 with new tricks, new athletes and new artistic concepts constantly emerging for the great yearly celebration of freeskiing.

Now, how do you picture it in the next Olympic Games, or in future ski movies let it be on the athlete or on the business side of the sport? Only time will tell.

While we wait to find out, let’s all ride for Sarah and her dream come true.

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