KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – Those growing pains snowboarding had to go through in the Olympics? It seems like freeskiing might already be past them.
The sport made its debut here in Sochi with resounding success for the Americans, who won half the medals awarded in halfpipe and slopestyle. Unlike their snowboard brethren who have moved from misunderstood to revered during their Olympic journey, the freeskiers' success paved the way for almost immediate acceptance of the new disciplines.
"The history in snowboarding allowed us I think to work, at least in the U.S., work better in engaging the athletes and maintaining the values and the community around freeskiing athletes that was already around the sport when it became an Olympic event," said Jeremy Forster, the USSA's director of freeskiing and snowboarding.
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"I think it showed here. The success the freeskiing athletes had was really amazing for their first Olympics."
Loathe as they might be to admit it, the freeskiers benefitted here from the road paved by snowboarders. The sport received little attention and some disdain for being too extreme when it was added in 1998.
But American success in 2002 changed that. Then 18-year-old Kelly Clark won the first American gold on home soil in Salt Lake City, while Ross Powers, Danny Kass and J.J. Thomas swept the podium in the men's halfpipe.
"All of the sudden, NBC and America is like, 'We like you guys. You guys are cool and fun,'" said Tricia Byrnes, a member of that 2002 team. "They're like embracing us, but we're still kind of like, 'OK. Really? Cause remember last time? We do.'"
Shaun White's wins in 2006 and 2010 gave the sport not only acceptance, but popularity. He is surely the biggest name in the sport, but success of other American riders drew mainstream attention.
Clark, Hannah Teter, Gretchen Bleiler, and Scotty Lago each won medals in either – or in Teter's case, both – the 2006 and 2010 Games.
"The amount of exposure and the significance of the sports in the Olympics is huge," said agent Peter Carlisle, who represents several top snowboarders. "It's a dramatic increase since Salt Lake City and even Vancouver."
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So when it was announced that freeskiing would be added for these Games, the American viewing audience had a familiarity and appreciation for these sports. Slopestyle is new for both, but fans had a familiarity with the flipping and twisting the athletes do in the halfpipe from years of watching snowboarders.
"I think we as freeskiers know we owe a lot to snowboarding," freeskier David Wise said when he arrived in Sochi, weeks before he propelled his sport further into the spotlight by winning gold in the halfpipe.
"They innovated the terrain parks and enabled us to do the sport we love to do, so we have that respect for the snowboarders. I enjoy watching them. … We kind of bring a whole new side of this halfpipe competition and I'm just excited to be out there on the world stage."
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The freeskiers have helped generate interest in the most clear-cut, yet most difficult way – winning.
Wise and Maddie Bowman won gold in the halfpipe events, while Devin Logan took silver in the women's slopestyle. For only the third time in the history of the Winter Olympics, the American men swept the podium with Joss Christensen, Gus Kenworthy and Nick Goepper taking gold, silver and bronze, respectively, in men's slopestyle.
"I can't say that I was surprised," said Bill Marolt, USSA president and CEO. "But a sweep is really hard. Winning a medal, standing on the podium, is really hard. Standing on the gold medal podium is tough, tough. To sweep is a real accomplishment, without question."
Now those freeskiers must determine what the Olympics mean in the context of their sport. Most of them are in New York for a media blitz they can only receive after this event.
But for the snowboarders, whose uneasy relationship with the Games took years to get to this point, there's a little credit in paving the way for the freeskiers.
"It wasn't established when we started," said Clark. "We just kind of grew up with it, and now I think it's established and they're going to have to determine what their role is in that and what their identity is in that."
Contributing: David Leon Moore
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