State of the Sport: Judging

Former competitor Steele Spence is now on the other side of the judging table. Courtesy photo

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[Editor's note: Freeskiing as a sport is in a state of flux right now. So in this interview series, we're taking a hard look at where we are now and what's next for the sport. Stay tuned next Thursday for the final installment: State of the backcountry.]

If you want Steele Spence's credentials as a judge, just look at his history as a competitor. Spence grew up skiing moguls in Aspen, Colo., before competing professionally in halfpipe and slopestyle. In 2007, Spence left the course for the judges' booth. He has judged every major competition in freeskiing since then, including Winter X, Winter Dew Tour and Freestyle World Championships. Currently working as the general manager of the Association of Freeskiing Professionals, Steele has been instrumental in developing and teaching the curriculum that the FIS now uses to train and certify judges for future FIS-sanctioned halfpipe and slopestyle competitions, including, yes, the Olympics.

Overall impression is the format we've used for the past 10 years and we've been developing it and refining it. The term overall impression means five judges scoring 1 to 100. To come up with that score, we've broken it into six criteria: execution, degree of difficulty, amplitude, variety, combinations and progression.

Our most important goal is to keep the formats and criteria open so that the riders can keep progressing without having any red tape to deal with. They can just bring whatever they have. I think that this judging format really encourages progression and keeps the sport free.

We started building our judging clinic because we saw a need for it. [AFP's] Josh Loubek, Michael Spencer and Chris Schuster went to the FIS Congress in Zurich a few weeks ago and showed FIS and all these nations the judging clinic we'd developed, and they were all like, "We've needed a clinic like this for so long."

On the spot, we got booked to do clinics all over the place. They booked me to do a clinic in Annecy, France. Mike Atkinson hosted another one in Quebec. We hosted one in Oslo, Norway. Mike did another one in Canada, and we just finished hosting one in Park City, Utah. Sixteen countries have attended our clinics, including Belarus, Czech Republic, Russia, Poland and other Scandinavian and central European countries.

Thanks to the urgency there was in getting it out there, we believe that FIS will revise their rulebook to catch up with what we're currently teaching. The cart went before the horse, with us being commissioned to train people in our judging philosophy before FIS officially made the revisions to reflect what we're teaching. But I believe that they'll adapt to it. All of it will get more dialed in over the next couple years.

Our judging clinic has two major teaching goals. The first is to go over the criteria in overall impression. The second thing that we drill on is ranking. This is kind of an abstract idea for a lot of people. The actual score that a rider receives is in many ways irrelevant. We're always comparing runs against each other. Based on that comparison, we assign a score so that it's lower than the runs that were better and higher than the runs that weren't as good.

The rest of the clinic, we go over trick identification, we practice filling out stenos, we practice ranking. Trick recognition is a huge part of it. It's one of our main tools for evaluating how competent a judge is. We've been presenting this to the moguls and aerials judges and they all know skiing, but trick identification is a good way to identify the ones who really know our sport.

It's up to the riders how far the sport progresses. It was still only a few years ago that big air competitions were switch 1080s versus switch 1080s. And then boom, here come the doubles. I'm blown away by what's happened in the last five years, and I can't predict when it will level off.

Our most important goal is to keep the formats and criteria open so that the riders can keep progressing without having any red tape to deal with.

--Steele Spence, General Manager of the Association of Freeskiing Professionals

Progression is one of the six criteria in overall impression and it's something that we make a point to reward. Last year at Winter X Europe when Justin Dorey landed the first switch double in the halfpipe, it wasn't perfect execution, but we all recognized that it was the first time this trick had happened in a major competition. Dorey did it on the main stage and we absolutely wanted to reward that.

One thing we hit on a lot in the clinic is that to be a good judge, you have to have comprehensive knowledge of the freeskiing scene — keeping up to date with all the athletes, new tricks, it's almost like you have to be freeskiing's biggest fan. So if you're not keeping up with the events, what happened, new competitors, new tricks, if you're not keeping your ear to the ground like that, you can't be a good judge.

The level of skiing the past few years has been so high, it's extremely difficult to be a judge at the highest level competitions. You're comparing phenomenal runs against phenomenal runs.

There's been a great deal of discussion about standardizing the slopestyle course for FIS events, including the Olympics. Nothing has become official yet. My personal position is against it. I can see the benefit, because it would make judging simpler. But what is really cool about slopestyle is that every course is different. Halfpipe is the same every time, and pipe skiers work on their one competition run all year. In slopestyle, everybody does a new run every week.