Aspen’s great divide: freestyle vs. alpine
In Bridger Gile’s room, posters of World Cup skiers Bode Miller and Daron Rahlves share space on the wall with images of Winter X Games stars Tanner Hall and Simon Dumont.On Gile’s helmet, the signature of last year’s World Cup overall champion, Benny Raich, bumps up against the autographs of freeskiing heavyweights Pep Fujas and Kristi Leskinen.Naturally, all of this leads to a question; one that first-graders are often asked.”Bridger Gile, what do you want to be when you grow up?””He just says that he wants to ski,” said Gile’s mother and spokesperson, Lisa Gonzales-Gile. “We’re just kind of going with it.”Seems easy enough. Or is it? Gile is the fastest 7-year-old on the planet when it comes to racing gates. He’s also a natural in the terrain park. Last January, for the second year in a row, he fore-ran the superpipe at the Winter X Games at Buttermilk, drawing huge cheers as he carved his way up and down the monstrous 20-foot walls. He’s buds with Rahlves and Hall – which anyone who follows skiing knows is a feat unto itself.At the moment, Bridger – as his name suggests – fills the gap.But one of these days, he’s going to have to pick a side, right?When it really comes down to it, does he want to be like Daron or like Tanner? “I don’t even ask him that right now,” Gonzales-Gile said. “I think he’ll find his way. He learned a back flip this summer off the water jump in Park City, [Utah], and he’s really into the whole freestyle thing. But he’s also a little speed freak, which makes me think he might be a ski racer. He’s of the moment.”
If I could be like …It’s a question worth asking any youngster in Aspen, considering the town’s storied history with World Cup skiing and its new fixation with the most innovative snow sports competition in the world, the Winter X Games.Seventy years ago, when what is now the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club opened its doors, seemingly every kid in the valley wanted to be a ski racer.Since then, the landscape has changed drastically. The novel “hot dog” skiing of the late ’60s and ’70s gave birth to competitive freestyle, which has since evolved to encompass traditional moguls and aerials and the new-school freeskier movement. And snowboarding, once banned on mountains all across America, including Aspen Mountain until 2001, now accounts for nearly half of the winter-sports industry – and was the unquestioned centerpiece of the Turin Winter Olympics.Amid all this transformation, one thing may come as a surprise: Alpine ski racing – simply going by AVSC’s enrollment numbers – is still king among Aspen’s youth.Last year, 35 percent of AVSC’s competitive program was made up of alpine skiers, with snowboarders and freestyle skiers each accounting for 25 percent, followed by nordic skiers with 15 percent.This year, AVSC officials said registration numbers are on the same pace in the alpine, freestyle and nordic programs, while snowboarding’s numbers have grown a little.If there’s any trend, it’s that ski racing – even in the Winter X Games era – continues to appeal to local kids.”Alpine has always been the strongest because it’s been present for so long,” said Jessica Smith, a former U.S. Ski Team member who now works as one of the club’s alpine ability coaches. “Freestyle, snowboarding and nordic have been developing to the point that we almost have equal kids in each discipline. It’s not geared just toward alpine anymore, but there’s still plenty of kids who want to race.”And why do they want to race?That question elicits responses similar to what club participants might have said some 40 or 50 years ago.”I like going fast, I guess,” said Sam Coffey, a 16-year-old junior racer who hopes to race competitively one day in college. “Just the rush of going fast keeps me in it.””I want to be on the U.S. Ski Team someday,” said Olivia Davis, 15. “I want to win a World Cup and ski in the Olympics. Since I’ve started, I’ve always had that passion, I guess.”
Old school vs. new schoolWhile alpine continues to have a core following, some local ski racers, like Coffey, feel compelled to defend their decision to race gates instead of practicing inverted aerials in the halfpipe. Ski racing is the most established, and the most popular. But is it still cool?Smith, like other AVSC coaches, thinks it’s cool that the club offers local athletes so many options. With more choices, everybody wins, she said. At the same time, the club’s divisions do create natural rivalries. It’s instinctive for kids to defend their niche.”Back in the day, everybody ski-raced,” said Wiley Maple, another junior racer. “My dad used to be a ski racer. I’m sure now kids see the X Games and want to do that. Sometimes we argue about it at school. I’ll say that ski racing is real skiing, while freestyle is just going off jumps, and more like gymnastics. We all kind of joke about it … I think they do some cool stuff, but you can become a good freestyler in two years. To become a great ski racer, it takes your whole life.”
Jordan Karlinski, 17, who earned a spot in her first Winter X Games boardercross at 15, feels differently.”I respect alpine, but I obviously am not into the whole ski racing or nordic thing,” said Karlinski, who now rides for U.S. Snowboarding. “I just think freestyle is so much cooler. It’s more fun to watch, and I just feel like more viewers are going toward freestyle. It’s cool to see people riding halfpipe and flying through the air.”Kids, of course, pattern themselves after their role models. And sometimes role models act like little kids.The freestyle vs. alpine debate that goes on within the confines of the AVSC clubhouse is the same one that reached a boiling point two years ago when Hall – one of the Winter X Games’ most decorated athletes – called out World Cup ski racers in a Freeskier magazine interview. Hall implied that Miller and other World Cup stars didn’t deserve their fame because they only have to ski down “one icy-ass run.”Rahlves fired back through the press, challenging Hall to try to make it down the famed Hannenkahm downhill in Kitzbühel, Austria – known as the toughest in the world – without hurting himself. He said he’d even provide the skis.The debate lit up blogs and chat rooms as disciples from both camps argued over who was the superior skier.In a funny twist, Rahlves – who retired from the U.S. Ski Team last year – plans to compete this year on The Ski Tour, as does Hall. The new circuit will feature skiercross and halfpipe competitions and has a planned stop in Snowmass in February. Rahlves cited the popularity of the freeskiing movement and the Winter X Games as one of the reasons he wanted to transition into skiercross – a sport that has attracted a number of former World Cup racers. Hall has also clarified his remarks, noting that he respects ski racing.The two have seemingly made their peace, but the debate is far from dead.The question of what’s harder to do – and thus cooler – comes up all the time in the AVSC clubhouse, Davis said.”I guess we’re just called the gate chasers and everyone else goes in the pipe and stuff like that,” Davis said. “I think they have their own skills, but we go over jumps, too. I think if you put a racer in the pipe, they’d be able to ski the pipe. If you put a pipe skier in gates, I don’t know if they’d be able to do it as well.”
An expert’s perspectiveLongtime local John McBride knows the debate well.Since 2002, he’s worked directly with the top men’s ski racers in the country as an assistant coach with the U.S. Ski Team. Before that, starting in the mid-’90s, he worked with the national team program at the Europa Cup level, before making a jump up to the World Cup ranks. And before that, he worked with local ski racers at AVSC.During all that time, he’s watched the snowboarding and freeskiing movements take shape.He doesn’t see the Winter X Games as a fad, and he is quick to applaud ESPN for its ability to transform fringe sports into huge mainstream draws.He also doesn’t see the X Games’ broad appeal as a threat to the future success of the U.S. Ski Team. “I would say that the pipeline for the U.S. Ski Team is a fairly limited one to begin with,” he said. “It’s just pretty limited, the amount of kids who even have access to skiing and ski racing … I think the major factor is just the passion for the sport. If you love the sport and if you stick with it, you can make a career out of it.”What does bother McBride, however, is a perception that what Winter X Games athletes do is more dangerous, or more difficult, than what World Cup skiers do. When it comes to extreme, he said, nothing compares to human beings traveling down an icy mountain at speeds up to 70 mph.And the fact that the average American doesn’t realize such is disappointing, to say the least.
“I can only give you my perspective, but some World Cup athletes can be pretty frustrated by [The Winter X Games] because it’s well-received, well-watched, and there’s good money in it,” he said. “And a lot of the guys who are doing it couldn’t make it on the World Cup.”Still, McBride said he can’t blame the average American sports fan. In Europe, World Cup skiing is roundly embraced because the populace at large understands the ins and outs of the sport – the athleticism, the inherent danger, the mere hundredths of a second that separate the best from the rest – and thus appreciates it.In the U.S., the sport isn’t marketed correctly, isn’t broadcast on TV often, and, more important, isn’t shown live. Therefore, it’s difficult to attract a following, he said.It also doesn’t help that there are only two U.S. stops on the International Ski Federation’s (FIS) racing calendar – Aspen and Beaver Creek – which, in turn, makes for relatively small crowds at the races compared to something like the Winter X Games.”The FIS is pretty much an old boys’ network,” McBride said. “They’re fairly conservative when it comes to change. There’s ways to market it better and televise it better and make it more exciting for kids to watch, but they don’t feel the need to take advantage of that.”The one time the United States habitually watches ski racing is during the Olympics, but even that wasn’t a safe bet this past winter.According to Nielsen ratings, viewership for last year’s Winter Olympics – as a whole – declined. Some nights, NBC’s prime-time Olympic coverage ranked 10th behind shows like Fox’s “American Idol” and ABC’s “Desperate Housewives.”Meanwhile, the Winter X Games’ popularity continues to grow by leaps and bounds.According to ESPN, the crowd numbers have jumped 92 percent since the Games first debuted at Buttermilk in 2002. Last year at Winter X Games 10, on-site attendance for the four days of competition reached an estimated 69,650.That dwarfs the few thousand spectators who turned up for the Winternational races in Aspen last December.And, according to ESPN, average television viewership across the three networks that covered the Winter X Games – ABC, ESPN and ESPN2 – set an all-time record with 38.6 million viewers last year – exceeding the 2005 totals by 45 percent.”Guys on the [U.S. Ski Team] realize the realities of the situation,” McBride said. “They realize that [ski racing] is not the national pastime and that it’s primarily a European sport … It’s disappointing, though, that these guys don’t get the respect they deserve.”
Two is better than oneThere’s another side to the story, however, said Gonzalez-Gile, who makes a living as an international flight attendant.When in Europe, she rarely finds anyone who knows about the Winter X Games that take place in her hometown of Aspen. U.S. skiers like Miller and Rahlves are rock stars abroad, while someone like Hall – long considered skiing’s bad boy – has hardly any name recognition.”I go over all over the place,” she said. “They’ve never heard of [the Winter X Games], which I really think is interesting. I’ll be, like, in Nike Town in London, and nobody knows what I’m talking about. It’s kind of weird.”It’s not a perfect system, she said.If only freeskiers and racers could be equally appreciated – on both sides of the Atlantic, and in Aspen.Maybe, just maybe, it might be better if Bridger doesn’t choose. When asked one day by his parents what his goals were, he said he wanted to win gold medals at the Olympics and the Winter X Games.Bridging the gap might actually be what the world really needs.Nate Peterson’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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