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Freeski stars in rare air

By SUN XIAOCHEN | China Daily | Updated: 2023-12-04 09:38
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An elite field produced a feast of freeski action in Saturday's final of the Big Air World Cup event in Beijing. [Photo by Wei Xiaohao/China Daily]

Daredevil athletes push Big Air's boundaries at Beijing World Cup event

Freeski Big Air soared to new heights at the highly competitive World Cup final in Beijing as an elite field thrived on Shougang's monster slope to deliver a feast of jaw-dropping tricks and flips.

As freestyle skiing's newest discipline, Big Air's rapid progression continues to captivate, with the level of athleticism, creativity and variety demonstrated in Saturday's final leaving an enthralled crowd awestruck, building on the sport's highly acclaimed Olympic debut in the Chinese capital.

Dropping over 60 meters above the ground from the top of the Shougang Big Air slope, the world's top freeski acrobats had the sold-out stands oohing and aahing with their amazing skills.

In the 10-skier men's final, reigning slopestyle Olympic champion Alexander Hall of the United States eventually prevailed in a triumph that owed more to style than rotations; Canadian Edouard Therriault finished second, with Swiss Andri Ragettli third after a seesaw battle in which only back-to-back 90-plus scores for the two best runs guaranteed a podium finish.

Hall, who finished eighth in Big Air at Beijing 2022, hailed the Saturday showdown as a testament to the sport's evolution.

An elite field produced a feast of freeski action in Saturday's final of the Big Air World Cup event in Beijing. [Photo by Cui Jun for China Daily]

"I think everyone's incredible at skiing nowadays, because there's so much talent and great training facilities for them to train on. The sport is getting pushed in so many different directions," said Hall, who accumulated a winning total of 182 points from his first two jumps to stay atop throughout the three-run final.

Even after Hall stomped a right double 1080-degree (three full rotations) bring-back and a switch left double cork 1440 with stylish grabs to score high in his first two runs, round three started with eight skiers still within reach of top spot after the chasing pack had also pushed themselves to their limits off the towering Beijing ramp.

Desperate to surpass Hall, Ragettli landed a dazzling switch left double 1800 mute in his third attempt to score a final-high 92.75 for a single run.

However, that wasn't even enough to guarantee silver after Therriault edged out the all-time leader in World Cup wins by landing a second 90-plus trick in his final run.

With the amount of rotation pushing beyond 1980 degrees in the men's competition, the Beijing event underlined the huge potential in trick variety and creativity, with a wide range of takeoffs, bring-backs and drifts scoring equally or higher than some of the multi-spin tricks.

Hall's emphasis on showcasing his own silky style in the air, as opposed to the more rotation-reliant runs of his rivals, resonated with the younger generation.

"That Alex took first place with 900 and 1440, which is probably the lowest rotation of the day, was awesome. So again, I am very happy to see where skiing is heading," said the 20-year-old Therriault, who finished on a World Cup podium for the first time in Beijing.

An elite field produced a feast of freeski action in Saturday's final of the Big Air World Cup event in Beijing. [Photo provided for China Daily]

Women's winner Mathilde Gremaud concurred, citing the innovative grabs on display last week as another reason to be excited about the sport's future.

"No, I don't think we've reached the limit. I think there are a lot of things to explore," said the Swiss star, who scored 175.5 points with her first and third runs to beat Britain's Kirsty Muir and Flora Tabanelli of Italy in the final.

"Because we can do big tricks, but most of them are with easy grabs. So now we're also exploring the bigger tricks with different and harder grabs. And I think there is so much variety, different ways you can do one trick," said Gremaud, who cemented her overall World Cup lead with a third win on this season's circuit in Beijing.

The first two World Cup legs — in Chur, Switzerland (Big Air) and Stubai, Austria (slopestyle) — had their final standings decided by qualification results after both events canceled their final sessions due to difficult weather conditions.

An elite field produced a feast of freeski action in Saturday's final of the Big Air World Cup event in Beijing. [Photo by Wei Xiaohao/China Daily]

Rewarding trip

The Big Air competitions proved to be among the highlights of Beijing 2022, with the global TV audience wowed as much by the visually stunning Shougang venue as they were by the athletes' feats of aerial agility.

Pandemic controls meant no spectators could attend back then, so athletes last week were stoked to have an enthusiastic crowd cheering them on at the venue.

Throw in a trip to the Great Wall and other city landmarks, as well as some culinary delights, and it was a resounding thumbs-up for last week's world-class field.

"It was tough for the Olympics because we couldn't do much (due to the pandemic), but being here again and getting to do other things, I think makes a great trip this time," said Hall, a 25-year-old who won his first Olympic gold medal in slopestyle at Beijing 2022.

"I was a little unsure whether I would come to this event initially a couple of weeks ago, but then I decided to come and it proved a worthwhile decision.

"It was really fun to check out the city and then also have a good time skiing ... It will definitely fuel me to come back next season if they do another event.

"It's always cool to come here and to see the interest in our sport growing a lot here. Feels like there's huge potential here. It's really cool."

Gremaud, the bronze-medal winner at Beijing 2022, hailed Shougang Big Air as the biggest attraction on the circuit.

"I was looking forward to being back here because the jump is super nice. It's safe and feels good. For me this structure is like the best ever we have all season," said Gremaud, who's had 18 World Cup podium finishes since 2017.

"You feel like you can do everything and it is safer and it just feels right to ski on this. It's almost better than on the slopes at a ski resort."

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