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|Emma Dahlström, Henrik Harlaut and Jesper Tjäder, members of Sweden's slopestyle team.|
At the two significant pro slopestyle competitions that have taken place over the past month, only one nation has put a man on the podium in each event: Sweden.
Darkhorse Jesper Tjäder took second to Australian Russ Henshaw at The North Face Freeski Open in New Zealand, and Henrik Harlaut was the runner-up to Briton James Woods at the opening FIS World Cup held recently in Argentina.
Given that many of the world's best park skiers did not compete in the Southern Hemisphere, you can temper those results a bit. But the two Swedes also sent a message, essentially reminding the rest of the world that small, sparsely funded teams will be legitimate challengers in the hunt for the first Olympic gold medals in 2014.
The founding of Sweden's first national slopestyle team, which was officially announced in mid-August in New Zealand, epitomizes the effect the Olympics already have had on freeskiing. Until this year, the Swedish Ski Association never had funded a slopestyle or halfpipe program. But in January, the racing-centric federation hired former Peak Performance team manager and big-mountain skier Anders Norin to build an Olympic slopestyle contender from the ground up.
Norin got approximately $100,000 from the federation to hire a coach (Patric Nyberg, who grew up skiing with Jon Olsson and Henrik Windstedt) and corral a group of athletes who will contend for medals in Sochi. In addition to Harlaut, 21, and Tjäder, 18, the team also includes seven-time Winter X Games competitor Jacob Wester, 25, and promising female competitor Emma Dahlström, 20. The Swedish Olympic Committee is covering a portion of the team's expenses, as well as supporting Harlaut and Dahlström individually.
We are really keen on preserving the soul of slopestyle and freeskiing, even if bigger powers come in. I think the sport itself is very strong.” -- Sweden's Anders Norin
"It's not a fixed team," Norin said. "We can bring more people onto the team and if anyone doesn't want to go for the Olympics, they are free to do something else."
Norin, who estimates Sweden has anywhere from 1,000 to 10,000 dedicated park skiers, began the team-building process by holding three open camps last winter. He realized that despite ample talent, the Swedes' polish was scarce -- few athletes were used to linking complete runs through the park.
|Swedish national team member Jacob Wester competing in Winter X Games Slopestyle in Aspen.|
To stimulate progress, Norin plans to launch a national competition circuit this winter and will name a development team with five to 10 younger members. "We don't have many girls; that's a problem," he said. "But we have about 50 boys ages 13 and up who are really, really good to choose from."
As is the case with many countries aligning their resources for the Olympics, Norin said he and Nyberg are working to balance the FIS influence -- which many perceive as a threat -- with the core independence that anchors freeskiing. "We are really keen on preserving the soul of slopestyle and freeskiing, even if bigger powers come in," said Norin, who hopes outside sponsors will fund the national team in the future. "I understand the fear, but I'm not so afraid that the skiers would allow anything from the outside to ruin the sport. I think the sport itself is very strong."
When he encounters Swedish skiers wary of a regulated future, Norin said he tells them: "Even if you don't want to compete, we're still going to have better parks. And if you want to compete, we're going to take care of you."
"These are the conversations that are taking place all the time," he said.
The first order of business this winter will be staging a monthlong training camp in Breckenridge, Colo., for the four Swedish team members. After that, each athlete will have his or her expenses covered to attend the FIS World Cup circuit and FIS World Championships in Norway in March.