For much of Ski SuperPipe's nine-year Winter X history, the podium party was an American affair. Until 2009, only two non-American riders (Candide Thovex and Jon Olsson) claimed gold medals in the event. From 2004-08, either Hall or Simon Dumont stood atop the podium, with a bevy of U.S. riders like Peter Olenick and Colby West slowly catching up to their level. But something happened toward the end of the past decade: The rest of the world started to catch up.
Last year, the French team had access to the only airbag in freeskiing, and the Canadian and New Zealand teams were supported by their national governments. The result: an entirely international podium for the first time since the sport's debut in 2002. "The Canadian and New Zealand governments are behind the freeskiers, and the New Zealand team has a physio who travels with them," says Slopestyle competitor Sammy Carlson, who qualified for Saturday's final in third. "The U.S. is behind the times, but hopefully when they announce ski slopestyle and halfpipe are in the Olympics, that will change."
That is slowly starting to happen. On Jan. 25, the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association announced the addition of U.S. Freeskiing to their program, which will oversee teams in halfpipe, slopestyle and skicross, and recently added halfpipe to the Grand Prix contest schedule. The move is part of the USSA's preparation for the addition of ski halfpipe and slopestyle to the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia. Although the IOC has not officially announced the addition of any new events, the IOC's executive committee gave an encouraging nod to both sports in October and a decision is expected as early as March.
"It's exciting. The Olympics will open doors for a lot of athletes and put skiing on the main stage," Hall says. "But it hasn't been added yet. I think a lot of people are getting excited, but it's not official. We have to wait and see. But if it gets into the Olympics, I am going to go for it. I've come way too far not to." For now, however, Hall -- who is taking time away from competition to get healthy, focus on his music label and "find a life outside of skiing" -- is just like the rest of the crowd, absolutely amazed at the progression that's happened in his sport in only a few short years. Especially across the pond.
"The whole world is skiing at such a high level, it's going to be tough for the U.S. guys to rise up. Especially with Kevin Rolland putting together a run like he did [in prelims] last night. He's going to be tough to beat," Hall says. So how, exactly, did the rest of the world catch up so quickly? "The sport is getting bigger and getting more attention, so other countries are putting in bigger and better pipes," he says. "For a long time, the U.S. had the only 22-foot pipes in the world, and when other countries saw what that was doing for U.S. athletes, they started building them. And if anyone has a chance to get in a 22-footer, everyone has a chance to win."
In Friday night's final, it sort of feels that way. Defending champ Rolland added a ton of style to his 2010 run and his double cork 1260 mute grab is the best in the comp, but his run is far from unbeatable. Two Winter X rookies, David Wise and Torin Yater-Wallace, qualified in second and third and landed some of the most crowd-pleasing tricks of the night.
Yater-Wallace is the youngest competitor at Winter X and, if he medals in the event, will be the youngest medalist in Winter X history. He was born one month before the first Winter X Games, 15 years ago, and is an Aspen local. "I've come and watched every year since the X Games have been in Aspen," Yater-Wallace says. "I'd come and watch Simon Dumont and it's crazy to actually be in the contest competing against him. It's always been my dream, to be here with those guys. The day I got my invite, I was freaking out."
To be honest, so is his competition. Hall calls him one of the most talented young skiers he's seen, and he thinks he's a real challenge to Rolland and former champ Simon Dumont, who missed the podium last year for the first time in six years. "Last year was my worst competition season in a long time," says Dumont, who comes into Winter X off a win at the first Dew Tour stop at Breckenridge. "It was discouraging. This year, I'm going to hopefully hold it down in competitions. There is a lot of reason to tune in on Friday night. If you don't watch, you're missing out."