Take 5: Summit’s Steele Spence named U.S. freeski judge for 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang
2018 Winter Olympics
What: The 23rd Winter Olympiad, hosted in PyeongChang, South Korea and featuring the debut of big air snowboard, plus the second season of ski halfpipe and ski slopestyle
When: Feb. 9-25, 2018
Where: PyeongChang, South Korea
For more info on the 2018 Winter Olympics, including info on new sports like snowboard big air and disappearing sports like snowboard parallel slalom, see the official website at Olympic.org/Pyeongchang-2018.
In 2014, when ski halfpipe and slopestyle debuted at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, veteran freeski judge Steele Spence was asked to help NBC broadcasters make sense of the new (to them) sports. In September 2016, when the International Olympic Committee announced officials for the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, the Silverthorne local was asked to judge the whole show.
About a year from now, Spence travels to Seoul — home of most ski and snowboard events at the PyeongChang Games — to become only the second U.S. Olympic freeski judge in the history of his sport. He’ll work with a crew of six total, including head judge Phil Belanger of Quebec, to rank and award the world’s best freeskiers on the world’s biggest stage.
And Spence couldn’t be more excited.
“I was very honored to get the nomination because there are so many great judges in the U.S.,” said Spence, a former pro who was one of an undisclosed number of U.S. nominees vying for the sole position. “I’m also just excited to judge the biggest competition with the most viewership. Judging X Games has always been my favorite event because of the energy and the pressure and excitement, and the Olympics will be even more of that.”
It’s little wonder that Spence beat dozens (if not hundreds) of fellow judges to earn the nomination. In eight years as a pro-level, FIS-sanctioned judge, he’s sat on the panel for X Games and Dew Tour five years each, along with World Cup-level events like the U.S. Grand Prix and more. He also helped write the book on freeski judging before the sport’s Sochi debut, and when not judging, he leads FIS workshops across the world: Oslo, Seoul, Tokyo, Moscow — and that’s in the off-season.
Soon after his nomination, the Summit Daily sports desk caught up with Spence to talk about the current season, the upcoming Olympic season and what spectators can expect with a Colorado local on the freeski panel.
Summit Daily News: First things first — congrats on the Olympic gig. Is it common to have former athletes return as judges for the Olympics?
Steele Spence: We try to. There’s a lot of value in using former competitors, and one is they can appreciate the difficulty of the tricks. We obviously can’t do the tricks anymore — otherwise we’d be competing — but we have that appreciation of the difficulty. Another big part is seeing the progression. The judging format is still overall impression, so there’s still a little subjectiveness in this. Having knowledgeable judges is key to the judging format.
SDN: You’ll join an international panel of judges at the Olympics — it’s not just North Americans like we usually see at X Games and Dew Tour. What does that international panel bring to the Games?
SS: You can’t have two judges with two totally different ideas of what they want to see at the Olympics (and) a lot of these judges’ clinics try to bridge that gap. We could fill a panel with North American judges, but now that we have a judging education program going, you’ve been able to develop judges over the years. Ski and snowboard has always been judged on overall impression. For us, on the ski side of things, we started to get the same information to all countries leading up to 2014, so in 2011 and 2012.
SDN: Has judging evolved to reflect what’s happening on the snow? Like, have criteria changed to account for things like triples and quads?
SS: That’s a good key point. When I talk about overall impression, that criterion really hasn’t changed. It allows the judges to take what they see, and then rank athletes based on what they see. It really does keep everything in the hands of the athletes. There are no set degrees of difficulties for tricks, and the athletes build a run to be whatever they want. It’s up to us as judges to evaluate those runs. We keep five criteria in mind when ranking runs, and then we rank them as we feel appropriate. (Editor’s note: Read on for an overview of the five judging criteria.)
SDN: Was it important to you and other judges for overall impression to remain the benchmark, especially when ski halfpipe and slope came to the Olympics?
SS: Yes, and it’s very important that we’ve stuck with that. There are always coaches and athletes looking for, “Why is this move better than this move?” You saw it with freestyle skiing, when there was a proper way to do every trick. For me, the way I see it, there are so many different ways to do a simple trick like a 720. That’s just two rotations, but the variety you see there has allowed the sport to keep growing, and it’s great to see that format carried into the Olympics.
SDN: It feels like a lot of competitions are starting to change, beginning with Dew Tour this past December. You were a judge there for so long — what did you think about the new format?
SS: To be honest I don’t know much about it because I’m not judging (but) I think it’s cool. It’s a cool concept and Dew Tour is a great event to try this out. It’s so television heavy and it’s not on the FIS points list, so they can be more creative with it.
SDN: Seoul started hosting test events last season. Have you had a chance to see the slopestyle course yet?
SS: I was in Seoul for the test event last February and they put together an incredible course. It was not a standard slopestyle course at all. It wasn’t quite to the degree of Peace Park or those, but it was a very creative course with a lot of really cool lines. It was probably my favorite slopestyle course I’ve ever judged. This February, I’ll be heading to Korea again for the halfpipe test event.
SDN: As a judge, do you like seeing this level of creativity from the course designers?
SS: I do. I love seeing the courses with tons of options, and that’s what makes it slopestyle. Every halfpipe is pretty much the same, but slopestyle has always been my favorite. Those skiers need such a huge bag of tricks, and they need to create a new run every time they go through. These kids are so freaking good nowadays — it’s amazing.
SDN: Give me your prediction: What’s a finals run going to look like for ski slope in 2018?
SS: It’s going to need a huge variety of tricks — spinning in all directions, a variety of axes, all of that. We’ll be seeing a lot of triple corks — we’ve been seeing those since 2014 — and they will be back in Korea. I’m sure all of those guys will have triples, but it will come down to the variety they have between rails and jumps. You’ll see different grabs, different axes — putting a huge variety together.
SDN: Who are some of your favorite athletes to watch right now?
SS: I like watching Jossi Wells in slopestyle. He’s always finding a creative line and I love to see that. In halfpipe, I’ve really been impressed by Aaron Blunck. He’s put together some incredible runs.
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