The cars, vans and campers were backed up for miles on the two-lane road leading to the Bromont ski area outside Montreal. The people abandoned their vehicles wherever they could and trekked to the base of the mountain. Overhead, multicolored manned kites soared and dipped, but the toqued, snowmobile-suited and ski-jacketed crowd of more than 9,000 ignored them, intent on scrambling up the snow-covered slopes to perch in trees, press close to retaining fences and huddle in the forest to see flyers of a different sort—the “Quebec Air Force,” the “big air” Europeans and the fly-boys of the Western world.
It was the last weekend in February, the final day of competition of the first of three Canadian stops of the World Cup Freestyle Skiing tour. The sun had finally burned off a persistent fog and was beating down on the long inrun, jumping ramps and landing area. The young men and women athletes were making their final preparations for their aerial stunts.
Disco music danced from loudspeakers as world champion freestyler and 1977 Canadian water-skiing champion Greg Athans of Vancouver built up speed for his final practice jump. The music stopped as he hit the ramp. Launched 25 feet in the air, Athans tucked in his knees for the first of two somersaults, to be followed by an upright twist. His red ski suit a blur, Athans thudded into the landing slope halfway through the twist. Ski patrollers and attendants scampered across the snow as Athans lay motionless. “Ils sont fous," (they’re crazy) muttered a middle-aged Québécoise, turning away.
Indeed, since the first “hot-doggers” began flipping and twirling their way down North American mountains nine years ago, most people have considered them wild, dope-crazed hippies with winter tans or, at best, poor little rich kids thumbing their ski gloves at society and self-preservation. Led by Vancouver’s Wayne Wong, they became cult figures to the Aspen-Lake Louise vagabonds and demigods to the rope-tow set trying to master the snowplow.
U.S. TV networks, eager to cash in on Evil Knievel types, rushed power packs to the hills and created pseudo events to
bring the daredevils into the li room. But while promoters were fostering factions amongst the skiers, two young would-be fly-boys failed to pull out of multi-revolution backflips. They broke their spines and are paralysed for life. Their plight sobered the networks, sponsors—and insurance companies.
Freestyler Darryl Bowie of Calgary saw the need for organization after the first couple of U.S. events. In 1972, he formed the Canadian Freestyle Skier’s Association with Johnny Johnston. They teamed with Labatt Breweries as sponsor, organized competitions, set strict regulations for competitors’ eligibility and standardized judging. As the sport atrophied in the U.S., it grew in Europe and boomed in Canada. The CFSA now has 100 members, 30 pro competitors and a strong amateur circuit attracts about 1,000 competitors.
With five World Cup pro events in Europe and three in Canada this year, Canadians are dominating the freestyle skiing world.
As the beer cans popped and the wineskins were passed along the Bromont hills, Pierre Poulin of Quebec raced down the inrun. Catapulted above the treetops, Poulin, in his brilliant yellow ski suit, somersaulted backward, then spun his body counterclockwise. Tucking, he somersaulted back again, then spun clockwise. Pulling out, he hit the 60-degree landing slope upright, skis together, arms raised in triumph. Blue-suited Rick Bowie of Lake Louise, tied for fourth in the World Cup standings, followed with a triple back somersault and gasps of “fou” changed to shouts of “far out.”
Light years removed from the spontaneous, manic flips of the original “hot-doggers,” today’s freestylers are cautious, calculating athletes. All, like Toronto’s Stephanie Sloan, who after a back layout moved into first place in the World Cup standings, must qualify their aerials with the CFSA before attempting them in competition. President Darryl Bowie explains: “Aerials are sanctioned progressively. Competitors must satisfy the CFSA committee that they can safely land a single somersault—four out of five times—before they can attempt to qualify a double, and so on. And sanctions can be taken away, say, cut back from a triple to a double, if a skier is missing them in competition.”
Darryl’s younger brother Rick, 23, in his fifth season of pro competition, finished second over-all at Bromont. He thought about doing a triple somersault for months before trying it—on a trampoline. Then he practised on a dry-land ramp into water, gradually moving on to a snow ramp with a hay landing, completing a dozen triples a day. It wasn’t until this past January in France that he attempted one on a snow landing. “No matter how many times you’ve done a jump,” he says, “the first one of the day is scary. On the first revolution you don’t see the ground —
you’re spinning too fast. On the second, you try to pick out the ground to judge how high you are. On the third, you have to find it again to time your kiekout.”
Despite the thousands of aerials attempted this year in practice and competition, there has been only one serious injury, a broken leg. The “big air” flyers, like the “Quebec Air Force” of Poulin, Jean Corriveau and Craig Clow, and world champion the past two years and leader again this year, John Eaves of Montreal, are former gymnasts and divers who respect the danger in their stunts. “I w'as a gymnast as a kid,” says 25-year-old Eaves, “so I was always upside down, having fun, and feeling allright upside down. But going for my first triple back somersault on skis was a lot easier than going for that first one.”
The aerials are the most dramatic and popular event. Last year at Mont
Ste. Anne, Quebec, site of this week’s World Cup competition, more than 25,000 people attended the three-day show—one of the largest crowds ever to attend a North American skiing event of any type. But Eaves, Athans, Sloan and Bowie have become champions by mastering the two other freestyle disciplines, moguls and ballet, as well. The mogul competition is a hell-bent-forgasps, timed run down a course resembling a Brobdingnagian golf ball. The skiers are judged by how rhythmically they negotiate the treachery and the symmetry of any jumps they throw in.
“Ah, ski ballet,” sighed bearded Ernst Garhammer of Germany, after finishing one-tenth of a point behind Athans. “It’s one of the rare sports. You can bring in aspects of figure skating, gymnastics, ballet, modern dance, and then you put it to music.”
Garhammer, like the others, has worked for years on his ballet tricks— double and triple pirouettes, front and back flips, “Daigle-bangers” (a twisting half-flip with one hand on the snow) named for its inventor, Michel Daigle of Quebec. As the red suit of the German skier appeared out of the Bromont fog on the second day of the event, the strains of Glenn Miller’s In the Mood drifted down the hill as Garhammer flipped, twisted, danced on his ski tips and glided to the beat.
Athans won the ballet, linking simple tricks to slow portions, then somersaulting and spinning to crescendos of music written especially for him. Eaves choreographed his routine to music he composed, performed and recorded himself in Nashville.
The friendly rivalry between Eaves and Athans, one-two in the world the past two years and again this year, came to a crunch at Bromont. Virtually tied in World Cup points—the litmus test for prize money which can reach $20,000 for a champion and for endorsement and sponsor bonuses which can reach $40,000 to $50,000—Athans barely had to land an aerial to win. But he failed to pull out of his twist in practice, tearing shoulder muscles, and was forced to drop out. Eaves missed a triple in practice and toned down his stunt to a double layout somersault with a full twist on the second revolution, landing it and the over-all title.
Eaves tore rib cartilages in his practice fall, but resting in Calgary he will be ready for Mont Ste. Anne and the final event at Grouse Mountain, B.C., at the end of March. Athans, recuperating in Vancouver, is determined to be there too. Doctors have told him to rest for eight weeks, but what do they know of a 23-year-old’s will to win, the need to hear the crowd, or the thrill of grabbing “big air” as a fly-boy in the Western world? dp
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.