Dew Tour judges explain the ins and outs of halfpipe and slopestyle judging
Meet the Dew Tour judges
At Dew Tour, a collection of six ski judges and six snowboard judges will score the slopestyle and halfpipe competitions. Nearly all of them have judged at Dew Tour before, and most also travel during the season to judge at X Games, the Burton U.S. Open and Grand Prix events.
Dan Allen — former pro and longtime ski photographer based in Breckenridge
Ian Meader — former freeski pro based in Denver
Andrew Wickes — former aerials pro based in Aspen
Phil Balanger — legendary Poor Boyz film star based in Quebec, Canada
Jason Arens — former freeski pro and Windells marketing director based in Lake Tahoe
Chad Otterstrom — veteran pro of 20 years based in Breckenridge
Giom Morisset — former Burton U.S. Open and Vans Triple Crown champ based in Quebec
George Oakley — former Grand Prix and X Games competitor from Oregon
Jonas Brewer — longtime snowboard judge based in Denver
Iztok Sumatic — longtime Olympic snowboard judge from Slovenia
When Dew Tour comes to town next week, chances are even casual ski and snowboard fans will recognize the superstars in the pipe: Kelly Clark, Jamie Anderson, Bobby Brown, Henrik Harlaut.
But the big names don’t end at the start list. At the base of the pipe and slopestyle course in Breck, a small band of former pros works behind the scenes for 10-plus hours over four days of competition in the judges booth. Chances are you also recognize the names — well, if you’ve been a student of both sports for longer than a few years. There’s longtime Breck local Chad Otterstrom on the snowboard side and Silverthorne resident Steele Spence on the ski side, plus a slew of others with decades of experience on the pro competition circuit.
“These guys know first-hand how difficult the tricks are, and that’s why we like bringing in judges with experience,” said Spence, a five-time X Games slope competitor who’s been head ski judge at Dew Tour for the past five seasons. “We can’t do them obviously because otherwise we’d be competing still, but we know what to look for.”
In other words, the best of the best from snow sports past are judging the best of the best from snow sports present. And, for Spence and head snowboard judge Tom Zikas, another former pro with 15 years of judging experience, that’s how it should be — especially as both skiing and snowboarding continue to evolve at a rapid pace. They aren’t easily blown away by a huck-fest. Instead, they look for it all, from technicality and amplitude to sheer, unquestionable style.
“We are forced to put a stronger emphasis on execution,” Zikas said. “With the advent of double, triple and now quad cork tricks, we more than ever have to keep a close eye on things like grabs and the fluidity of tricks. We still want snowboarding to look like snowboarding.”
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All judges — even the former pros — go through a certification process before entering the booth. There are various levels for different competitions, but everyone at Dew Tour is the cream of the crop, Spence said. All ski judges carry certs from the Association of Freeski Professionals, and most also attend FIS trainings in person before traveling to larger events like the Burton U.S. Open, Grand Prix and the Olympics.
This process introduces every judge to a slate of five criteria: Execution, difficulty, amplitude, variety and progression — all lumped under the umbrella of “overall impression,” or the final score. Those overall impression criteria are the same from event to event, but they also give judges room to be flexible based on the level of competition. The process is the same at Dew Tour and a USASA Revolution Tour qualifier — the only thing that changes is the size.
Before Dew Tour, Spence and Zikas explain the ins and outs of the five judging criteria:
This benchmark is all about how well a trick is performed. It sounds simple enough, and sometimes it is. Mistakes and botched landings factor into the score, Spence said. So do other elements, like fluidity of the run and overall comfort on the course or in the pipe. If an athlete flails and jerks through every trick, they’ll pay the price on the score sheet.
Like Zikas says, this criterion is constantly changing to keep up with the rapid evolution of both sports. Judges look at the difficulty of individual tricks and the difficulty of the overall run. If an athlete can link back-to-back-to-back doubles and do it well, chances are they’ll score better than a competitor with just one double in one direction.
There’s a reason most athletes use the first hit in the halfpipe to set the tone for the rest of the run. Not only is it the very first trick of the day — it’s also the best chance to float 20-plus feet over the pipe deck. These days, consistent amplitude is just as important as a massive first hit, and it’s not just in the halfpipe. Skiers and riders who float through every jump without coming up short will score better than someone who barely cheats through spins.
Variety isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. With so many tricks and variations, judges have to watch for a mix of everything.
“It’s an interesting criteria,” Spence said. “We want to see a variety of grabs, spins with difference axes — flat spins, double corks, all of that.”
Skiers and riders who can spin in all four directions (frontside and backside, switch and regular) have a major advantage here. At Dew Tour, expect just about everyone to have a mix of spins in every direction. The slopestyle course is built for just that, with four jumps after the opening rail section. That means unorthodox grabs and style will play a huge factor.
Like variety and difficulty, progression takes a look at tricks and how different athletes make them look, well, like something new and exciting. Every season, judges run into something completely unseen — and that’s what they live for.
“It’s up to us as judges to be current and recognize when we see something that is progressive,” Spence said. “It can be a deciding factor. At Dew or X, all of these guys are the best. They’re doing well-executed runs, insanely difficult runs, so sometimes progression is what it comes down to.”
And it should. Events like Dew Tour are showcases for everything new that’s happening in skiing and snowboarding, and the judges know it. After all, most of them were at the top of the pipe at one point or another, pushing their sport to the limits. It’s time for the next generation to do the same.
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