DAEGWALLYEONG, South Korea — There is a gripping simplicity to big air, the sublime new Winter Olympics event. As long as you are not the one launching toward the clouds and asking your body, more or less, to disassemble and reassemble before landing, it is so elementary to comprehend.
The snowboarders ride down a big ramp onto a big jump, get big air, do their craziest trick and attempt to land like a snowflake floating to the ground. One takeoff, one stunt, one descent. Simple. Stylish. And absolutely awe-inspiring.
It is dangerous, too, but like many winter sports, the athletes shrug at the risk. As big air made its Olympic debut with the women’s qualifier Monday, there was no need for concern because the snowboarders put on a show that participants and many longtime observers hailed as the greatest exhibition that women’s big air has ever seen.
Nine of the 12 snowboarders who qualified for the final posted at least a score of 85.25 on the 100-point scale. Six scored 90 or higher. But the day wasn’t a stunning breakthrough simply because the judges gave high marks. It was more powerful to see the crowd, with many fans who are new to the sport, express wonder at every competitor’s trick. And it was most powerful to see the women, sensing it was a special moment and feeding off each other.
To a snowboarding purist, competition is important, but entertaining is vital. There was no doubt that Monday provided 90 minutes of uninterrupted enjoyment. Big air was big fun.
“This is freakin’ awesome,” said Jamie Anderson, who won her second straight slopestyle Olympic gold medal last week. “I’m so inspired by all the girls. This is definitely the most progressive big air event I’ve ever seen or been a part of.”
Said Zoi Sadowski-Synnott of New Zealand: “This is probably the heaviest comp women’s big air has ever had.”
Said Laurie Blouin of Canada: “That was perfect.”
The women needed perfection because, during the slopestyle finals last week, they endured the worst playing conditions at these Olympics. On a wicked windy day, they didn’t get to showcase women’s snowboarding. They were forced to survive. It was ugly. Only nine of 50 runs ended without a crash. The women, so confident that the PyeongChang Games would illustrate their sport’s growth, fumed because the event wasn’t postponed. The International Ski Federation left them to avert calamity, and the weather made it seem as if they hadn’t made any slopestyle progress. The latter was, in many ways, the worst thing the FIS could have done to them. It made them feel inferior to more established sports such as Alpine skiing, which has had several weather-related postponements. It made them feel worthless.
The wind was so bad last week that Dutch snowboarder Cheryl Maas thought to herself after a practice run: “Please, put me down softly. I don’t really believe in God, but I am praying to someone up there. Don’t put me in a hospital.”
Maas broke her neck in a pool accident last summer. During a big air competition, she once tried a 1080 spin, landed badly on an icy course, fell on her face and broke her nose and an eye socket. She considers her sport “not dangerous, but a calculated risk.” But as those winds lifted her at Phoenix Snow Park, she prayed like never before.
That was slopestyle. On Monday morning at Alpensia Ski Jumping Centre, big air couldn’t have requested a better premiere. The 26 world-class snowboarders performed for two rounds during qualifying, zooming down a 160-foot ramp, vaulting off a launch ramp and elevating to thrill the crowd. Some jumped as high as 100 feet before trying 900 and 1080 spins and other tricks.
Austria’s Anna Gasser, the ever-daring artistic genius, finished first in the qualifying with a 98 score after unleashing some beautiful thing called a cab double-cork 1080. It was one of the most jaw-dropping feats of these Games. It’s usually a trick she would do to win a competition. On this day, she was so inspired that she had to use it in the qualifier.
“With everyone riding so good, I think it just put me in the mind-set to be, like, ‘I want to show something, too,’ ” Gasser said. “The tricks were amazing. I was sitting up there, and I’m like, ‘This is so sick.’ ”
Now it’s clear how much women’s snowboarding has advanced. Gasser and Norwegian qualifier Silje Norendal sensed the snowboarders would make a statement when they talked Sunday night. During practice earlier that day, the conditions were similar to what they were Monday: no wind, warmer weather, good visibility. While preparing, the women were throwing down splendid runs. This was their chance.
“This is going to be crazy,” they told each other.
And it was crazy. And this being big air, it was easy to digest the significance of what was happening. It looked like they were traveling to space, dancing on the way down and landing like cats, unscathed, effortless.
“Even if you don’t understand snowboarding, I think you can watch it and just enjoy what’s happening,” Norendal said. “You don’t really need to understand everything. You can just be like, ‘Oh, that looks cool.’ I think there were a lot of people here today that don’t necessarily know snowboarding that well, but they enjoyed what they were looking at and watching. So even if you fell — if you went big and you fell — they would still go like, ‘Wow.’ And I think that’s pretty cool because that’s all I want. I don’t really need people to understand what we do, but just enjoy it.”
Enjoyment is a given. The only worry is whether Friday’s 12-woman final can be as thrilling as the qualifier.
Snowboarders never seem worried about meeting expectations, however. They’re programmed to want to outdo themselves. They aren’t here merely to win medals. They’re here to perform. Protect them from gnarly winds, and they’ll show what they can do.