The King of Style this Saturday in Stockholm, Sweden, will mark the end of another fall season of city big airs. The Swiss 19-year-old Elias Ambühl has come into his own this fall, winning at Freestyle.ch in September and at the Fridge Big Air last week in Budapest. And PK Hunder and Jossi Wells have danced the dance of the no longer chronically injured with a fistful of podiums between them this fall. But despite the allure of a big party, a downtown crowd, and a quick buck for one good trick, a few of America's best were notably absent from the early-season big air scene this year.
Tom Wallisch, one of America's top slope competitors and U.S. Slopestyle Team member, participated in Freestyle.ch in Zurich and the Fridge Festival big air in Budapest. But Wallisch will not be competing in this weekend's King of Style. Sammy Carlson, a teammate of Wallisch's and the second-ranked American slopestyle skier, opted out of all the fall big airs this year.
"I'm not a big fan," Wallisch says of the contests. "They always have a weird setup. Unless changes are made to the events and how they're run, I don't know that I'll do too many in the future."
Wallisch's gripe is one shared by many others who have participated in the urban big air circuit. Artificial snow, unusual competition formats and tight quarters for competing can pose a hazard to a competitor's upcoming winter season. "It's always a decent enough jump," explains Wallisch, "but there's usually no real inrun [or] outrun. You're always taking the chance of getting hurt or tweaking something in some weird way, just because of how the setup is."
Kaya Turski felt the brunt of that at San Francisco's 2007 Icer Air, a now defunct contest. After veering slightly off course in the landing area, the Canadian slopestyle expert caromed over a flight of bare wooden stairs. She was hospitalized and underwent emergency surgery for a ruptured spleen. She'd remain unable to compete for over a full year as a result.
With just over two years to go before the first Olympic slopestyle, a freak injury like Turski's in next year's fall big air season would cut crucial training time in half. That's a risk that elite slopestyle skiers might be increasingly unlikely to take, especially when these contests will have no bearing on national team selections for 2014, at least not in the United States.
"All of these fall big airs are invitational competitions, which is a big concern when you get into making [national team] selections," said Josh Loubek, director of judging for the Association of Freeskiing Professionals. To maintain status as an Olympic event, he explains, a sport's national selection process must take into account only events with transparent qualifying criteria. That's why top events like the Winter X Games now choose slope and pipe competitors strictly on the basis of their AFP rankings.
Of course, this technicality will be of little importance in 2014, where teams will be selected for slope and pipe and not for big air. But with slope and pipe already in and the IOC's apparent search for new ways to win young fans still in full swing, rumors are already circulating that we could see the first Winter Olympic Big Air competition as early as 2018.
On the other hand, urban big airs usually succeed as exhibitions (although Denver, Colo., recently cancelled its big air event, which ran for the first time last January, because, according to media reports, the event wasn't economically viable). In a recent Freeskier Magazine interview, Elias Ambühl expressed his appreciation for the urban contests, saying, "I really like them because they push you a lot. It makes you way better to ski in big airs. You can work with the crowd pretty good."
Ambühl also likes city big airs, no doubt, because of the cash they put into his pocket. Pulling down one more win at this weekend's King of Style would put Ambühl's winnings above $20,000 for the season — and the season hasn't actually started yet.
So will city big airs wane in attendance in the seasons leading up to the 2014 Olympics? Not likely. Given the risks, and the rising stakes with the impending Olympiad, we might see some national team top seeds bow out in the coming two years to focus on the big one. But with big cash, big parties, and a big field of capable skiers willing to take their shot at it, city big airs will continue to flourish. May the best mute win.