Open takes its place in the limelight
Six years ago, the U.S. Freeskiing Open was nothing more than a patchwork competition, thrown together by a couple of skiing diehards who were peeved that snowboarding had stolen all the glitz on the mountain.
“It was a complete junk show,” said Micah Abrams, editor of Freeze Magazine, who along with his Freeze cohorts put on the first open back in 1998. “We put the open together almost immediately after putting out the first publishing season of Freeze. We only knew a little more about magazines than we did about putting together events.”
So much has changed since that first renegade open that it’s hard to imagine that this year’s top-tier, four-day event starting today, which features more than $70,000 in prize money and 250 world class skiers, was originally a day-of competition in which competitors were helping to shovel snow to get the course ready.
Judging criteria (and judges, for that matter) were produced on the fly, prize money was paltry and spectators – well, if anybody showed up, that was a plus.
“But it was a lot of fun,” jokes Abrams.
Abrams admits that the biggest propellant for the event has been the rebirth of skiing as a cool sport – something that it suddenly wasn’t in the early nineties when the snowboarding industry exploded.
“The thing that has always driven the people behind Freeze, was the real sense of injustice that skiing ever got uncool,” said Abrams. “Snowboarding really did monopolize the cool image of winter sports for a couple of years. Skiing really has all the elements of a cool sport, though. It has attitude, adrenaline, and it’s technically very difficult.”
With the addition of freesking events such as slopestyle, halfpipe and skiercross to such competitions as the X Games and freestyle tour events, suddenly, snowboarding isn’t the only cool kid on the block anymore.
And, with names like Tanner Hall and Sarah Burke creating the same kind of buzz as Shaun White or Tara Dakides, The Session isn’t the only headliner to hit Vail.
While freeskiing and its respective stars haven’t achieved the same following that snowboarding and its poster children has attracted, it has shown that it has mainstream appeal, especially with the sought-after X Games demographic. Proof enough, was Monday and Tuesday’s primetime Winter X Games coverage which gave equal coverage to both superpipe finals in snowboarding and skiing, respectively.
Who said skiing wasn’t cool again?
“It’s really come back around to the point that snowboarding has been around long enough that kids don’t see it as cool anymore,” said Abrams. “Kids used to snowboard, because their parents skied, but now Mom and Dad both snowboard. We’ve really started to see an explosion of kids at the youngest age of the sport, with the evidence being that twin tip ski sales have gone through the roof.”
This weekend’s open, which features slopestyle, big-air, skiercross and superpipe competitions proves that anything that can be done on one plank, can also be done on two, and that it’s just as technically difficult, if not more.
It will also prove that skiing is alive and well – revamped with its newer, cooler freeskiing moniker – but skiing nonetheless.
“It’s just a world class event,” said Abrams. “From the number of spectators to the level of talent, to the construction of the courses, it’s just as good as any Triple Crown or World Cup Event. Actually, I take that back – it’s better than any World Cup event.”
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Jeff Shiffrin, with his wife, Eileen, made the Vail area their home decades ago, and together raised Mikaela and Taylor Shiffrin, who was a member of the two-time NCAA Champion University of Denver Ski Team.