I. THE PSYCHOLOGY OF GOING BIG
The short of it:
Attitude is everything.
The long of it:
To understand how 5'6", 145-pound freeskier Simon Dumont is able to fly, you must first grasp how his mind works. Has always worked, really. At age 2 he was flying down hills on skis, determined to be first to the bottom. At 3, he hopped onto his new 50cc dirtbike, hit the starter and disappeared around the house. "I crashed headfirst into a snow bank," Dumont says. "My mom found me with only my feet sticking out." At 5, he learned to ride a bike. "He was so teeny he had to run beside it and hop on," says mom Barbara. "If he saw his brother or an older kid doing something, he tried it. He was competitive. And he was a showman. He had to do everything with more flair."
At 14, Dumont traveled with his family from Bethel, Maine, to Mammoth, Calif., to watch older brother Adam compete in an amateur snowboard competition. Dumont noticed a group of skiers soaring and spinning off jumps and was intrigued. He'd been skiing for more than a decade and was a talented gymnast, a regional champ on the rings and floor exercise. But he'd grown tired of gymnastics. Too regimented, too coached, too many limitations. Freestyle skiing tapped his acrobatic skill set and offered a world without boundaries. He'd found his future. Yes, Dumont was a head shorter than his peers, but his size turned out to be an asset in a variety of ways, starting with mind-set. "People judged and doubted me," says the now-23-year-old. "It gave me more motivation to go even bigger."
Call it the Napoleon effect. Or the Spud Webb effect. But by any name, you'll find beneficiaries in every sport: Darren Sproles, the Chargers' 5'6" running back, for example, or Brian Gionta in hockey. "I've always had to work harder than everyone else," says the Canadiens forward, who at 5'7" is the NHL's shortest player. "I credit how hard I work to always having to prove myself because of my size." Adds Winter X snowmobile rider Levi LaVallee, who's 5'5": "When you're small, you get pushed around a lot at first. You can either get pushed or push back. We pushed back." LaVallee, a three-time X gold medalist, became the first athlete to double backflip a sled at last year's Games. When he sees sledders or skiers in the park, he looks for the little guy and usually finds him charging hardest. "We're the first to go for the biggest jump or the craziest trick."
If, as many studies have shown, tall people gain certain advantages in the workplace from how colleagues perceive them -- they earn more, for starters -- then it's a measure of karmic payback that short athletes have an edge on the field or ice as a result of those same biases. "If a kid with the right mind-set is undersized and constantly doubted, he will take 'can't' and use it as fuel to work even harder," explains sports psychology consultant Alan Goldberg. "His potential is nurtured and magnified by having to constantly prove himself."
Of course, Dumont, as quick-witted as he is intense, is not an insecure kid anymore. Much of his motivation is internally focused. "If I question whether I can do something, that makes me want to do it twice as bad," he says. "I want to prove to myself that I can. It's not about proving it to anyone else."
Whatever the motivation, in one of sport's great ironies, height is now Dumont's calling card. He boosts higher above the 22-foot superpipe walls than any other rider, which is why he's podiumed at every major contest on the freeskiing circuit in the past two years. He finished third at the X Games last year after rising 22 feet above the lip; no other skier or snowboarder topped 20 feet. And nine months earlier, on a nasty day in Sunday River, Maine, Dumont outdueled fear and whipping winds to soar 35 feet above the lip of a 38-foot-tall quarterpipe -- 73 feet above terra firma -- going bigger than any athlete before or since.
II. THE PHYSICS OF GOING BIG
The short of it:
Size does matter.
The long of it:
In the pipe, where he first earned his rep as the guy who flies, Dumont's "height advantage" over bigger riders is not just in his head; it's quantifiable. A skier can add energy -- which will become speed -- by pumping the transition: bending and straightening his legs to piston his center of gravity as he rides across the bottom of the pipe.
"Simon can add a lot of energy and go much higher because he knows exactly when to pump," says physicist (and action-sports buff) James Riordon of the American Physical Society. "A bigger guy doing the same thing will have more drag and lose more energy." Dumont is also strong relative to his size, which helps him overcome gravity and centrifugal force as he loads and unloads energy. Says Riordon: "If an athlete is twice as heavy but only twice as strong, the smaller person will still go higher." (For a superscientific breakdown of Dumont's edge in the pipe, see opposite page.)
Being shorter and lighter also allows Dumont to benefit from another scientific principle: strength of materials, defined as the ability to withstand stress without failing. Here the materials are bones and tendons. A large person can have stronger muscles, but his tendons and bones remain relatively similar in strength to a smaller person's.
So, proportionately, a smaller athlete has a sturdier frame. Translation: fewer injuries, faster recovery from injuries, more time to practice. In freeskiing, more practice means more time to build confidence. Which returns us to Dumont's mind. While physics helps explain how he increases energy, it's his ability to manage fear and his will to maintain speed through the transition -- speeds competitors are not willing to match -- that provide Dumont's greatest boost. And once he achieves liftoff, his gymnastics-bred air awareness takes over. Other riders may have more technically impressive tricks, such as X rival Peter Olenick's alley-oop double, but Dumont brings the whole package.
Bigger is better, except when it comes to generating air in the halfpipe. The reason is a function of fundamental elements of physics: work and energy.
A. Let's begin with work. As a skier drops into a pipe, he pumps off the transition to help build speed. He's doing work. As you know, physicists have an equation for everything. For this one, work = mass x acceleration x distance.
B. All this work the skier does generates energy -- the ability to do action. Naturally, the more work a skier does, the more energy he generates. The more energy built, the higher he'll go when he gets to the lip. Energy = mass x gravity x height.
C. Notice something similar in the two equations? Yes, mass. This is our ta-da moment. The more a skier weighs, the more work he must do to generate energy to boost as high as a smaller rival.
D. Now let's compare Dumont to Peter Olenick. Olenick is nearly 30 percent heavier than Dumont, so he must generate 30 percent more energy to reach the same height as Dumont, which means he needs to do 30 percent more work. The good news for Olenick is, by virtue of being bigger, he's also stronger, and he can use that strength to do more work as he pumps off the transitions. Problem is, Olenick is likely not 30 percent stronger; he's probably more like 25 percent stronger. That's because larger people tend to have a lower strength-to-weight ratio. So, to recap, Olenick is 25 percent stronger than Dumont (that's good) but 30 percent heavier (that's bad), which leaves him at roughly a 4 percent disadvantage in his ability to generate energy and air.
As the two skiers move through the five or six tricks they'll do on each pipe run, Dumont gains even more advantage because of momentum. In a typical superpipe run, Dumont could be outboosting Olenick by nearly 10 percent after a few tricks. That's a significant difference. Sometimes even the different between first and second place.
--James Riordon with Amanda Angel
III. THE PAYOFF OF GOING BIG
The short of it:
Bigger is better.
The long of it:
The cost of pushing a sport is high. In 2005, Dumont fractured his pelvis and ruptured his spleen when he overshot a 100-foot jump, crashing to the icy flats while shooting a film part. He was out for two months. "Going big is dangerous," he says. "The sport is dangerous. Any day I could get hurt, so I have to make sure I'm doing everything for the right reasons: for myself." Dumont says he's not scared to soar out of the pipe, nor does spinning upside down while 40 feet above the ground faze him. "It's all calculated," he says. "It's repetition. It's what I do."
The rewards match the risk. At Winter X, he has finished in the top three in superpipe each of the past six years, winning gold (and $15,000) in 2004 and 2005. He was one of the first freeskiers to land a corporate sugar daddy, when he signed with Target in 2006, and today he boasts the most lucrative sponsor roster in the sport (including Oakley, Red Bull, Salomon and Nike 6.0). He earns more than $1 million a year and owns a 5,000-square-foot house in Dillon, Colo., 40 acres near his parents' home in Maine and a house in Sarasota, Fla. All paid for by having the cojones to go big.
Now he wants to elevate his sport. It's two weeks before Christmas at Dumont's Dillon manse. Simon and five of his ever-changing roster of roomies -- most are also pro skiers -- are locked in an intense session of Mortal Kombat on PS3. The vibe is college frat house. The setting ski-chalet chic. Dumont wears black stonewashed jeans and a black T-shirt, his hair just long enough to sweep across his forehead. He jokes with his friends, though he's not the loudest in the group, and he is endlessly complimentary. In the past, he was something of a rabble-rouser when he went to parties, but now he tries to project maturity in an effort to demonstrate that not all skiers wear baggy pants and are, in his words, "punk kids." He wants to be seen as a professional.
Dumont dispatches his Mortal Kombat foes then turns serious, as he often does when talking about his sport. "I want to show freeskiing in a different light," he says, "and draw a new demographic of fans and new kids to our sport." He asked Oakley to design a black business suit that he can wear to board meetings, sponsor dinners and autograph sessions. "I want to leave this sport in an iconic fashion," Dumont says. "I want to do something special for skiing."
He's already done something special for his competitors: give them a blueprint to catch him. In 2009, France's Xavier Bertoni became the first skier not named Dumont or Tanner Hall to win superpipe at X since 2004. "Simon was going higher than everyone else," says Bertoni. "Now we're all at his level, going 20 feet out of the pipe."
How did Dumont respond? He raised the bar again, adding the spectacular double cork 1080 to a run that already included his signature truckdriver 540. And while his peers may think they've caught up with his amplitude, Dumont says the rise in the level of skiing has pushed him to fly even higher out of the Aspen superpipe. Says Dumont: "This will be my best run yet."
Who would doubt him?
Alyssa Roenigk is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine. This feature is the cover story from issue 13.02, on newsstands Jan. 15.