One Year Out: Shaun White will lead the party at Olympic Extreme Park
For novelty and freshness, and to see a cool menu of new events at next year's Winter Games, the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park is the place to be.
For a familiar dose of dominance, and to see an established Olympic athlete in his quest for a three-peat (hint: a YouTube video of this athlete getting his famous mane sheared off last December has well over 4 million hits), the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park is also the place to be.
That venue, nestled in the western Caucasus Mountains 30 miles from Sochi, will host a handful of new disciplines for men and women at the Winter Olympics a year from now, all of them adrenaline-intensive and TV-friendly, and ultimately designed to harvest the youthful demographic so coveted by the IOC.
There is the halfpipe event, in which Shaun White (whose resplendent auburn mane, while iconic, was getting a little tired) will be the prohibitive Olympic favorite; he's owned the event for nearly a decade, and was essentially unchallenged when he won his sixth straight gold medal in the pipe at the Winter X Games in Aspen last month. (The runner-up was a 14-year-old from Japan.)
More intriguing was his unsuccessful attempt to double up in events and also compete in slopestyle, which will make its Olympic debut in Sochi. In this discipline, riders are judged for the difficulty and variety of tricks they perform while navigating a trail featuring jumps, rails and other obstacles found in terrain parks at resorts all over the U.S. White finished an underwhelming fifth, and was schooled by Canada's Mark McMorris, the defending champion. It would be a mistake, however, to count White out in Russia a year from now.
A year ago at the X Games, White flamed out in slopestyle, failing to even make the finals. He'd gone into the event unprepared, "knowing I was going to get smoked."
"It was brutal," he told me in London last August (White was at the Summer Olympics to do some commentating for NBC, and as an ambassador for Target, one of his sponsors). "After the event I was sitting there thinking, 'Gosh, how long has it been since I haven't made a final. Since I was young. Since I was a kid.'"
So, um, why enter in the first place?
"Because I knew two things would happen. It would show me where I needed to be, in the sport. And it would piss me off."
Thusly humbled and focused, White won slopestyle gold in France the following March, at an event called Winter X Games Tignes.
While he may have left Aspen flashing his customary What, me worry? smile, we can assume those same two things happened. White is, once again, "pissed off." And he knows where he needs to be a year from now. McMorris showed him, and the rest of the field what a gold-medal-winning run looks like (it includes a cleanly landed triple-cork -- three off-axis flips executed while spinning four times in the air.)
The same slopestyle course used by the 'boarders will be the site of slopestyle skiing -- many of the same tricks, performed by athletes with two planks attached to their feet, rather than just one.
Snowboarders had long staked out the territory of Young Turks, the insurgents committed to challenging the stodgy suits and bureaucrats staffing the Federation Internationale de Ski (FIS). That rebellious ground has been annexed by a new breed of freestyle skiers.
"Our sport," explains Tom Wallisch, a Pittsburgh native who won gold in slopestyle skiing at the 2012 Winter X Games, and who will be a podium favorite in Sochi, "was kind of founded back in the '90s by a bunch of mogul skiers who wanted to do tricks like Jonny Mosely's 360 Mute Grab, but didn't want all the FIS requirements and regulations." Don't tread on me!
Long a mainstay of the Winter X Games, slopestyle skiing also makes its Olympic debut a year from now. "It's a little weird for us to come back into an organizational structure like this, where there are all these rules and uniforms," says Wallisch, 25. But seeing how the Olympic exposure has helped snowboarding grow, the freeskiers are willing to take that chance.
That maverick's attitude carries over to the half-pipe, which until this upcoming Olympiad had strictly been the province of 'boarders. Make way, if you will, for Maddie Bowman and friends. Bowman, a 19-year-old from South Lake Tahoe, Cal., who is, like Wallisch, a North Face athlete, took gold in ski halfpipe at the Winter X Games, then followed that up with a victory in the United States Grand Prix in Park City, Utah, a week later.
The daughter of ski racers -- her father raced professionally -- Maddie raced until she was 13. "Eventually, I got tired of the people, and how serious they were," she recalls. "It wasn't my thing. Skiing was fun to me. I didn't want to take is so seriously."
At her local mountain, Sierra-at-Tahoe, she gravitated to the half pipe. "I made great friends, and we had a blast, all the time. I started doing a couple competitions, nothing too serious." A year ago she surprised everyone, including herself, with a silver medal at Winter X, and has been on a roll ever since.
An ex-soccer player with an abiding interest in mixed martial arts, she combines strength, athleticism and fearlessness: her winning run in Aspen featured both a right-side and left-side 900 -- a trick entailing 2 ½ rotations. "The progression of tricks is really blossoming right now," says Bowman. "I think a lot will happen in the next year."
No matter how far Bowman and her fellow halfpipers push the envelope, they're determined to have fun doing it. That became obvious in Aspen, when a full-scale dance party erupted at the top of the halfpipe, moments before the final. "We were just celebrating, having fun," recalls Bowman. "Winning's a big thing, but enjoying yourself is also a big part of it."
Check out the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park a year from now. Should be one hell of a party.