Can This Slopestyle Shredder Grab America's Next Gold?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because he can stomp a switch triple cork 1800 — can you?
By Ryan Wallerson
As members of the United States men’s slopestyle ski team joined the procession of Olympians during the opening ceremony in Pyeongchang on Feb. 8, they carried massive proverbial targets on their backs. That’s what happens when one country sweeps an entire podium — as Joss Christensen, Gus Kenworthy and Nick Goepper did in the ski slopestyle finals at the Sochi Winter Games in 2014.
Kenworthy and Goepper will be aiming for that podium again, in South Korea, but Christensen tore his anterior cruciate ligament in May, keeping him from making the team — and opening the door for 19-year-old Alex Hall.
Hall was born in Fairbanks, Alaska, but moved a year later to Switzerland, where his American father and Italian mother both worked as professors at the University of Zurich and where young Alex fell in love with skiing. He first hit the slopes at age 3 and started competing in events by the time he turned 12. At age 15, he entered more than a dozen competitions in the Swiss Freeski Tour — enough to convince him that he had a future in freestyle skiing.
But first he had a decision to make: Because of his mother’s nationality, he’d had an Italian passport since he was 12, giving him the option of declaring for the Italian ski team, or he could align with his father and join the U.S. squad. After speaking with coaches on both sides and weighing his options, Hall opted for the stars and stripes.
Alex Hall is one of the illest up-and-comers right now.
Henrik Harlaut, Swedish freestyle skier and Olympic contender
“It was a pretty easy call,” Hall says now. ”I’d been visiting family in Utah annually my whole life,” he explains. “I knew it would make it more challenging to make an Olympic team because of how stacked our team is, but that was a risk I was willing to take.”
Hall moved to Park City, Utah, when he was 16 years old to continue training under the tutelage of the U.S. ski team. It was a transition that involved more than a culture shift; it was the first time he would receive formal ski instruction, first from Park City United and in time, from the U.S. ski team. Until then, he’d been entirely self-taught — and it showed. Hall has several quirky tricks, like the seat belt grab, which involves reaching across the body to grab the opposite ski — a trick he learned on his own. He also performs a number of technical jump tricks, including his switchback double cork 1080 and double cork 1260, which look different than when executed by traditionally trained slopestyle skiers.
For instance, Hall tends to go more off-axis than traditional riders who enter spins or flips from a straight-up position — causing a tilt in his tricks. At first, coaches saw it as an issue to correct, but when Skogen Sprang, the coach of the senior U.S. men’s ski team, ran into Hall’s first coach, Dave Euler of Park City United, at the LAAX Open during the 2014-2015 season, Euler was already raving about the teenager.
“We watched a lot of development kids, but Alex kind of came out of nowhere. He wasn’t on our radar, then all of a sudden here’s this 15-year-old kid who’s supergood, who made the finals in that event the first time we saw him,” says Sprang, who’s been Hall’s coach for two years. “I was really impressed the first time I saw him. He landed a very clean run, was very technical on the rails, had this kind of a unique style to him and had a great attitude.”
By all accounts, Hall reached the Olympic team ahead of schedule. He spent two years on the U.S. rookie team and has been a member of the senior U.S. ski team for just two seasons. He grabbed a silver medal in slopestyle at the 2016 Youth Olympic Games and took fourth in halfpipe at the same event. He won the Mammoth Mountain stop of the U.S. Revolution Tour in 2016 and finished ninth in the 2017 world championships slope event. Still, in three X Games invitations between 2017 and 2018, he never qualified for a final — and yet he is preparing to compete in his first Winter Olympics. Hall says he’s not setting any expectations for these Games and that he finds comfort in the fact that there will be two more Olympic cycles during his 20s.
“For me, making it to the Olympics is already a huge accomplishment. I’m happy to just be going,” he tells OZY. “Because of that, I think I’m going to the Olympics with less pressure.”
Perhaps, but even if he’s trying to keep his stress level in check, Hall’s progress and potential aren’t lost on his competitors, among the world’s best in the sport.
“Alex Hall is one of the illest up-and-comers right now. I love watching him ski because he has a lot of style and is very conscious of style in both his rails and his jumps,” says Henrik Harlaut, a Swede who won gold in both the slopestyle and big air events at the 2018 X Games and is gearing up for a big performance in Pyeongchang. “It’s sick to see someone that young with such a strong connection to skiing and motivation to push it forward.”
For now, Hall will have his shot in his Olympic debut at helping the men’s slopestyle team — alongside Kenworthy, Goepper and McRae Williams — defend the podium. “I’m just going to ski my best and have fun,” he says. “I find that’s when I’m at my best anyway.”
- Ryan Wallerson, OZY Author Contact Ryan Wallerson