THERE were times, back in the 1990s and 2000s, when the future of skiing was staring down an icy chute of uncertainty: among young people, the sport had all but reached the end of cool.
Just about every young person who wasn't a competitive racer was trading in his or her uncomfortable boots, poles and skis for a simpler life on one board complete with soft, comfortable boots, marking a dramatic shift in slope culture.
But the sound of ski boots clanking around ski lodges across Canada in 2012 means the poles and planks are not going anywhere and a lap through the terrain park on Mount Seymour confirms that skiing has made a raging comeback among young people, especially those focused on the freestyle niche of "park riding" - hitting features such as rails, boxes and picnic tables and spinning off of specially designed jumps.
The traditional forms of freestyle skiing consisted exclusively of aerials and moguls which, true to their acrobatic roots, are judged stiffly on body position, form and flawless landing during twists and somersaults (much like Olympic diving).
Because the judging was so technical, many skiers looked almost identical to the next when performing the tight inversions and rotations with the stiffness of a mummy.
Freestyle skiing now encompasses half pipe, slope style and big air, in addition to aerials and moguls.
Looking at the top three finishers in the slopestyle event at the final 2012 Dew Tour stop in Breckenridge, Colo. on Dec. 19, some observers noted that 2012 first place competitor Russ Henshaw showed a completely different riding style than third place finisher Henrik Harlaut.
So how did we get here? For years, skiers were not allowed in terrain parks. Skis were too stiff and the edges were too sharp to do what the snowboarders were doing.
What we know as the "new school" wave of freestyle skiing ultimately started off with mogul skiers hitting the terrain park, says freestyle ski coach Devyn Slocum.
In 2005, Salomon rolled out the Teneighty, the first ever soft, twin-tip ski and revolutionized the sport by allowing skiers to ride backwards.
"From there it just kept rolling," says Slocum. During the 1990s, snowboarding was doing everything the rigid, old school ski community was holding back. Snowboarders broke all the rules, built jumps and features in terrain parks, slid rails in urban environments and challenged the status quo. To this day, established mountains such as Alta Ski
Resort in Utah do not permit snowboarders in the downhill area. Mike Douglas, the mastermind behind the
Teneighty, was one of the coaches who encouraged his freestyle riders to mess around and play in the park in addition to their training, says Slocum.
"That helped to break out of the stiff, old school thing," says Slocum.
Some would say that this ability to experiment and mess around on the mountain is what is drawing skiers back from "the dark side," but skiing is branding a whole new dark side of its own.
"If snowboarding hadn't come in the park, skiing wouldn't have come in the park," says Slocum.
Something that snowboarding brought to the hill from skateboarding was the ability to ride in either direction with either foot forward. This versatility in how to land and take off saw snowboarding progress immensely in its first 20 years.
But for skiers, the switch isn't merely to the other foot, it's riding backwards.
Before skiers could ride, take off or land backwards, it was difficult for them to progress.
"Going from a straight air to a 360 is a pretty huge step," says Slocum. "Those half-rotations really allowed the sport to progress."
"Steez" is all about riding with style. "It's a huge part of park skiing," says Slocum.
"The big difference between aerials and free skiing is instead of having a specific style you've got to ride with, you have to have your own style. Judges in comps are looking for style," he says.
Now that the technology has caught up to the spirit of the times, skiers can do far more tricks on rails and big jumps than their snowboarding counterparts can.
"It's just the biomechanics of having two feet that aren't strapped in to the same thing," says Slocum. "There are strange things that skiers can pull off."
Professional skier Andy Parry is continually inventing new tricks such as the "hippi killer," which are pushing the boundaries of what skiers can do on boxes with separated feet. The hippi killer is a one-legged spin on the box with the other ski in the air behind the rider.
Although "steez" primarily focuses on the riding, skiers are even bigger culprits than snowboarders when it comes to making catwalks out of cat tracks.
With more flexible skis, riders can also do the butters (presses) on rails and other features with the relaxed style of snowboarders.
Slocum hopes the "political parents" and extreme competition from racing do not carry over into the "new school" freestyle competitions, but that the protective equipment does.
"Helmets are the coolest thing ever. You've gotta wear a helmet," he says.
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