Friday, November 26, 2010

Sun Valley switches it up

Young skiers and riders take sports to new heights


More winged creature than man, freestyle skier Tai Barrymore soars above a trampoline on the grounds of Smith Optics during dryland practice just ahead of a busy winter season of international halfpipe and terrain park skiing competition. Photo by Willy Cook

Sticking the landing for a double flat-spin 900 was impossible before the advent of the twin tip. Stomping a rail for a "disaster 360" would have been a true disaster without the key technological advancement of skiing's last decade, which allows switch (backward) landings.

As Sun Valley opens its 75th winter season, aerial acrobatics are what it's all about for students of flip and spin in the air above Baldy's halfpipe, the Sage Arena mogul field and Dollar's ever-changing terrain park, with its jump lines, rails, boxes and jibs.

"I love twin tips. They're better than race skis and cross-country skis," said Tai Barrymore, three-time Supercross motorcycle champion and Olympic freestyle skiing hopeful. Barrymore attributes his airborne skiing success, including two junior national freestyle titles, to motorcycle airtime and relentless year-round trampoline and on-snow training.

The sport is literally taking off. Terrain flying can be as stealthy as a trip to the Vienna Mine backcountry behind Smiley Creek or a gap jump over the road to Galena Summit. However, youths are flocking to Sun Valley Co.'s latest features, created with the direction of terrain park designer Brian Callahan, who was drawn from Breckenridge, Colo., to push Sun Valley's character in a fresh direction. Callahan, continuing to add opportunities for three-dimensional action at Sun Valley, is planning at least a dozen new features for the 2010-11 season.

The Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation freestyle ski team has blossomed to 74 members, Program Director Andy Ware said.

"It's spectacular. It's all about air sense and Tai has incredible air sense," he said, adding that Barrymore regularly soars 20 feet in the air above the 18-foot-high wall of the halfpipe—42 feet above the ground. "As a father and as a coach, it's stressful, but what we do is train and prepare. We say it's 90 percent mental, 10 percent athleticism. ... [Athletes] take accountability for their weekend strategy. The more prepared we are, the better off we're going to be."

Barrymore and teammate Hannah Haupt both stand a chance of being some of the first freestyle skiing athletes to compete at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia, where the airborne skiers may have the opportunity to join snowboarders and mogul skiers whose events are already Olympic staples. Haupt is primarily a halfpipe skier who placed second at Junior Nationals last year, fourth at Nationals and second at Junior Worlds in New Zealand.

"The team benefits with their success," Ware said. "In both sides of our team, moguls and pipes, we have kids that have made it to the pro level and train alongside the other athletes."

Barrymore is "all about catching air," Ware said. "He's one of the most focused and at-ease people at the starting gate. He has more poise than I have seen out of any athlete. Hannah is incredible at it, too."

Barrymore said he has worked hard to know exactly where he is in the air at all times.

"I've made mistakes, but I'm never worried about getting hurt because I'm always in control," he said while helping younger development team members work on trampoline back flips during one of the team's final dryland practices preceding the 2010-11 season.

"Every year, people are getting so creative and coming up with new tricks. There are so many kids here who have so much talent. There are three or four who are going to be big-time, too."

Ware said that with Intermountain Division events, the DEW Tour, Winter X-Games in Aspen and Europe, Nor Am and World Cup competition, snow sports are breaking new ground in the air every season. Freestyle halfpipe and terrain park skiing are already recognized by the FIS, the International Ski Federation. Ware anticipates that the International Olympic Committee may soon announce addition of "park and pipe" to the Olympic retinue, alongside moguls competition, if the IOC concludes that terrain competition shows an international draw.

He said the Sage Arena mogul field is one of the best mogul runs in the country, rivaling Deer Valley with the same length and pitch. He said Sun Valley Co. is helping to improve it with snow blowing to create better knolls and landing pads.

The terrain park on Dollar allows athletes to train six days a week, as Prep Team head coach Jeff Page and weekend D Team coach Justine Kaiser guide youth who soon could be mastering back flips, double full flips and D spins like an off-axis 720. In the halfpipe, it's common now to see double flat spins, the cork 1260, Lincoln loops and barrel rolls. Another popular trick is the Alley Oop, an uphill turn off the halfpipe wall to make a 180 or 360 spin.

"It gets really crazy," Ware said, adding that the accomplishments of older competitors fuel the fire of younger athletes, including 11-year-olds who are already earning certification to include back flips in competition. "Jump tricks, rodeo 540, 720, double rodeo ... misty flips. A lot of it is adopted from snowboard tricks. Even in mogul skiing."

Ketchum's Shane Cordeau has been renamed to the U.S. Freestyle Ski Team as a member of the Men's C Team for moguls. Moguls have been a skiing event at the highest levels of the sport for decades, but twin tips and trampoline and swimming pool ramp training have made airtime integral to the bumps. Quebecois Alexandre Bilodeau won a gold medal in the men's moguls at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver by pulling off a back double full flip on a first jump. He followed it with a back iron cross on a second jump, which helped him clinch gold.

"It sets the bar really high for Russia," Ware said, adding that coaching by Shane's father, four-time world mogul skiing champion Joe Cordeau, is also drawing more skiers to the sport. "His mogul skiing methods are proven. Kids are interested and excited about mogul skiing. We have a deep squad, that's for sure."

Safety and style meld into one strategy, Ware said. He and head coaches Cordeau and Ben Verge are enthralled with the progression being made for terrain skiers following in the tracks of pros like snowboarding Olympian and ski foundation grad Graham Watanabe. He and snowboarder Kaitlyn Farrington, also groomed in Sun Valley, have pioneered "slope-style" creativity, which is looking at Olympic snow sports from a new angle. Farrington won halfpipe gold at the inaugural Winter X Games in Tignes, France, in March, when she upset Olympic halfpipe gold medalist Australian Torah Bright. Her winning run featured a backside 540, stalefish air, backside 900, frontside 720 and cab 720.

Whether or not the IOC adds freestyle skiing for 2014, Barrymore and Haupt are leading a new wave of competitors into a busy winter season. As they hit the snow after months of dryland training, their first big push will be three weeks of training and competition in Colorado in December with the U.S. Halfpipe Grand Prix at Copper Mountain followed by the DEW Tour at Breckenridge.

"There are a lot of big events this year," Haupt said at the end of trampoline practice, adding that she attributes her success to Sun Valley facilities and her coaching. "The coaches are great and the kids look up to us. I'm excited to learn new tricks and do the best I can this winter."

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