Calling the shots from Tahoe | Freeskiers find a voice

Once the renegade faction of the ski world, freestyle skiing has come a long way from a group of adrenaline-fueled guys hucking backflips and breaking all the rules to growing into an organized sport that was most recently thrust into the spotlight of mainstream sports following the inclusion of halfpipe and slopestyle skiing in the 2014 Winter Olympic Games. But the evolution didn’t happen without careful guidance from key players within the industry.

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An athlete drops into the halfpipe during the U.S. Grand Prix at Mammoth Mountain. | Jenn Sheridan

In the earliest stages of the sport, freestyle skiers were competing in various events around the world, but the discipline were largely fragmented and judging competitions was entirely subjective. Capitalizing on a growing interest in action sports, ESPN launched the X Games in 1997. It was a multi-day competition showcasing the talents of the highest caliber athletes in sports such skateboarding, BMX, Rally Racing, snowboarding and, later, freestyle skiing.

“The AFP is helping to guide competition organizers. It’s cool to have the voice between the athletes and event organizers.”
–Kyle Smaine

“The Association of Freeskiing Professionals was initially a means of creating a transparent path for people to get into the X Games. None of the athletes knew how that process worked, so we wanted to create something that athletes would understand,” said Chris Schuster, a founding member and president of the AFP. Born and raised in Tahoe, Schuster spent his childhood years ski racing and later was hired by U.S. Pro Ski Tour to travel around the country and manage professional ski races.

“One thing led to another and I ended up in the ski and snowsport event management business by default,” says Schuster. But his background made him the perfect candidate for the X Games athlete selection committee.

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PK Hunder, Vincent Gagnier and Jesper Tjader celebrate after being named AFP Big Air World Champions during the 2014 season. | Courtesy AFP

Along with Josh Lubeck, a former professional freestyle skier and the head judge for freestyle events; Michael Spencer, an athlete agent who is well connected with the skiers vying for a spot in the X Games; and Chris Jerard, editor-at-large for Freeskier Magazine, Schuster set out to build an algorithm that would become a standardized way to rank not only athlete results but also the various events where they were competing. However, the four men soon realized that their work didn’t end at the X Games.

So, with an office based in Tahoe City and a couple of the founding members working remotely, they set out to grow an organization that would best support the needs of the athletes and give them a unified voice within the industry.

“It was that specific need that planted the seed where we all realized there was a big void in the industry that needed to be filled,” said Schuster.

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A skier sends it over the money booter during the U.S. Grand Prix slopestyle event at Mammoth Mountain. | Jenn Sheridan

“With the X Games or Dew Tour, they’re basically building a television show. They can create something that looks good on TV, but from an athlete’s perspective it’s not that good, so maybe they won’t want to do it the next time. The AFP is helping to guide competition organizers. It’s cool to have the voice between the athletes and event organizers,” said Kyle Smaine, professional halfpipe skier and AFP member.

The subjective nature of skiing makes it a difficult sport to judge and, to the untrained eye, a trick that takes a lot of technical skill might not appear as impressive as a trick that is relatively easy in comparison. When it came to selecting athletes for the X Games, there needed to be clear criteria that judges and athletes could agree on.

“We’ve worked very hard in developing the best judging educational materials out there. Many of our judges are people that have come up through the ranks as competitive athletes who later chose to focus on the judging aspect of the sport. I call it the non-sexy part of the sport,” said Eric Zerrenner, executive director of the AFP.

The AFP’s judging program is built around the concept that someone with no freeskiing experience could start at the beginning with the AFP’s educational materials and get into the judging booth at entry-level events before working his or her way up to judging alongside any former athlete.

“Not to say that athletes don’t bring a level of knowledge that no one else can because they’ve been there and done those tricks, but not every athlete wants to be a judge,” said Zerrenner. As unsexy as it may be, judging is especially important at the Olympic level.

“Now it’s critical because the entire world is watching for the first time and if it’s not judged properly we’ve immediately lost all credibility,” said Zerrenner.

Moving forward the team continues to rely on athletes to drive the direction of growth in the sport. They’re especially focused on growing events at the entry level and fostering relationships with athletes and event organizers that will continue to grow for years to come.

For more information on AFP and upcoming events for the 2015-16 season, visit afpworldtour.com.