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Dew Tour judges rely on experience, practice to get the job done

Krista Driscoll
kdriscoll@summitdaily.com
Photo: Tripp Fay / Copper Mountain Resort

What was that trick?

How to decipher what you see when the athletes are in the air

You can enjoy the thrill of halfpipe and slopestyle competitions at events like the Dew Tour in Breckenridge and Grand Prix at Copper Mountain without having much of a clue what’s happening. But in case you want to more thoroughly understand the spectacle, Dew Tour snowboard judge Tom Zikas and freeskiing judge Steele Spence have broken down a few of the tricks for the average Joe.

Snowboard

• The trick (halfpipe): Front side double cork 1080 — 1080 degrees of rotation (three complete rotations) combined with two off-axis cork spins. “They’re changing their axis,” Zikas said. “They’re spinning on two different axes, doing the 1080 and corking, which means off-axis, their body two separate times throughout that spin. Coming in straight forward, with the 1080, they’ll be coming out switch.”

Judge’s notes: “One with that many spins, it’s difficult to hold your grabs, so you’re looking at the rider to hold their grabs,” Zikas said. “The more that it’s corked is a factor — if it’s double corked — definitely a clean landing and, most of all, their amplitude above the wall with it as well. Primarily it’s amplitude and grabs. Without the cork, it’s a flat 1080.”

• The trick (slopestyle): Rail slides — “There’s a way to spin on called the hard way, where you’re spinning onto the rail but you’re spinning away from it. You’re alley-ooping onto the rail,” Zikas said. “Variables include the direction you’re spinning onto the rail and the side you’re getting onto the rail from.”

Judge’s notes: “Sometimes, you’ll see riders air on and maybe slide 3 feet of a 10-foot rail, tap on and tap off,” Zikas said. “What we’re looking for is riders really locking on and sliding the majority of the rail, good takeoff, good landing. … The direction that you spin onto the rail and direction that you spin off the rail could potentially up your score.”

• The trick (big air): Backside 1440 triple cork — 1440 degrees of rotation (four complete rotations) combined with three off-axis cork spins. “It’s a similar explanation to the pipe, where an easier trick would be a straight backside 1440, now they are doing it triple corked,” Zikas said. “Corking their body, getting off axis three times throughout that 1440.”

Judge’s notes: “Counting rotations and looking what direction they come in, which direction they come out, how many times they get off-axis,” Zikas said. “You can kind of count those rotations; it happens fast, but if you’re on it, you can do it. For any type of corked trick, it definitely has a way different look as compared to a flat 1440 compared to a corked 1440. You’ll see that rider off axis and spinning sideways throughout that jump. It’s a huge, noticeable difference.”

Ski

• The trick (halfpipe): Double cork 1260 — 1260 degrees of rotation (three and a half complete rotations) combined with two off-axis cork spins.

Judge’s notes: “The first thing we look at is the direction of takeoff, which is switch or forward,” Spence said. “For this one, you’re coming in forward, then the mount of rotation. We just know with a 540, you’ll take off forward, you’re going to land forward; 900, you’re going to land forward. If you do a 1080, you’ll be taking off forward and landing switch. And one of the reasons we can so easily identify the tricks is the direction of takeoff and the direction of landing.”

• The trick (slopestyle): Switch 270 — Taking off backwards, rotating 270 degrees (one and one third complete rotations) and landing on the rail sideways

Judge’s notes: “When you jump on a rail, you rotate 90 degrees to be on the rail,” Spence said. “You can spin 270, 450 or 630 — there’s a whole other set of rotations on the rail because you’re landing perpendicular to the rail. With the switch 270, it’s taking off backwards, 270 degree rotation, to land sideways on the rail.”

• The trick (big air): Switch double flat spin 900 — Taking off backwards, 900 degrees of rotation (two and a half complete rotations)

Judge’s notes: “Flat spin is a different axis,” Spence said. “It can be done in pipe and slope. Taking off switch, two and a half rotations, they’re going to be landing forward. The flat spin is an axis where the feet rotate around the head with the body parallel to the ground. It’ll be done twice.”

A snowboarder drops into the halfpipe, climbing the first wall and rocketing into the air. She spins and twists and lands cleanly, launching into the next trick, board rotating, hand grabbing, a blur of motion and controlled, chaotic movement. Trick after trick, she continues her run down the pipe until it spits her out at the bottom.

From their perch, the judges frantically map the run. In those brief moments, years of experience and hundreds of clips of previous runs go through each of their heads, as notes are scribbled, rotations determined, style taken into account. They ultimately agree on a score, and the announcer bellows it out to the crowd, which roars its approval.

In the booth

“One of the hardest parts about judging, especially X Games and Dew Tour, is the live TV factor. We watch the run as it happens live, record all our steno marks and have about 30 seconds to get all of our scores in. You have the TV producers yelling at you. There’s a lot of money on the line for these athletes …

At events like the Dew Tour in Breckenridge and the USSA Grand Prix at Copper Mountain, score calculations happen so quickly that they almost seem robotic to the average spectator. But the process of judging halfpipe, slopestyle, big air and the like is less an empirical science and more of a collection of experiences fitted to a rider and applied to paper. Judges use steno sheets to map an athlete’s run, marking each maneuver with cryptic shorthand that tracks difficulty of trick, amplitude, grabs and other elements of style, number of rotations and, finally, landing.

“We record the runs as they’re live in progress on our steno sheets,” said Steele Spence, a five-time X Games competitor in slopestyle who switched to judging competitions after injuring his neck on a filming trip six years ago. “This is what we use to compare runs and then rank them. So all the top-level judges have a great skill in this because it takes a lot of practice, especially to be able to record as much information as possible.”

An accurate steno is crucial, Spence said, especially with high-level events like the Dew Tour, where the difference between first and second place could come down to a missed grab. In the booth, each judge is doing his or her own thing, looking back at previous runs and deciding where this particular run will sit, said Tom Zikas, who for the past decade has been judging snowboarding events ranging from X Games and the Dew Tour to Olympic qualifiers.

“There might be a question or two: Did he grab or did he not grab?” Zikas said, describing how a particular judge might complete his notes. “He’ll ask the head judge. They get their score, and that’s about it.”

Training to become a judge is a process of practice, rather than memorizing specific point values, Spence said.

“I give presentations to certify judges and created all the materials to certify,” he said. “Even for the top-level judges, we do it all with video. I have almost 200 video clips. It’s more important to be able to recognize it than to be able to describe it on paper.”

From there, ranking is a matter of comparing runs to one another.

“With halfpipe, if you do a hard trick and you’re doing it, like, 2 feet above the lip, then we’ll score it as an easier trick than 10 feet, way higher,” Zikas said. “Going big in the halfpipe is hard, so if you’re doing hard tricks combined with good amplitude, good style, you’ll do pretty well. Combined with that is landing; you want to be clean with your landing; you don’t want to be falling, scrubbing, hand drags.”

Spence said athletes are also rewarded for progressing the sport, doing new or unique tricks or variations of tricks, and riders are constantly pushing the envelope. Tricks have become more and more difficult, with more rotations and bigger amplitude.

“In the last couple of years, the best examples have been X Games big air,” Spence said. “The last couple of seasons in big air, we’ve seen multiple tricks done that have never been done before.”

Scores don’t matter

The most important thing for spectators to know is that the judges are ranking complete runs, not comparing trick for trick. Though a few competitions start with set point values for particular tricks, most events like Dew Tour and the Grand Prix don’t use that kind of system, Zikas said.

“There’s definitely not a set score,” he said. “There isn’t really a set value for each trick, per say. It’s an overall evaluation of the run combined. With that, we’re looking at each individual trick, breaking them down really meticulously.”

Judges get a feel for what an average-level run looks like by watching the athletes practice, and that sets a mid-level score, usually somewhere in the 70s, from which a ranking system can be built, Spence said.

“At each competition, we’ll watch the full day of practice or two days of practice beforehand and watch these runs, for that particular competition field, identify what an average run is for that level of competition and start noticing the above-average runs and below-average runs,” he said. “That’s where we get our starting point for building a ranking.”

Average-level runs in competition provide an anchor, giving the judges room for higher and lower scores, depending on the difficulty and execution of subsequent runs. Because of this, there could be a gap of 10 or more points between medalists with comparable runs where the judges left space for other riders to potentially squeeze in.

Spence said there’s a fair amount of subjectivity to this form of overall impression judging, and sometimes even within the judging booth, the panel of five scoring the run will disagree on a ranking, in which case majority rules. Scores and rankings are often questioned, which is something the judges actually encourage, Zikas said.

“We have their whole run documented and each person that finished in front of them and try to give them a good explanation of why exactly we put them where we put them, their score and ranking,” Zikas said. “That happens, and we love talking to riders when they have questions.”

Spence said that when discussing scores with athletes and coaches post-competition, they often wonder why a run was given what they felt was a low score, and the judges must reiterate that the numbers really mean nothing.

“They’ll see a number come out for this run, and they’ll say, how can you give her a 75? Well, the score is irrelevant,” Spence said. “Look at the two scores that ranked above her. And explain this is why I gave it a score; I didn’t believe it was as good as this score. We constantly have to remind people that it’s about the ranking, not about the score.”

There’s also no point in comparing scores from competition to competition or year to year of the same event.

“With snowboarding, it’s progressing every day, every week,” Zikas said. “If someone has a 95 as their average score one year and they get a 95 again the next year, even from competition to competition, it’s a whole clean, new slate because it’s impossible to place a point value on a particular run because it’s constantly evolving.”

As televised events have launched halfpipe and slopestyle into the world of primetime public scrutiny, the job of a judge has gotten even more difficult.

“One of the hardest parts about judging, especially X Games and Dew Tour, is the live TV factor,” Spence said. “We watch the run as it happens live, record all our steno marks and have about 30 seconds to get all of our scores in.

“You have the TV producers yelling at you. There’s a lot of money on the line for these athletes, and we really need to work quickly; it can be pretty stressful. A question we get a lot is, do you get to see replays? No, we don’t, we watch the run live once and that’s it.”


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