From 2004 to 2008, only two skiers won SuperPipe gold medals at the Winter X Games: Americans Simon Dumont and Tanner Hall. Since then, however, the pipe-skiing world has been transformed, and most of the best skiers now hail from other countries, primarily France and Canada.
Frenchmen Xavier Bertoni (2009) and Kevin Rolland (2010, 2011) have won the past three Winter X gold medals, with Rolland leading an all-international podium in 2010, the first since the sport's WX debut in 2002. The current world champion, Mike Riddle, is Canadian. And at last year's inaugural Euro X pipe competition, Rolland topped another all-international podium, with Bertoni in second and Canada's Justin Dorey in third. Tucker Perkins was the only American to make the final. He finished seventh.
While Hall, 27, no longer competes in halfpipe events (he's said he'll return if the sport gets into the Olympics), Dumont showed he's still capable of winning at the season-opening Dew Tour stop in December. He dismissed any complex theories about why the rest of the world is now so strong. "More people started skiing pipe, and they got better and better," Dumont said. "It was bound to happen, I guess." In fact, Dumont -- who trains primarily with Canadians -- believes the only trait that separated him and Hall from the rest of the field during their rivalry's heyday was "our consistency."
Rolland, 21, has shown similar consistency over the past two years, not just with his contest results but also with his ability to change the sport. He was the first skier to land a double 1260 in competition, a trick he learned on a water ramp in Zurich and one that Dumont has since added to his run. Rolland also routinely links three doubles in his runs, including a double McTwist and a right-side, or unnatural, double. His greatest strengths are twofold, according to Greg Guenet, who has coached Rolland since he was 12 and whom Rolland credits with teaching him everything he knows.
"Kevin is an acrobatic technician," Guenet said by phone from France. "And his mind is so strong. He never doubts what he can do."
The son of middle-class parents (his father is a barber and his mother owns a clothing store), Rolland began spending winters with his paternal grandparents in the ski town of La Plagne when he was young. Kids aren't allowed to train with the La Plagne freestyle club until they're 12, but once he began skiing under Guenet, Rolland shot up the ranks. Rossignol signed him at age 16, and he competed in his first Winter X Games in 2008, when he qualified third before tearing his ACL in practice and missing the final.
The following winter, Guenet and Rolland officially joined forces with Bertoni -- who's been Rolland's best friend since they met at a national competition seven years ago -- and formed the French Freeski Project, an informal collective that also includes Thomas Krief and Benoit Valentin. "We were training together and having fun, and we just thought that if we take the time to train seriously, maybe we are going to be ahead of the other skiers," Guenet said.
With no financial support from the racing-centric French ski federation, the four athletes pool their money to pay Guenet, a former aerialist on the French national team, as well as a photographer and filmer. It's a similar structure to the Canadian Halfpipe Ski Team coached by Trennon Paynter. The French skiers train around the world, stopping in New Zealand (summer), Switzerland (fall) and Colorado (early winter), but their home base is Tignes, an hour's drive from La Plagne and the only nearby resort with a 22-foot pipe. To augment their on-snow training, the team has rented an airbag at various times during the past two years, a huge advantage given the risk required to invent tricks.
When you ask Rolland (or Bertoni or Guenet, or even Paynter, the Canadian coach) why the rest of the world caught up to Hall and Dumont, every one of them talks about the work ethic it took for the two Americans to keep pace with each other. Bertoni recalls the day they saw Hall hiking the pipe, again and again, in New Zealand. "I don't know the word in English," Bertoni said, "but we saw that and we understood we have to work very hard to win."
Said Rolland: "I know I have to train, I know I have to be good in my mind, all the time. Every day of my life, I think about skiing. I think about it when I'm going to sleep. It's all the time in my mind."
Since he started dominating the circuit, Rolland has become more popular and recognized in France, which is not just a personal victory. Especially now that the Winter X Games exist in Europe, Rolland said, competitive freeskiing's profile is growing in a land where racing has traditionally ruled. "We are not like racing yet, but maybe in the next year or two we will catch up and be on the same level," Rolland said.
Of particular note this year, Euro X will take place one month before the International Olympic Committee is expected to announce which sports will be added to the 2014 Games. "The French federation was at Euro X last year," Guenet said, "and now they all like halfpipe skiing. It's going to help us get a spot in the Olympics, I think."
To defend his gold medal, Rolland is likely to add a sixth hit to his preferred five at the urging of Guenet. And if he gets into the final and doesn't feel like his repertoire is enough, Rolland has a trump card: the switch double, which he still hadn't landed as of last week. "Only if I'm in danger of not winning," he said.