With a flip and a twist, aeriels endures
Steamboat Springs — There was a time when aerials wasn’t a career track for a young freestyle skier.
It was a requirement.
“We used to do all three — ski ballet, aerials and moguls,” Nelson Carmichael said. “It really was combined, all three events, and the best freestyle skiers were the ones who won the combined.”
Carmichael did what he could. He got good enough at aerials that he was doing double twisting flips and triples, the tricks that the competitors in Saturday’s U.S. Freestyle National Championships used simply to warm up.
He never got that far in ski ballet, which made up the third leg of the freestyle skiing tripod.
There, skiers waltzed down a slope, turning and jumping and twisting choreographed to music, planting their poles and kicking into the air with a flip for an exclamation point.
Those days have passed, however.
Ballet never made it into the Olympics like its brethren, and it has disappeared.
The aerials competitors have long been shrinking, as well.
It wasn’t always evident Saturday as Mac Bohonnon and Ashley Caldwell flew jaw-droppingly high, spun stupefyingly fast and landed themselves as national champions, atop the podium and with a gold Steamboat Springs belt buckle. But the sport’s participation is a shadow of what it was in decades past.
Those who love it are hoping the sport is in the midst of a rejuvenation in the United States, with Saturday’s competition in Steamboat just another stop along the way.
Steamboat has long been a hotspot for freestyle skiing and has supplied a steady stream of moguls skiers to the U.S. Freestyle Ski Team for as long as it has existed.
Still, aerials has no presence in the town, and Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club officials say there aren’t any young athletes clamoring for that to change.
The club hasn’t had an aerials program for at least 15 years, and the last aerialist with Steamboat ties, Ryan St. Onge, a 2001 graduate of the then-Lowell Whiteman School, retired in 2011.
The venue used for events like this weekend’s national championships is located low on the ski mountain, on a purpose-built area next to the moguls course on Voodoo run.
The moguls course gets built out every winter. The aerials jumps are rarely completed, and the rope tow alongside the venue for aeriels skiers is rarely even turned on.
The last major aerials event in Steamboat was in 2009, the Olympic Trials event for the 2010 Winter Olympics.
Turns out, some of Saturday’s competitors hadn’t even considered themselves skiers at the time.
Steamboat Springs isn’t the only ski town to see interest in aerials disappear, and most of this weekend’s athletes came from either Park City or Lake Placid, the two locations where the U.S. Ski Team is trying to pump life into the event.
The addition of new sports like half-pipe and slopestyle to the Olympic docket has helped cut into a pipeline of freestyle skiers that was already a trickle where aerials was concerned.
That’s left those keeping the sport alive to look wider and further for athletes, and they’ve found them.
Take James Meikle, for instance.
A red-headed 14 year old, Meikle was soaking up Saturday’s sun in Gondola Square in Steamboat Springs, waiting to learn exactly how well he’d done in his first U.S. National Championships event.
It’s a position he couldn’t possibly have imagined himself in a year ago. He was a gymnast then, living in Northern Virginia. He’d never even been skiing.
He decided to give the sport a go at a tryout camp, however, and was good enough to catch the eye of coaches. He was named in August to the U.S.’s Elite Aerial Development Program, an avenue through which the aerials team is being rebuilt.
Meikle moved to Lake Placid, New York, to train, and in December, he started learning to ski the way any other 14-year old on vacation might, with an instructor and on green beginner runs.
Saturday in Steamboat, he did what few new-to-snow 14 year olds would dare, a layout flip, only because his double tuck flips aren’t quite competition ready.
“I thought it’d be fun to try out and see if I liked it, and I did,” Meikle said of switching to the sport. “I already knew how to do the flipping. I just had to learn how to land and ski out.”
It’s hardly a new idea. Other nations have focused on turning gymnasts into skiers for years and quickly earned Olympic and World Championship medals. Seven years ago, the United States began to follow that lead, and now, the U.S. Team is comprised of both those with skiing and those with gymnastics backgrounds.
Ashley Caldwell, Saturday’s women’s aerials national champion, came to the sport from gymnastics and has already been to two Olympics.
Kiley McKinnon, Saturday’s runner up, had some skiing background, but was a gymnast, as well, and she’s another monstrous success story for the U.S. Team.
She was second at the World Championships this winter and earlier this month locked up the overall World Cup championship for the season, just as teammate Mac Bohonnon did.
Both attended school together and grew up in the same Connecticut town.
Now, they’re both among the world’s best in a sport that, until recently, counted few fans in their home state.
This year’s national championships drew 31 competitors to Steamboat. That was a far cry from the 130 who have and will compete on the moguls course, but to those to whom it matters most, it was a step in the right direction.
“Our development program is doing really well right now, and our sport is growing,” McKinnon said.
She’s sold, no question. Bohonnon talked her into trying out for the sport in 2010, and she’s shot up the ranks to the top spot in the world.
Why should aerials survive?
The U.S. Ski Team has an answer in its stable of young, talented and competitive skiers who dazzled on Saturday.
McKinnon has an answer, too.
“Because it’s awesome,” she said. “It’s fun, and it’s fun for people to watch.”
Freestyle skiing may be changing, but those involved are confident it’s not on the path to extinction.
Ski ballet, on the other hand, with its choreography, its costumes and its pole plant flips, may be dead for good.
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