When most Americans hear about Olympic skiing, they might think of Bode Miller weaving in the giant slalom or Picabo Street gliding in the downhill. Or maybe they would think of cross-country skiing.
Starting with the Sochi Olympics this February, it will be time to think again. Not just in the United States, but around the world.
Enter ski halfpipe.
You know about snowboard halfpipe. Names like Shaun White and Hannah Teter made it famous in the past few Olympics. Every four years, the event has become must-see TV.
Olympic viewers in 2014 will get twice the taste of halfpipe. For the first time, men's and women's ski halfpipe will be part of the games as a freestyle skiing event.
Ski superpipe was added to the X Games in 2002. It was here the sport gained its first crack at national exposure.
Simon Dumont, a seven-time X Games medalist in the superpipe (twice gold) and world's the seventh-ranked men's halfpipe skier, has witnessed the sports' progression, firsthand.
"I've been at this sport for like half my life --13 years now. At the beginning, I never really thought about it as an Olympic sport," Dumont, 26, says. "As the sport grew, I thought there was actually a possibility. Now, it's kind of a dream come true."
Since the inception of the Summer X Games in 1995 and the Winter X Games in 1997, extreme sports have experienced mass expansion across the world. The results show at the Olympic level.
In the Summer Olympics, men's and women's BMX was added in 2008, and there are rumors of skateboarding being next. On the winter side, six new snowboarding events have been added since 2002 and six new freestyle skiing events (men's and women's halfpipe included) since 2006.
Torin Yater-Wallace, 17, is part of a generation of halfpipe skiers who will experience the Olympics as the apex of their sport. Despite his age, Yater-Wallace has already accomplished much in ski halfpipe. In the past three years, he won six superpipe medals (two gold) at the Winter X Games and Winter X Games Europe. He also reached a world ranking of No. 1 in 2012.
"I feel honored our sport has been added," Yater-Wallace, currently ranked second in the world, says. "The fact that what I do and what I work hard for, what my life is all surrounded about, is going to be seen by a broader audience is an important thing. I'm really excited to see what we can do and to see our sport. Hopefully, they like it and appreciate what we can do."
That is the question. Will ski halfpipe reach its tipping point?
Network television certainly helped snowboard halfpipe. According to CNN, NBC's airing of White's 2010 men's halfpipe final brought in the highest primetime ratings of any Vancouver event other than the opening ceremony.
"It can get more people hooked on it," Yater-Wallace says. "It's definitely in my mind, one of the most fun things to do in the world and to watch, as well. It's a real viewer-friendly sport. It's cool to watch what we do."
Throughout his career, Dumont has seen the reach of action sports expand off the skateboard of Tony Hawk to Shaun White's cameo in Friends with Benefits.
Like every sport, there are those casual fans who recognize the athletes and those who really cherish the sport. Dumont believes the most important ingredient to the growth of action sports comes from the expanding group of loyal fans.
"Action sports, it's not a sport. It's a lifestyle," he says. "It's something people are doing even when they're not on the hill. It's more a community setting. If you can draw that crowd in, it's very unique. It's a demographic that's growing with snowboarding added to the Olympics and now this."
Yater-Wallace started skiing as a hobby. For the Aspen, Colo., native, it was a fun activity his city was known for. He could watch the X Games every year and was exposed to the culture. Yater-Wallace started freeskiing because "it's just incredible how it feels to be floating through the air."
Now his sport is an Olympic sport. But that should not affect his mindset.
"The Olympics is kind of a cool add-on, but it really doesn't change much because I feel like how I've been training my whole life has worked out thus far. I'm going to try and actually do the same thing I've done every year because it's worked in the past."
Olympic traditionalists fear the influence extreme sports may have on the games. Once upon a time, the Olympics were advertised as a competition of brute strength and stamina. Ski halfpipe is a measure of how high and high creative a person can go on a ramp. Events such as this may take the 'athleticism' out of the games.
"In some ways I agree with them," Yater-Wallace says. "Action sports are considered sports with the most freedom. You can kind of do whatever you want, weight whatever you want. I think if the right people go with the right mindset, it's going to go the right way and be really good for the sport."
Dumont does not sympathize with the haters the same way. To those who question the Olympic legitimacy of ski halfpipe, he says:
"Turn on a TV in February 2014."
Another knock on ski halfpipe is its safety. All of the height, spinning and flipping can be a recipe for disaster if an individual lands the wrong way.
The most devastating example is that of Sarah Burke. The four-time X Games superpipe gold medalist died after a fall during a practice run in January 2012. The Canadian was training on a 22-foot halfpipe in Park City, Utah. Her death came at the hands of a trick she had done before: The 540 flat spin.
Burke had not only been a star in the halfpipe. She was also a loud voice in the fight for the sport's Olympic bid.
Another freestyle skier who has sustained a few injuries is ... well ... Simon Dumont.
Between the 2012 and 2013 X Games, Dumont injured his ACL in March 2012, had wrist surgery in late 2012 and broke his other wrist. Dumont still participated in ski halfpipe with mittens on his hands and no poles. He earned a bronze medal.
"I mean everything has dangers to it," he says. "If you lived with just a fear of getting injured, you wouldn't leave your house. I wouldn't even have a house. I'm willing to sacrifice mind, body, soul to achieve my main goals."
In 2011, Dumont had a custom halfpipe built in which he timed the locations of the halfpipes with his tricks. If Dumont were off-beat with a trick, he would not have had a ramp to land on.
Yater-Wallace justifies his daily decision to shoot his body dozens of feet into the air. It is his job. At this point, he has mastered the skills involved with the halfpipe just as anyone does with any occupation.
"When you go up there every day, unless you're learning a new trick you're uncomfortable with, it's pretty much all muscle memory," he says. "When I go out there and do a trick which the common individual who doesn't do an action sport would think is insane, to me, that's just another day at the office."
Dumont and Yater-Wallace are part of a freeskiing culture that is active in spreading the sport's realm outside of competition. This past March, Dumont hosted the fifth annual Dumont Cup, a freestyle skiing competition for amateurs, in his home state of Maine. Dumont has also dipped his feet into the clothing industry with his company, Empire Attire.
Both were recently part of a group that traveled to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., courtesy of Target, a sponsor of both Dumont and Yater-Wallace.
In February, both hope to bring a whole new sort of exposure to the sport of freestyle skiing, and more specifically, ski halfpipe, with appearances at the Olympics.
"Every single person, throughout the world will have the Olympics on," Yater-Wallace says. "It's a really cool tradition."
Dumont is already thinking about the long run expansion:
"Worldwide, they'll see it every four years, but hopefully they'll want more and turn on the X Games each year and go down that avenue."
Yater-Wallace and Dumont cannot jump too fast into thinking they will be pioneers in Russia. Both have to qualify for the games before booking tickets to Sochi.
Yater-Wallace will make some summer trips Whistler in British Columbia and Mount Hood in Oregon to train. He will also spend some time in the Southern Hemisphere in New Zealand.
"I'll work on speed and tricks, nothing too hardcore," he says. "Also, my mindset. All the athletes going to the Olympics will be able to win. It's just that mental game and keeping your composure when you're at a high level like that. That's what I want I want to work on, mentally."
Dumont will be 27 on July 9. He admits he is past his prime and his age is challenging him. Dumont recently had surgery on a broken ankle and torn ligaments he sustained during a practice run. He will work on strength and fitness at home before trying to get some skiing done in New Zealand later in the summer.
"Hopefully, it's not too late in my career and I can still go there and take home a medal for myself and my country," he says.
For Dumont, the path-setting veteran, and Yater-Wallace, the star-studded youth, and any other member of the freeskiing community, the accomplishment is felt equally. Ski halfpipe has made it to the Olympic games. Time will now tell just what that means to the sport.
Or as Dumont would say, to the lifestyle.
Yater-Wallace can give a taste of what that is like.
"I keep doing it for the adrenaline," he says. "It's like an addiction."
After February 2014, it would not be surprising if that addiction becomes contagious.
-- Follow Jeffrey Eisenband on Twitter @JeffEisenband.
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