Ask world champion Mike Riddle to explain ski halfpipe and he'll offer a snappy reply. "I'm pretty tired of telling people that I do what Shaun White does, but on skis," Riddle says.
What Shaun White does is fly through the air on a snowboard, twisting, flipping and spinning his way to two Olympic gold medals and millions of dollars from sponsorship deals. Riddle and his fellow halfpipe competitors do much the same thing on skis and, with his sport making its Winter Games debut in Sochi, he might not have to keep explaining himself.
Halfpipe is one of two freestyle skiing events that have been added to the Olympic program, along with slopestyle. Both have been lifted from the wildly popular X Games, along with several other events, as the International Olympic Committee continues its quest to make the Olympics more appealing to a younger audience.
Halfpipe involves skiers travelling down a 150-metre long funnel of snow, riding up the embankments along the way to perform a variety of tricks. Each embankment is about seven metres high and they are separated by about 20 metres of flat snow. A panel of five judges, each scoring out of 100, awards points based on overall impression, taking into account altitude, style and technical difficulty. Top scores are typically in the high 80s.
"The cool way to explain it is when you are airing out of the pipe, the most awe-inspiring thing is, it's 22 feet high and we're airing 15 to 20 feet out of it, so you are 40 feet off the ground. It's almost four storeys off the ground," Riddle says enthusiastically. "So it's pretty exciting to watch."
Athletes for this event come in all sizes but they share a few things in common – no excess bulk, lots of strength and supreme skiing technique. The Chinese have tried turning gymnasts into halfpipe specialists with mixed results. While many of the athletes could perform the tricks, their skiing wasn't good enough. Canada has become a force in all the Olympic freestyle disciplines, which include aerials, moguls, cross, halfpipe and slopestyle.
Riddle of Sherwood Park, Alta., and Rosalind Groenewoud of Calgary are both gold-medal hopes at Sochi in ski halfpipe. Groenewoud, who had surgery on both knees last December, won the 2011 world championships and placed second in the World Cup standings last season. There are plenty of other medal contenders, including 2010 Olympic champion Alex Bilodeau in moguls, and the Canadian Freestyle Ski Association is targeting six medals in total. Twenty athletes have been selected so far (the six-member skicross team will be announced this week).
Although 27, Riddle began seriously concentrating on halfpipe only seven years ago. He'd been skiing since 11, heading to Jasper or Banff in Alberta as often as possible with his parents and siblings. He tried downhill racing but it never stuck. Then one day he saw some kids doing freestyle and decided to give it a try. By 2006 he was competing in both slopestyle and halfpipe, and eventually focused on halfpipe in 2008, figuring it had a shot at being included in the Olympics.
All four men on the Canadian ski halfpipe team – Riddle, Justin Dorey of Vernon, B.C., Noah Bowman of Calgary and Matt Margetts of Penticton, B.C. – were schedueld to compete at the X Games last week in Colorado. Groenewoud and fellow Canadian team member Megan Gunning of Edmonton were to be featured in the women's halfpipe in Colorado. Now it is off to training camp in Europe before heading to Sochi.
Riddle placed third in a test event at Sochi last year and says he's planning a few new tricks for the Games next month. But much depends on the weather, with clear skies and warm temperatures his preferred conditions.
There is something bittersweet about the Olympics for the Canadians. Sarah Burke, a gold-medal favourite who spent years fighting to get halfpipe into the Games, died during training in 2012 and the loss casts a long shadow over the Canadian team.
Riddle will especially feel the absence of his close friend. He and Burke often competed at the same events and lived near each other. "Her passing was pretty hard on me," he says. "I know that she would have wanted us to keep pushing the sport and go to the Olympics and represent Canada as best as we could. … She is going to be on our minds a lot the whole time we are there."