Can an Old Skier Learn New Tricks?

With Olympic skiers and snowboarders flying through the air, how hard can a simple 360 be? As it turns out, pretty hard.

A skier goes off a jump in the terrain area at Woodward Park City in Utah.Credit…Kim Raff for The New York Times

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By Tim Neville

I hurt.

Constellations of sallow contusions pulse on my legs, and my elbows resemble raw meat. Sweat soaks my helmet and drips into my ski boots. I have fallen more today than in all of my 35 years of skiing. And yet, I’m grateful. This could be so much worse.

It’s a brittle, 20-degree day in Park City, Utah, and feeble sunlight falls through the holes in the clouds. It is here in the spectacular Wasatch Mountains, 40 miles east of Salt Lake City, that you’ll find some of the country’s most famous ski areas. There’s Deer Valley, with its fizzy spas and brilliant glades, and Park City Mountain, a sprawling giant with heated lifts and 7,300 acres of terrain.

But I’m at a place called Woodward, which sits off Interstate 80 near a Phillips 66. There are no condos or restaurants with menus announcing bison in beurre. Woodward does have a ski lift, a few short runs and what looks like a warehouse. You can drive right by and not even notice it, but you should. This is where you come to up your game, literally.

I learned to ski fairly young, and as a result, even now, well into my middle-age years, there are few slopes that scare me. I can fight my way down narrow chutes, maintain speeds that would earn a car a ticket, and keep my turns so tight in the trees I’ll emerge with moss on my jacket. But the thing I never learned to do properly is to jump. In those days it was illegal and I nearly lost a lift ticket once for catching air off a mogul. Decades later, once my skis leave earth, I still have all the control of space trash.

I have come to Woodward to change that. That warehouse holds 66,000 square feet of total kid heaven, a palace full of Olympic-size trampolines, ramps and spring floors, where you can learn to fling yourself off things, over things, down things, even up things. Cavernous foam pits and an airbag with a pressure-monitoring system can transform what would have been a trip to the E.R. into a harmless flop on a featherbed. Master your moves inside and you can head outside to find more features.

“We had a guy who always wanted to do a back flip on skis for his birthday,” says Matt Peterson, the marketing and brand director for Woodward Mountain Centers. “By the end of the day he was doing it, and he was 70.”

Today is a Tuesday, not too busy, and kids are blasting off the biggest jump, a 10-foot-high monster with a foam pit deep enough to consume all traces of them upon impact.

“Did you see that?” beams a boy in a black T-shirt after a back flip on his scooter.

“Dude, that was awesome,” says the other.

For me, things are not so awesome. I’ve been here for hours and I’m still quivering atop the tiniest of the ramps, a relaxed U-shape formation with a three-foot jump that’s perfectly arced for an up-and-out trajectory. I’ve been hurling myself off this thing while wearing special roller skis that I can neither stop nor turn. Once I shove off I’m at the mercy of physics and the airbag, which after 40 — 50? 60? — crashes will still leave you bruised and bleeding.

Max Leabman, a 33-year-old skiing and snowboarding coach, stands ready to film me in slow motion. I’ve hired him to teach me to do the only trick I have ever wanted to do, the simplest of tricks, the one that forms the basis for so many other tricks. A 360. That’s one full spin in the air.

“You got this,” Max says. “Confidence and commitment.”

“Confidence and commitment,” I repeat, and push off down the ramp.

The humble 360

Of the Olympic events that made their debuts at the Winter Games in Beijing this year, to me, nothing brings awe like the new big-air skiing event. To watch a breakable human roar 200-vertical-feet down a black-diamond-steep slope, hit a 16-foot-tall ramp at 40 m.p.h., soar 80 feet or more through the air, all while spinning and flipping, and somehow having enough “air awareness,” strength and flexibility to cross skis or to reach down and grab them for style points mid-flight — and then touch down with skis perfectly aligned on another steep slope, often backward: It’s enough to leave even veteran commentators flabbergasted.

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Consider the X Games in January in Aspen, when the Park City local and Olympian Alex Hall performed an electrifying “switch double-cork twenty-one sixty Buick-grab” a new trick whereby he hit the jump facing backward (switch), did six full spins (2,160 degrees), two of them so off-axis they looked more like spirals (double cork, like a corkscrew), all while reaching his right arm across his chest to grab his right ski, now behind him (a Buick grab), and then untangled himself to land at high speed, backward, again.

“No way,” shouted the announcer, Tom Wallisch, a former X Games gold medalist, who asked for a slow-motion replay. “I need Alex to just tell me what he just did.”

Of course, Mr. Hall, 23, an Olympic favorite, was building upon a long lineage of skiers who saw the doors that a little hang time could open. Stein Eriksen, “the father of freestyle skiing” threw gorgeous, swan-diving front flips in the 1950s and ’60s. The hot-doggers of the ’70s, like Wayne Wong, popularized more upright tricks, like the “daffy,” the air-walking, front-split-like strut best performed while wearing neon.

Then came snowboarding.

Ski areas in the 1980s, after years of resistance, eventually embraced the rapscallion world of “snow surfing.” Soon ski resorts lifted bans on jumping and built skateboard-like “snowboard parks” that evolved into today’s terrain parks, with an array of half pipes, kickers, tabletops, boxes and rails. With these new features and attitudes, tricks became less about rigid gymnastics and more about style.

Skiing quickly followed suit as companies like Salomon in 1998 marketed skis with “twin tips” for riding backward like snowboards could, but the “freeskiing” uptake still took time. In 2002, the mogul skier Jonny Moseley had to convince Olympic judges at the Winter Games in Park City that his “dinner roll,” a 720-degree, off-axis spin, didn’t violate fusty rules against inverted aerials since his ankles technically never went above his head. His execution was flawless, but the panel wasn’t wowed and Moseley took 4th.

Today, the repertoire of tricks is staggering, as is the language used to describe them. “Safety grab double rodeo.” “Switch right quad cork 1620.” “Cab 5 double grab.” But at the root of these high-octane showpieces lies someone who began by mastering the humble 360.

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“That was the first trick I got good at,” Mr. Hall told me shortly before heading to Beijing, where he would win gold in the slopestyle skiing event. “The 360 is like the first piece in a puzzle you can use to put different tricks together to make more complicated tricks.”


The word for that step-by-step approach is called “progression,” and you hear it a lot at Woodward. The company started in 1970 in Woodward, Penn., as a gymnastics camp, but has long since branched out into bike parks, skateparks and terrain parks at ski areas in Vermont, California, Colorado and Oregon. In 2009, Woodward opened its first indoor mountain center in Copper, Colo. The one in Park City opened in late 2019. At each facility, the idea is the same: Start small to go big.

“Gymnastics really is terrific at figuring out how to take you along in steps,” said Phoebe Mills, Woodward Park City’s general manager, a snowboarder and a 1988 Olympic bronze medalist on the balance beam. “That’s the basis for what we’re doing.”

Max, my coach, seemed confident my skiing experience and the progression method would have me doing 360s in a few hours. I met him midmorning, signed some waivers, and followed him out onto a red spring floor in my jeans, a T-shirt and socks. He pointed to a line on the floor. I stood on it.

The first step to any trick is the “pop,” a snappy, two-footed jump you must time right as you take off from the ramp. A good pop sends you on a stable, balanced flight path. A poor pop spells disaster. People get scared on approach and lean back, which sends their feet shooting out from under them. Being “in the back seat,” as skiers say, strips you of all landing gear but your coccyx.

On the floor, my pop was Olympian. Max asked me to jump and spin 180 degrees around to land back on the line. I did that by naturally rotating to the left. This was Max’s first clue about me. From then on he would focus on my dominant, “natural” direction of spin to the left, leaving the lessons on “unnatural” spins to the right for another time.

Max asked me to try a full spin. He showed me how to use my arms to set the rotation in motion, and how to look over my left shoulder and lead with my left elbow until I could see forward. “Don’t worry about your legs,” he said. “Bottom follows top.”

He popped, spun and landed on the line as if he were a rotary dial. I was certain I could do this, too, but I could not. I fell to the left. I fell to the right. I fell forward. I was never anything but an average athlete; now I didn’t even feel average.

Max suggested we move to the trampolines where some extra airtime might help me make it around. It didn’t. Instead, it just exaggerated my flaws. Part of this was physics. I’m shaped like a misfit carrot — long and thin — and staying on axis is hard for carrots. Mostly, my balance — my joints, muscles and reflexes — really aren’t what they were.

Soon I was sweating profusely, and I could hear blood marching around in my ears. Doubt set in. I hadn’t even been here an hour. A boy, maybe 8 years old, stood by, watching me suffer.

“You’re doing great,” he said.

Max agreed: “I think you’re ready.”

Things got real when Max handed me some training skis called “ParkSkis,” which were about three-feet long with eight, small, white wheels mounted in such a way that the skis could roll closer to the ground than even a skateboard would.

To get used to them, Max took me upstairs to a pump track, an undulating pathway made of a material called Skatelite. The idea is to use only your body in an up-and-down pumping motion to generate momentum. The skis felt more like awkward roller skates, and the Skatelite was surprisingly slick, but I zipped to the other side with ease.

“These feel great,” I said.

“It’s time, then.”

Full circle

Max took me to the top of the ramp with the airbag to practice trickless jumps, or “straight airs,” with good pop. This was much harder than standing still on the spring floor, but with each attempt, my pop improved.

At the top again, Max asked me to visualize a 360. I pictured pumping down the in-run with bent knees, arms out, chin high, ready to spin as I approached the ramp. In the air I’d be calm with my knees slightly drawn, my gaze pegged over my left shoulder with my left elbow pulling me around.

“Here we go,” Max said.

I shoved off, but panic struck as I felt the skis tipping skyward. My pop fizzed and pitched me to starboard. I landed sideways and toppled over hard. Outside, my day would have been over. In here, the friction of my arm against the airbag relieved me of a tiny patch of skin. “A Woodward tattoo,” Max said.

I tried and failed again. And again, and again. Max showed me replays in slow motion and the problem was obvious: I would begin my spin, but hold it only until I was halfway around. Instead of leading with my left elbow, I’d inexplicably send my arms back to the right. This created failure every time.

I kept at it for what felt like hours. My tattoo became two tattoos and then a pair of hot wounds. My legs ached. My arms ached. My abdomen ached from crawling out of the airbag so many times.

But then, magic.

“I want you to reach your left hand behind you and grab your right bum,” Max said.

“Grab my bum?”

“And don’t let go,” he said. “You got this. Remember, confidence and commitment.”

I stopped thinking. In the air my head stayed high. I looked over my shoulder and reached around for my right bum, but before I felt anything, I saw something. It was gray and poofy and straight ahead — the airbag. This is what they mean by “spot your landing.” I stayed calm. My legs came around and I touched down upright at last.

“That’s it!” Max boomed, asking me to do it again. “Two for true.”

But I was so exhausted I could do no more. Back at the hotel, I ate four ibuprofens and was fast asleep by 8 p.m.

The next day, I rallied and took it outside. I was sore, but on snow, I felt like me again. Max said my brain overnight had internalized the muscle memory. He got me doing 180s, then 270s where I let my skis slide the rest of the way around. These alone felt like accomplishments. The fear turned to fun.

In the end, I did it: the lamest, most ridiculous 360 you ever saw, but I made it all the way around, in the air. Max, the consummate coach, let me have my greatness. “This is why I do this,” he said.

The best twist happened at home, though. On skis on my hill in Oregon, I now see every bump and feature differently. And sometimes as I race toward them I let myself wonder what else I might do.

Tim Neville (@tim_neville) is a correspondent for Outside magazine and a frequent contributor to Travel.

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