The Limelight: Sam Ward and the not-so-secret world of ski halfpipe
Sam Ward | Vitals
Age: 16 years old, skiing since 18 months old
Home mountains: Copper, Keystone, Breckenridge
Career highlights: Third overall at 2016 USSA Junior Nationals in Sun Valley, first overall at 2016 USASA Nationals, second in slopestyle age group at 2016 USSA Junior Nationals
Shout outs: Völkl Skis, Marker Bindings, Dalbello Boots, Smith Optics, Blackstrap Inc., Leki poles and gloves, Woodward Copper, Christy Sports in Dillon
Halfpipe skiing ain’t what it used to be, and Sam Ward is caught in the thick of the transition.
For years, founding fathers like Tanner Hall and Peter Olenick worked on new tricks and rotations from the privacy of their home mountains. When France’s Candide Thovex won the very first X Games ski halfpipe gold medal in 2003 — hard to believe it’s been around for 13 seasons — the fans (and even his peers) were blown away by a combination of amplitude everyone knew was coming and tricks no one ever did. Like snowboarding in the ’90s, every contest felt new and different and exhilarating, simply because you never knew what to expect.
“There’s a set pipeline for the tricks you need to get better: you need doubles in halfpipe and unnatural doubles in slopestyle,” Ward said of the sport these days, which is now one of the most popular events at X Games, the U.S. Grand Prix, the U.S. Revolution Tour and the Winter Olympics. “But it’s ultimately up to you to keep up with the progression.”
The 16-year-old Colorado native grew up watching guys like Hall and Simon Dumont progress pipe in the early 2000s — the final few years before social media. Then Instagram and Twitter and the rest arrived, and suddenly, like everything from Kanye West to Donald Trump, freeskiing went public. Gone was the secrecy, replaced by constant and unrelenting progression.
“With social media these days, everyone knows what everyone else is doing,” Ward said as we waited in an enormous holiday lift line at Copper Mountain Resort. “It used to be more of a secret, where people would train in private and then come to a contest and bust it out. These days it kind of takes that secret away.”
Does Ward think social media has made the ski halfpipe game harder? Not necessarily, at least not for up-and-comers trying to crack into the big leagues. For guys on the top — guys like David Wise, a friend of Ward’s from the freeski circuit — it means eyes are always on their every move.
“I do some research on what people are doing,” Ward said. “That tells me what tricks to do and what tricks not to do, and that helps me keep up with the level that keeps getting ridiculously higher and higher.”
Why, then, does it seem like fewer and fewer freeskiers are interested in halfpipe? Industry veterans like Chris Hawks, director of the freeski program for Team Breckenridge, said earlier this season that his program is dominated by slopestyle and big-mountain skiers. It’s the same for Ward’s former coach and still mentor, Chris Carson, at Team Summit Colorado. Halfpipe has started to fade away, and Ward thinks it has to do with the near-impossible level of competition these days.
“It’s becoming more like aerials than halfpipe,” Ward said, referring to the classic Olympic discipline known for gymnastics-style dismounts off ski ramps. “And nobody wants to do aerials. It’s great for spectators, but no one wants to do it.”
Halfpipe might be changing, but Ward still puts the hours into training. On that jam-packed holiday weekday, he sessioned the Copper pipe with a dozen or more Japanese snowboarders and a handful of Winter Park team athletes. At this point, at this age, Ward would be happy to finish top-three at U.S. Revolution Tour events for pipe or slopestyle. He’ll take either one, he said, and it all comes down to paying his dues.
“I want to make finals for Rev Tour in slope or pipe, it doesn’t matter which one,” he said. “The ultimate goal is to take my skiing to Dew Tour and the X Games.”
Ward is well on his way.
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