When the world’s top athletes travel to Beijing for the 2022 winter Olympics in February, the event lineup will feature a new ski sport, alongside the now familiar alpine and slopestyle, with a short but larger-than-life name: big air.
Here, skiers slide down a nearly 60-foot tall ramp that tilts up at the end and shoots them into the sky, allowing them to complete gravity-defying tricks.
Points are awarded for the number of rotations, flips and grabs completed during “air time.” Athletes use the term to describe the precious few seconds spent soaring over the mountainside.
“One thing I’ve kind of drawn parallels to is cliff jumping into water, where you have that same weightless feeling,” said Alex Hall, a freestyle skier based in Utah and a favorite to represent the United States. “It’s pretty unique.”
Scoring the new Olympic sport
To achieve the highest score possible, skiers must stick the landing. Extra points are awarded for precise control and personal style.
The event’s title sums it up well. (Though this video runs through the basics, too.) The jumps involved are enough to induce stomach butterflies — even in those who aren’t afraid of heights.
Big air is similar to other judged freestyle Olympic skiing sports, such as halfpipe and slopestyle. But unlike those events, where athletes complete a series of tricks in a multi-part run, big air athletes only have one jump to earn as many points as possible.
The sport has been gaining popularity at extreme sports competitions, including the X Games, for years. Snowboarding big air made its Olympic debut at the 2018 games in South Korea.
“A lot of athletes in our sport take it really, really seriously and it's cool to get that recognition,” Hall said.
How freeski athletes are qualifying for the Olympics
Hall placed second at the International Ski Federation’s Freeski and Snowboard World Cup in Steamboat Springs on Dec. 4. That rank puts him closer to qualifying for the upcoming Olympics.
Athletes earn a spot on Team USA based on a combination of FIS ranking and results in international competitions, according to U.S. Ski and Snowboard. A roster will be finalized closer to the start of the Beijing games.
In Steamboat, Hall executed a double cork 1980, a trick he says he’d never done on snow before. It involves two backflips and three and a half spins. Hall added his signature “Buick grab” at the end, which earned him extra points.
“Grabbing is a huge part of our sport,” Hall said. “Our sport is a lot about style and creativity and it makes (the trick) look better.”
Austrian skier Matej Svancer scored the top men’s spot at the Steamboat World Cup. China’s Eileen Gu placed first in the women’s competition.
Freeski athletes will compete in three more Olympic-qualifying competitions around the world leading up to the winter games. Several public qualifiers for other ski and snowboarding events, including halfpipe and slopestyle, will also take place in Colorado in the coming weeks.
Hall said he plans to stay focused on having fun, pushing the boundaries of his tricks and not stressing too much about the big competition. He does it for the joy of the sport and to inspire others.
“We can do exactly what we want and the professional athletes don't really have to follow any rules,” Hall said. “That's what's really unique about it and it’s kind of what we love about it.”
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