British Freeski use creativity to draw more to the new Olympic sport of slopestyle

Ever since the news was announced that Slopestyle is to be included in the 2014 Winter Olympic Games programme as a medal event, the sport has been growing in the UK and World wide. From being disjointed and at odds with the governing body, Freeski in the UK is now the most successful part of all the disciplines that British Ski & Snowboard cover.  Under the direction of Pat Sharples, Freeski boasts a World Cup winner in James Woods and Katie Summerhayes is ranked four in the World (both in Slopestyle). Freeski has embraced modern forms of communication with open arms to attract more athletes and this has brought in interested …parties with funding for the programme as well. With UK Sport recognising where the sport has come from and increasing the funds available to it, results are talking for the discipline and the long term success is also being planned. John Bevan was at the British Olympic Association press day in Bath on August 9, he sat down with Racer Ready and gave his thoughts.

How are things with Freeski in the run up to Sochi? Bevan explained that everyone is very positive at the moment. “If you speak to Pat Sharples and the rest of the coaches, they are quietly optimistic. There is still a lot of work to do, there are guys like Murray Buchan who are on the borderline regarding qualification. With the likes of James Woods and Katie Summerhayes, things are looking really positive. Based on what happened last year, it is all heading in a positive direction. And more importantly, coming out the other side of the Games, the Games are a big focal point but the season does continue, we have a lot of young talent like Rowan Cheshire and Tyler Harding coming through. These two have come out of the same route as James and Katie in learning their trade at the Sheffield Ski Village and now up in Manchester. It would be great to see this development squad continue after the Games.”

Woodsy and Katie are the pinnacle of the sport at the moment; Freeski has really gathered pace over the last three to four years, what has got the ball rolling? The fact that slopestyle got into the Olympics definitely helped; this got a lot of people on the Freeski side of things asking how they get involved in the sport. Bevan explains: “As a result of this, we focussed very heavily on  social media to get people involved: Video edits up on the web as well as Facebook and Twitter. From this there have been a lot of people asking how they can get involved.” While Alpine is the conservative older brother of the mountain sports, the new kid on the block in terms of Olympic events,  is slopestyle. Bevan explains that “There is also a coolness and the way that the sport markets itself, compared to say Alpine that sees a bit of a distance between the guys that are competing professionally and those that are trying to get into the sport at the grass roots. In freeskiing and snowboarding as well, the public can see all the video edits and then they can go and get themselves a Go-Pro and they can start filming themselves and this then sees them able to go out and start getting sponsors. There is a different kind of route into the sport that is quite natural to young people who want to get into freestyle. With Alpine, it is more get yourself into a ski club, do a national competition, hopefully get yourself selected. Freeski is much more fluide.”

Has the conservativeness of Alpine  allowed Freeski to expand more rapidly? Bevan believes this is the case for a number of reasons: “FIS rejected Freestyle for many years and this has made it more attractive to the rule breakers that were trying to get in to freestyle. On the other hand it is peer pressure on the guys going out on the slopes. A lot of the athletes have also come from skateboarding as well. A lot of the ‘fridge kids’ learn there and they spend as much time on the air bags or the trampolines, so it is a lot like skateboarding. The fact that Alpine has a much more traditional way into it, has attracted a lot of people into doing the freestyle stuff, and it is more accessible generally.”

How do the young guys learn the amazing tricks that they are now doing? A lot of the young guys are using  trampolines to learn new tricks. “It is great for us that UK Sport have just put in a new airbag at Chill Factore for the guys to develop things further. This is a huge thing for us as it allows us to simulate what the best alpine nations have in the hills. It allows us to judge where to take off, where to land and is more than a big bouncy thing to land on. We can use this as a proper simulator. We are only just starting to get to grips with what we can actually get out of that,” Bevan explained.

Pat Sharples also is really keen to get the grassroots going across the country. “It is not just about the elite athletes”, Bevan is keen to point out. “Where Freeski are bringing in partnerships and sponsorships, a lot of that is focussed on development. There will be some allocated to the athletes of course but there will be bursaries that go to younger,  16 – 21 year old athletes, as well. This is important as it allows us to have a proper development programme, a pathway.”

With the announcement of slopestyle coming into the Olympic movement, the athletes have become a lot more professional. “In terms of the way that they approach the sport, definately. In terms of the way that they learn the techniques and the way that they train, probably not,” Bevan feels: “They have got better backing now; we have a much more formal set up now. Bear in mind that only a year ago, we did not have proper full time coaches. With the collapse of Snowsport GB, there had been no real trajectory for Freeski. What has changed more than the training of it, is more the change in the mental attitude of what the Games mean. What is really interesting for us in the commercial side of the sport, is that we have a team of guys that although it is a very individual sport, we have a group of young guys that are saying who they want to train with. This is really exciting. The team atmosphere is bringing everyone together. While the guys have their own personal deals and individual objectives, they work very closely with Pat. This is the big change.

Freeski and freestyle have always been synonymous with films. Is this still the case? Bevan explains that this is still the case and it is a huge selling point of the sport to commercial sponsors. “The more basic the film the better in a way,” he explains. “We can dress it up with funky titles but this makes selling the sport much easier for us.” This is a real advantage that Freeski has over the more conservative Alpine discipline. The likes of Ted Ligety and Julia Mancuso are very good with using Go-Pro to show what they are up to but many other alpine athletes prefer to keep their training secret. The more public alpine gets, the more user friendly it will become. Bevan recognises that Freeski is a creative sport in itself and that this helps. “You can learn technique off the video but the way it is judged comes down to how you creatively interpret that.” While athletes do not know how the slope will be set up prior to the event, they will have to adapt their tricks to the slope, Bevan explains. How soon prior to an event the athletes know the layout of the park varies from event to event. Slopestyle especially is really mixed. The layout for Sochi is a closely guarded secret at the moment, “they have specified the numbers of what will be in it, but not the combinations,” Bevan explains.

One of the big advantages of Freeski over Alpine is that while you accept that there are technical differences between the best and the worst, all competitors can take on the same obstacles. The athlete at the beginning of their career can aspire to do the same trick as the professional. In alpine, the learner can aspire to doing the big downhill courses but to actually go off the big jumps takes years of experience.

Freeski is much more engaging to the public and this is something that they are justifiably proud of. Alpine are trying to change this but they have ground to make up on the Freeski discipline. While they recognise that they still have to operate within the confines of the BSS, Freeski can and does market itself in a different way to Alpine. Alpine can certainly learn from the Freeski and Freestyle market. Bevan explains “you want to market yourself as best you can!”

Freeski and slopestyle is the new kid on the block and it is certainly the most proactive in how it is developing in the UK. Many from alpine argue that the field of competition and the depth of competition is a lot smaller than for alpine. This may be true but rather than looking at excuses as to why the likes of James Woods and Katie Summerhayes have it easier, they are still some of the best in their field and the machine behind them in promoting them and developing the future of the sport is streets ahead of alpine. Results talk and sponsors like winners not excuse makers. By all working together, Freeski could bring home medals from Sochi.