The Nineties. What a wild ride. Arguably the most turbulent decade in the history of skiing, the past 10 years have wrought changes that few could have ever predicted. First snowboarding came along and knocked skiing on its butt. Suddenly skiing wasn't cool anymore. Skiers were out of touch. The young defected in droves. Newcomers to the mountains drifted over to the easier sport. Skiing was dying, the experts said. It was already dead, cackled the snowboarders.
Skiing's death notice, however, was premature. For in the wings waited a new generation of skiers ready to fight back. Inspired¿as much as challenged¿by snowboarding moves and attitude, these young "New Schoolers" invaded the boarders' turf like Crusaders charging Jerusalem. Halfpipes and terrain parks were conquered. Cliffs and steep lines retaken. And the tide slowly began to turn.
Today, the New School/Freeskiing movement is in full blossom. From extreme ski competitions to big air contests, from crazed skiercross races to circus-like halfpipe events¿a reinvented world of skiing has emerged.
"I won't say it's been a slam dunk," says Adam Comey, president of Mountain Sports International, a leading New School event management company. "But I can say proudly that we've grown a little every year."
Shane McConkey, his counterpart at the International Freeskiers Association (IFSA), agrees. "It hasn't always been a smooth ride. But what new adventure ever is? The bottom line is that we've managed to create a whole new way to make a living as a professional skier."
But it's a tenuous existence. While some of the bigger stars are making respectable salaries, most of these freeriders would do better selling hamburgers. But the troubles are deeper than financial. Many of the New School events are laughable¿if not outright dangerous¿in their lack of professional preparation.
Whether it was the blown-out knees and shattered heels at the X-Games' skiercross competition last January, the life-threatening crashes at the Big Air contest in Vail, Colo., in February, or the questionable judgment of the safety crew at the 1999 World Extreme Skiing Championships in Valdez, Alaska, in April, the physical toll these events has taken on the competitors has been shocking. By the end of last season, in fact, fully half of the new big-name stars were injured and out of commission. If the sport doesn't clean up its safety record fast, then freeskiing's elite athletes will continue to drop out and the sport will go the way of the Hot Dogging freestyle phenomenon of the Seventies.
"We've had our growing pains for sure," says one organizer. "And we've learned a lot about putting on safe events. But you've got to give us a little time. After all, we're inventing this as we go along."
But even as some of the veterans step away, every new event brings a bunch of fresh-faced vert hounds intent on getting their five minutes of fame (or pain).
Why? Because these events are a gas. The big air contests, skiercross races, quarter-pipe shows and big mountain events are billed as parties first and competitions second. Music is an intrinsic component. Socializing is paramount. "The fun factor at these events is still right up there," says McConkey. "And we want to keep it that way."
This mini-skiing renaissance also has the industry buzzing. With snowboarding sales slowing and conventional ski events getting the big raspberry from the TV viewing public, many of the traditional gear and apparel manufacturers are jumping on the New School bandwagon as if they invented it.
First it was the X-Games. Now it's the Gravity Games. This year, there isn't a major resort in North America that doesn't want to host a New School event. "It's definitely something we want to be involved with," says Whistler/Blackcomb's Marketing VP David Perry.
Talk about a turnaround. "A few years ago," admits Comey, "marketing executives would laugh us out of their offices. Now tthey're lining up to get to sponsor one of our events."
And it's also not bad for business: These alternative ski contests have spawned new stars. Just ask K2. Kent Kreitler, Brad Holmes and Seth Morrison will sell more skis in Jackson Hole, Wyo., and Squaw Valley, Calif., than Lasse Kjus, who did nothing less than become the No. 1 racer in the world last season.
Not surprisingly, the International Ski Federation (FIS) is working behind the scenes to get its claws into some of the more lucrative events. There is already talk of an FIS-sanctioned halfpipe contest on the World Cup circuit. And some athletes have even called for skiercross to become an Olympic event.
Don't laugh. Stranger things have happened: No one who attended the 1988 Olympic Games in Calgary could have predicted that snowboarding would be an Olympic sport a scant 10 years later. And there's the rub.
"I got into the New School stuff to escape the rut that freestyle skiing had fallen into," explains JP Auclair. A former member of the Canadian Freestyle Team, Auclair's quirky aerials have established him on the forefront of the New School wave. "Mogul skiing had become stale and lifeless. Getting out and building a big kicker jump with your friends and seeing who could pull off the weirdest trick was way more fun."
So what happens when the FIS starts regulating halfpipe events? Or managing skiercross competitions? Or even picking the judges for big mountain freesking contests? What happens when these exotic alternative events become like all the rest?
"Our biggest challenge," says the IFSA's Shane McConkey, "is to continue to grow our events while still staying loose. We don't want to get all anal about judging and stuff." A former U.S. pro mogul competitor, McConkey has experienced the radical transformation of skiing first hand. "The last thing we want to do is kill the creativity and free-form aspects of these new disciplines," he explains. "That would be the kiss of death for us. "
But there's no guarantee that the New School won't be transformed to old school when it goes mainstream. Look at what the FIS has done to snowboarding. Jake Burton was right¿the sport would have been better off staying out of the Olympics and managing its own affairs.
It's the same for the skiers. What turned people on to the New School revolution was its passion. It wasn't about money¿at first. Nor was it about fame. It was about celebrating the sense of adventure and freedom that a pair of skis could deliver. That sense of being slightly blessed. Slightly different from all the rest.
Fortunately, that passion hasn't changed for many New-Schoolers. "I'm not getting rich," maintains Jeff Holden, the 1999 Overall World Cup freeskiing champion. "I do it because I love the sport. And I love hanging and skiing with the people competing in it. It's that simple. I can make money later."
For a schedule of freeskiing events and television coverage, log onto freezeonline.com, the website for SKI's sister publication Freeze.