Posted by: citizenski | May 5, 2008

Has Freestyle skiing lost its creative freedom?

Recently an article in the Rocky Mountain News featured an interview with two legendary pioneers of the US freestyle, “Hot-doggin” scene from the 1970’s, Wayne Wong and John Clendenin.

Wong was the US Freestyle Skier of the Year as nominated by Skiing Magazine in 1972 and Clendenin was anointed World Champion in 1973 and 1974 so they can be seen as Godafthers of the sport.

Wong and Clendenin provide a great insight into how freestyle in the US was born. “It all started as a conversation between Doug Pfeiffer of Skiing Magazine and Tom Corcoran, who just started Waterville Valley (in New Hampshire). Doug asked Tom who the best skier on the mountain was. Tom answered, ‘The racers, of course.’ Doug’s reply was, ‘What about all those guys on the other side of the mountain skiing the bumps and getting air? How about if we hold a contest and see who’s best?’ And, so, the first freestyle contest was born in March of ’71 to find the best skier on the mountain. . . . And the rest is history.”

Clendenin and Wong’s conversation goes on to create a short history of Freestyle and how, what is now an Olympic and X-Games Sport, has changed perhaps even the raison d’etre of Freestyle.

Clendenin argues that his generation “were innovators because we had to be. It’s primarily that we didn’t have anybody to copy. So the idea was to come up with stuff that was unique . . . “

Wong explains that, “There were no boundaries, and it was every skier pushing themselves to their limit to come up with stuff no one had ever done. It was a very creative time.”

Clendenin: “So, while it appeared that was a wild free-for-all, hurling yourself down the hill, there was a lot of hard work that went into doing things on skis that had never been seen or done before. The attitude we developed was that if we’re going to try these tricks that have never been seen before, they had better work.”

Wong: “Freestyle skiing became synonymous with excitement. . . . Back when it first started, it wasn’t as technical as it was exciting. Many times it was the skier who had the most exciting run or the most spectacular recovery that won the contest.”

Clendenin: “The traditional spirit of freestyle can be seen in the X Games, which is closer to what it was in the ’70s. The spontaneity can be seen in free riding, slopeside and big mountain skiing as well as skiercross and the halfpipe that you see at the X Games.”

Wong: “Spontaneity was the key. . . . Now it’s all so predictable and looks like what we tried not to be with racing. Then, with ski racing, everyone looked the same in the gates and now everyone looks the same in the moguls. Speed and air are the main emphasis, and it’s turned into an aerial contest.”

Clendenin: “I have to give a lot of credit to Jonny Moseley, who broke the mold at the ’02 Olympics in Salt Lake City with his ‘Dinner Roll.’ The ‘Dinner Roll’ was an off-axis 720 that combines two full rotations, one on a vertical plane, the other a horizontal plane. No one had ever seen it before, and the judges didn’t know what it was and didn’t know how to judge it. That was how it was in the early days of freestyle.”

Wong: “The business now is manufactured, and the skiing is fabricated. Back then it was all natural, and everything was new. We were limited pretty much to bumps and a steep run, so we had to be creative in a different way. As the sport evolved to be more disciplined, it lost its ‘free’ and became more stale.”

As a skier of the whole mountain I can see Wong and Clendenin’s point. The use of the mountain environment, the juxtaposition of your equipment, technique, physical and mental limits with those of the natural environment are were skiing reaches its zenith. Perhaps the “Oldschool” freestyle with its mix of freeride, backcountry and bump skiing with some tricks thrown in is a great “skiers’ format with lots of scope for “expression”. Sometimes with Freestyle it can appear contrived, “clinical” and although impressive in itself I just wonder whether the participants realise how close they are to the tight red trouser wearing aerials brigade even though they maybe wearing bright yellow ones draped around their knees. Great if you were enjoy the inside of a gym hall but not exactly being creative with the Alpine environment.

For the original Rocky Mountain interview go to –


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