Why you should care
The appeal of the Olympics is watching athletes elevate themselves and their sport to new heights — sometimes literally.
When Julia Marino clips in to her board at the top of the big air jump in Pyeongchang, South Korea, next week at the Winter Olympics, she’ll be staring down the barrel of a 49-meter, 40-degree-angle launch ramp — the largest in the world.
This is snowboarding’s big air discipline, and it appears on the Winter Olympics program for the first time in the history of the games. Competitors race down a steep slope before vaulting off an upward-curling ramp and performing complex tricks. For the sport of snowboarding, though, the only place to go is up, and that’s particularly true for women. And air is the sport’s latest vehicle on that journey.
We have such a talented team of women competing in slopestyle and big air.
Jeremy Forster, U.S. Ski & Snowboard Association
Big air debuted at the FIS World Championships in 2003 in Kreischberg, Austria, but only men were allowed to compete. It would be another 12 years before women were able to show off their skills in the air at the 2015 World Championships. Now, female athletes like Marino will debut in the Olympics at the same time as their male counterparts — marking their arrival as equal stakeholders in the future of the sport.
“The addition of big air to the Olympics is a great opportunity for the sport and athletes,” says Jeremy Forster, freeskiing director of the U.S. Ski & Snowboard Association. “We have such a talented team of women competing in slopestyle and big air. Having two event opportunities for their athleticism, creativity and personalities to be shown to the world is awesome.”
Olympic disciplines must be open to both sexes, so it’s not surprising that big air is only being introduced as a discipline in 2018 despite the fact that the Olympics have generally been open to letting snowboarding lead the way in innovation. Experts cite safety concerns as the main factor that has kept women out of the discipline for so long, given that they tend to be lighter than men and, as a result, come off the ramp higher and faster.
But it’s also true that without the ability to compete in major events like the World Championships or X Games, women’s snowboarding has lagged behind men’s for years. Male freeskiers and snowboarders competed in big air in the 2016 X Games at Buttermilk Mountain, but female riders weren’t invited. As a result, men have been able to push their trick repertoires to include things like 1080s (three full rotations) and double corks, while women have leveled out at 720s and 900s in slopestyle.
That’s the biggest advantage of big air: more rotations. “I’m looking to add an extra 180 to most of my tricks,” Marino tells OZY.
With the Olympics breaking with the big air tradition of women joining competitions only years after men, women are expected to rapidly expand the repertoire of tricks they will bring to events, at the 2018 Games and beyond.
The addition of the big air discipline to the Winter Olympics is also changing the way riders train for the games. For the slopestyle discipline, explains U.S. Snowboard Team co–pro slopestyle and big air head coach Mike Ramirez, riders focus on jumps and rails, and can hone their tricks at “any resort with a halfway decent park.” For big air, the focus changes a bit.
“We still train on jumps and rails,” says Ramirez, “but most of our camps focus on going to mountains that can provide world-class jump training, as these are the hardest to find.” Ramirez says coaches and riders look to train on “jumps that are big enough for all these new tricks, but with a low effective fall height and a nice big landing so they are safe to learn on.”
For sure, female snowboarders have been pushing the limits of their sport within the parameters of the events even earlier, despite challenges and limited opportunities. At the 2016 Corona World Championships of Snowboarding, Marino became the first-ever woman to land a double in the slopestyle competition.
But the leveling of the playing field for men and women, first at the World Championships and the X Games — where female big air participants can now compete — and now at the Olympics, represents a recognition that athletes like Marino value.
“I love how all snowboard events [big air, slopestyle, halfpipe, snowboard cross, slalom] are the same, and on the same courses, for women and for men,” says Marino. “I guess big air was the last, so it’s great that it shows that the trend is … picking up momentum for equality and equal representation.”
Exactly what new tricks might we see female riders attempt in the big air competition this year? Both Marino and Ramirez are remaining mum on that. “Can’t let any secrets [slip],” says Ramirez.
Whatever they are, prepare to be thrilled. “I’m expecting new things and big tricks at big air,” says Marino.