Vancouver freestyle skiing preview
In its fifth Games, aerials may be the most jaw-dropped event in all Olympics
Reigning gold medalist Jennifer Heil of Canada is the woman to beat in moguls
U.S. ex-alpine hero Daron Rahlves hopes to heal in time to compete in ski cross
SI.com's writers will preview each event from the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Here's Sarah Kwak's look ahead to freestyle skiing, broken down into the event's three disciplines: aerials, moguls and the brand-new ski cross.
This high-flying, acrobatic sport, added to the program in 1994, is probably the most awe-inspiring Olympic event -- winter or summer. Picking up speed down a hill, skiers take off a massive ramp that sends them some 60 feet into the air, where they twist, turn, and flip with the grace of gymnasts, before landing on a snow-covered downhill incline. Yeah, it looks even harder than it sounds.
With all the air and the incredible tricks, it's an absolutely breathtaking sport to watch. Now in its fifth Games, the jumps are reaching extreme levels of difficulty. A handful of male athletes, for instance, are thought to be prepping a quintuple-twisting triple backflip, the most difficult jump allowed in international competition. That's three back flips with five full twists, and all with a snowsuit on and a pair of skis strapped to their feet. Even if you can't respect the skills, you really can't deny their courage.
Athletes to watch
Steve Omischl, Canada: The Ontario native will have the crowd behind him, but it's his remarkable résumé that makes him a favorite to win gold. In 78 career international competitions, the 31-year-old aerialist has landed on the podium in 40 times; 20 of those were gold. Sttill, an Olympic medal has eludeed him. While Omischl says he's capable of pulling off the quint, he's also learned about biting off more than he can chew. In Turin, he flubbed the landing on an unnecessarily difficult preliminary jump and failed to qualify for the finals.
Ryan St. Onge, USA.: While Omischl might be a favorite, he isn't the reigning world champion. That title belongs to three-time national champ St. Onge, who edged out Omischl by less than three points with a couple of impressive jumps that included a flawless double full-full-full, a jump that requires four twists and three flips. His jumps are really the only part of St. Onge that could be considered textbook. As a child, he spent third grade sailing with his family on a boat, visited third world countries in the Caribbean and took to aerial skiing.
Anton Kushnir, Belarus: The overall World Cup leader this season has not finished out of the top five this season, and in all four World Cup events, the 25-year-old aerialist has landed on the podium, winning two of them. After an eighth-place finish in Turin, Kushnir is hitting his stride heading into Vancouver. He is attempting to step out of the shadow of fellow Belarusian Dmitri Dashchinski, a two-time Olympic medalist, who will also have a shot at the podium.
Li Nina, China: The 27-year-old Li has placed out of the top five just once in the last year, picking up four wins on the international circuit. And though she currently trails fellow countrywomen Guo Xinxin and Xu Mengtao in the overall World Cup standings, Li knows how to respond in the big moments; her three World Championships titles suggest that much. When she and her teammates Guo and Xu Nannan held onto the top three spots going into the finals in Turin, she pulled through when the others didn't, earning a silver medal behind Evelyne Leu of Switzerland.
Apart from St. Onge, who is still working his way to qualifying for the Games, Jeret "Speedy" Peterson can certainly put on a show. His signature move, a quint jump he calls the Hurricane, incorporates five twists and three back flips. Though he completed the jump in Turin, he put his hand down on the landing which dropped him to seventh place. While Peterson has never struggled with difficulty, if he can nail his jumps, he could certainly make Olympic history and win the competition. Also winning at the U.S. trials was Lacy Schnoor, who came out on top after top Americans Emily Cook and Jana Lindsey took spills. Cook, who took a two-year layoff after shattering her feet right before the Salt Lake Games, just missed the podium at Worlds last year, finishing fourth.
Grudge match: Chinese women vs. the world
China owned the top four spots in the World Cup standings this season and will enter Vancouver as favorites, maybe to even sweep the entire podium. The Chinese aerialists, many of whom were formally trained gymnasts, have unparalleled acrobatic skills. "I wont be really threatened by the foreign skiers at the Winter Games," Li told China's People's Daily. "Anyway, the gold medal will be in China's pocket." But Lydia Lassila might pose a threat. At Deer Valley last month, the Australian, who ruptured her knee on a landing in Turin in 2006, posted a world record, two-jump score of 220.91.
Bet you didn't know
A quick primer on the jump lingo: A back-lay is a flip with no twists. A Full is doing one twist during one flip. A Double Full is doing two twists in the course of one flip. A Triple Full is doing three twists in one flip. So, a Full-Double Full-Full, known as The Daddy, means the skier does a total of four twists and three flips, cramming in two rotations during the second flip. Ever wonder why the skiers usually wear white? The contrast to the night sky makes it easier for the judges to make out the lines of their bodies.
Gold medal dates
Ladies: Feb. 24