X-Games pro Grete Eliassen discusses growth of freeskiing, dotors say injuries on the rise
March 21, 2014
Snowboarding may have started as a renegade sport, but in the terrain park it was always the ruling class.
Now 27, U.S. Red Bull athlete and U.S. team freeskier Grete Eliassen remembers it well.
"When I was growing up all the parks were snowboard parks, so they were closed to skiers," she recalled with a smile, riding up Chair 4 at Loveland Ski Area Tuesday, eager to tackle 5 inches of fresh snow. "It would say 'snowboarders only, skiers not allowed.'"
But that didn't much matter to the future six-time Winter X Games medalist. She credited her dad for encouraging her to break the rules in the early days of park skiing.
“When I first started skiing in the park, I was probably the only girl.”
U.S. team freeskiier
"My dad was actually like, 'Oh, Grete don't worry about it. You can go in, don't worry about it. Just go in and do your thing, jump off and do your trick."
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The idea of a skier being in a park was uncommon — even more so because that skier was a girl.
"Every time I'd go in I'd probably get snowballs thrown at me," she said, "but it was so much fun to be in the air I didn't care. I was like, 'Whatever, they're just jerks from school.'"
Even a few years ago the clash between skiers and snowboarders still existed, Danny Vogel, general manger for the Woodward at Copper said. "You would see more, I don't want to say hatred, but heckling between the two" groups.
But now with freeskiing as a featured event at the Winter Olympics, it's a different world. Freeskiing is clearly on the rise and skiers and snowboarders share terrain in harmony.
"It's really more of a community in the terrain parks," Vogel said.
But while snowboarding pioneered terrain park riding and ushered in a new youth culture to snow sports, freeskiing now seems to be taking the driver's seat. According to Snow Sports Industries of America — the organization that tracks ski industry trends and runs an annual snow show in Denver — the number of skiers who identified themselves as "freeskiers" (those who ski terrain parks and natural and manmade features) rose 47 percent in recent years.
Retail sales for hardware, like twin tip and terrain-park specific skis, have followed suit the last few seasons, though not as dramatically. Still, ski companies have responded by increasing their offerings and focusing on skis for women.
Eliassen has witnessed the evolution of freeskiing fristhand. "I feel like the sport's really — it's finally gotten this recognition from magazines and to now the Olympics," she said.
She's especially excited about the number of women jumping into the sport.
"When I first started skiing in the park, I was probably the only girl," she said. "I would have to go to competitions to ski with other girls."
But now, it's not uncommon to be in a park at a place like Breckenridge or Park City and have 20 other female skiers and snowboarders, she said.
"That's a huge change from what I've seen, which is awesome. It's so fun for someone like me who's been there from the start."
She agreed that now skiers and snowboarders are less at odds, instead opting to share the parks.
"It's definitely changed now where we're skiing together, skiers and snowboarders."
But with more people jumping into the terrain parks, it has also meant a higher occurrence of park-related injuries, U.S. Ski Team physician and Vail Summit Orthopedics surgeon Dr. Bill Sterett told the Daily.
"I think there's a much higher percentage of people searching out the terrain parks," he said. "I know that we see a lot more injuries."
While skiing has always been prone to knee injuries, the rise in park skiing has led to an increase in other injuries.
"We're having to deal with concussions a lot more than we ever have, and back injuries," said Sterett, who initially repaired Alpine skier Lindsey Vonn's knee. "There's a higher percent of fractures in freestyle than in the Alpine world. More of the injuries seem to be happening from landing short or landing flat, what they call knuckling."
With increasingly large park features — some of which require clearing a 40- to 60-foot flat space before reaching a downslope — the prevalence of those injuries becomes less surprising. But when a person clears that flat space the injury risk is reduced, Sterett said.
"Very few people get hurt landing in the steep area. It's amazing you can jump off a big cornice and not get hurt" — as long as the landing is sloped, that is.
The reason falling on a slope is less of a concern — provided the skis release — is that the momentum of the crash is dissipated through the fall. But landing on a flat surface leads to what he calls "sudden deceleration," like in a car crash where the force is more dramatic. So, surprisingly, going bigger off of a jump can actually be safer.
The other big concern he sees with park injuries is skiers over-tightening their dins — the measure of tension on their bindings — causing the ski to require more force to release.
"It's when the bindings don't release," he said. "Most of the time when I see someone in the emergency room (with a park-related knee injury), it's because of the ski that didn't pop off."
While many pros can claim a knee injury or a break of some kind in their ski history — Eliassen injured her knee in 2012 — it's a wonder more freeskiers don't suffer more injuries.
The reason, according to Danny Vogel, from Woodward, is proper learning progression and "air awareness."
Facilities like Woodward — an indoor training space at Copper that includes trampolines and foam pits for jump training — offer a safe environment and emphasizing taking the proper steps to increasing the size and complexity of jumps.
"In general we try to educate progression," he said. Often skiers don't take the proper precautions when heading into a terrain park. Vogel said skiers always need to scout jumps before hitting them. And they should start small to build a comfort level. Progression lowers injury risk. It's when skiers go for a feature beyond their skill level that things are more likely to go wrong. Hesitation or rushing into a big jump can lead to a compression-related injury, like Sterett mentioned.
Increased risk of injury or not, one thing's for sure: freeskiing isn't going anywhere. Vogel said the sport has been growing steadily and he's seen it at Woodward. Fifty-two percent of his guests now are skiers.
"I think freeskiing is continuing to grow," he said. It's too early to tell just what kind of an effect its recent appearance in the Olympics will have on the sport, but there is a precedent. When snowboarding was added as an Olympic event, there was a clear parallel to the sport's growth. Freeskiing is "something new and fresh in the Olympics," Vogel said. "If anything, I think that brings a general public perspective to the sport that wasn't there before."
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