No sport has changed more since the 2002 Games than freestyle moguls. Gone is the rule that skiers must remain upright for their two required acrobatic stunts as they hurtle down a mountain riddled with hills. And the result has been eye-popping, with every moguls specialist worth his or her boots performing "off-axis" or inverted tricks that just a few years ago were the exclusive domain of aerialists.
Plenty of women will still launch themselves into the air today and rotate upright like a spinning top before landing and continuing their descent. But plenty more will perform gasp-inducing front- and back-flips or the more technically difficult D-spin, in which they kick their feet as high as their head and rotate with their torso sideways, parallel to the ground. To add a "wow factor," they'll grab their skis mid-flight to flaunt ultimate body control.
The sentimental favorite is the sport's grande dame, 2002 gold medalist Kari Traa, 32, of Norway, a four-time Olympian. She'll be challenged by Canada's Jennifer Heil, who was fourth at Salt Lake at age 18 and won World Cup titles in 2004 and '05. The top American is 19-year-old Hannah Kearney of Vermont, a multi-sport athlete who started skiing at 3 and helped her high school to state titles in soccer and track. Kearney was the first woman to book her spot on the 2006 U.S. Olympic ski team, winning the U.S. trials in freestyle moguls in January with a Heli-X and back-flip in succession. Kearney competes with flowers woven into her blond braids, which she pokes out of her helmet and wraps around the straps of her goggles. If the result looks like Pippi Longstocking, so be it; Kearney's bigger concern, she says, is being mistaken for a boy.