Winter X freestyle skiers and snowboarders ride fine line between height, happiness

Winter X Height vs Happiness
FILE – Alex Hall of the United States, checks the score following his run in the slopestyle finals, Friday, Dec. 17, 2021, during the Dew Tour freestyle skiing event at Copper Mountain, Colo. There’s a legion of freestyle skiers and snowboarders at the action park who refuse to subscribe to the “spin to win” theory. It’s the idea that maxing out flips and twists is the only way for them to score big with the judges.(AP Photo/Hugh Carey, File)

By Pat Graham and Eddie Pells/AP

Freestyle skier Alex Hall’s happy place this winter has been sliding down handrails outside of offices and schools all over Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota and other midwestern spots. The steeper and twistier, the better.

Last winter, he found happiness at the Beijing Olympics on a run that nobody mistook for high-flying but that purists in his sport understood was worth what it earned — a gold medal.

Hall is among those at the action park who refuses to go all-in on “spin to win” — the idea that maxing out flips and twists is the only way for a freeskier or snowboarder to make it big. He would rather do things his way and let the judges decide, whether it's at the Olympics or the Winter X Games this weekend.

“Adding some flavor has been a goal of mine for sure in the last couple of years,” said the 24-year-old, who was slated to compete in slopestyle, big air and knuckle huck in Aspen.

“It’s always a little bit of a risk as a rider to do it that way, especially in competitions, because you never really know how it’s going to score, or how you’re going to do," Hall said. "But ultimately, at least for myself, I know I’m doing all this stuff because I enjoy doing it. You've just got to go out on the limb and go for it.”

Hall won at Beijing with a run that didn't look like anything that had preceded it over a week-plus on the super-sized slopestyle course. He edged teammate Nick Goepper, with tricks no one else tried.

Hall skimmed the top of one jump while spinning 720 degrees, then jumped again on the same “kicker” and threw a 540-degree spin while reaching backward with his right hand and grabbing his left ski.

Where others were flying and maxing out on jumps with 1440 degrees of spin or more, Hall never got more than 3 feet off the ground on that one. His final trick was just as difficult — a vertebrae-testing jump called a “pretzel” that involved 900 degrees of spin one way, then, as the G-forces were taking over, stopping the spin in midair and twisting 180 degrees the other way.

He wasn't sure how it would score, only that it was something he really liked.

“You try to find a middle to be true to yourself and do a little more creativity, which is what I’ve been trying to push the last couple years,” Hall said. “You have to figure out how far you want to push that progression piece.”

Australia snowboarder Scotty James shares Hall's ethos. James' switch backside double cork 1260 is as tough as anything out there, even if it doesn't always gets the love it deserves.

The devil is in the details: James executes that trick while riding backward and flipping without being able to see the landing.

For about an hour at the Olympics last year, James was in the lead after landing that trick, even though Japan's Ayumu Hirano had put down the most progressive jump — a triple cork, in which he went head over heels three times while twisting above the pipe.

Winter X Games
Japanese snowboarder Ayumu Hirano competes in the superpipe at Winter X Games Aspen in Aspen, Colo., Friday, Jan. 27, 2023. (AP Photo/Kelsey Brunner)

The scoring brought outrage across the snowboarding world and social media: How could a triple cork be losing to anything that wasn't a triple cork? Hirano landed the triple cork again on his final run and earned enough points to overtake James.

The Aussie, who added a silver to go with his Olympic bronze from 2018, had been critical of judging in the past but said he was fine with that result.

“The wow factor is unreal, when you watch Ayumu’s run," James said. "I think that’s probably where people were just a bit torn between the two different runs. It’s completely different.”

James said he's not willing to put that trick above all else in the pursuit of victories — or at the expense of everything else that has made him stand out over the years. He didn’t even need a triple cork to win the gold medal at Winter X on Friday night.

“The really relevant point is I’m doing it because I can live with it,” James said. “If I went the other way, I would feel like I might just be another sheep in the herd following the leader.”

The push and pull between height and style will again be a front-burner issue in action sports as the 2026 Olympics in Italy approach.

On Friday, New Zealand’s Zoi Sadowski-Synnott backed up her Olympic gold by defending her X Games title in snowboard slopestyle with a run included back-to-back double corks, the likes of which have made her stand out as one of the sport’s highest-flying jumpers for years.

“It’s pretty exciting, the more you level up,” Sadowski-Synnott said.

Canadian freeskier Megan Oldham became the first woman in skiing or snowboarding to land a triple cork in competition later Friday, and earned a perfect score of 50 to capture the title in big air.

While she has the big tricks, she respects the downsizing happening elsewhere on the mountain.

“It’s cool to see that people are kind of pushing in a different direction,” Oldham said. “The audience is able to follow along, too, because it’s smaller tricks and they can kind of understand how you’re landing and what trick you’re doing.”

Hall said whether he goes big or small, wins or lose, the ultimate goal is to remember why he got into this sport in the first place: fun.

“Just take time to realize, there’s no reason to do it unless I’m enjoying it," Hall said.