The Big Three
I n the three-year history of X Games Tignes, six men have won medals in Ski SuperPipe. Three are French, two are American and one is Canadian.
Over the course of this season, which technically began last summer in New Zealand, 17 of the 18 podium spots at the biggest events -- X Games Aspen, Breckenridge Dew Tour and four Olympic qualifying FIS World Cups in the U.S. and Europe -- have been claimed by men from the U.S., Canada and France. The lone exception was New Zealand's Byron Wells, who took second at the Dew Tour.
If you look at the biggest event in the sport -- X Games Aspen -- only two countries were represented among the eight skiers who competed in the 2013 final: the U.S. and France. When David Wise beat Torin Yater-Wallace and Simon Dumont to lead an American sweep in Aspen, it marked the 11th consecutive year that a French or American man won SuperPipe gold in Aspen.
All of which leads to an indisputable truth: Less than a year before its Olympic debut, the sport of men's halfpipe skiing has never been more homogenous. There are three powerhouse nations, and then there is everyone else.
At X Games Tignes, coming up March 20-22, all but two of the Men's Ski SuperPipe contenders will be from one of three countries: USA, France, and Canada (plus Jossi and Byron Wells from New Zealand). American David Wise won the Ski SuperPipe gold in Aspen. Can he defend his title in France?
In Tignes, 12 of the 14 invited pipe skiers will hail from one of those three countries, with the other two competitors, Byron and Jossi Wells, coming from New Zealand. So there is a good chance history will repeat itself.
Regardless, the three-nation dominance begs two questions: Why are they so good, and what distinguishes them from one another?
Head coaches for all three teams were asked to rank the teams leading up to Tignes. Only Greg Guenet of France obliged. "I think the U.S. is first right now, then France and Canada are really tight," he said, quickly adding: "The U.S. is better than us now, but not for long."
He's not the only one targeting the Americans. Canadian medal hopeful Mike Riddle joked at the Olympic test event last month in Russia: "Canada is on top of America geographically, so I think we should be on top of them on the podium."
Among the big three, the French are taking a unique approach to the next 11 months that could affect their showing in Tignes. Surprisingly, Guenet said it's not a priority to reclaim the gold medal that Frenchman Kevin Rolland won the first two years at X Games Tignes, only to see Yater-Wallace wrest it away last year. "Our goal now is only the Olympics," Guenet said. "It doesn't matter if we are not that good in X Games this year."
That may change once the skiers find themselves at the top of the pipe in France between March 20 and 22, but Guenet insisted there's no added pressure to win in front of the home crowd. "When we came into Aspen and won X Games three years in a row [from 2009-11], we were so proud because we won in the U.S. against U.S. guys," Guenet said. "It was our dream come true. We're not prouder if we win in Tignes than if we win in Aspen."
U.S. coach Andy Woods, meanwhile, said the American men are approaching Tignes the same way they would if the Olympics weren't looming next winter. "Maybe I'm a bit old-school, but a lot of guys have been really successful in this sport before it went to the Olympics," Woods said. "A lot can happen between now and February 2014. I think it's in an athlete's best interests to move along with his ski career and not push all your chips toward Sochi."
Asked whether the Aspen podium sweep sets up the U.S. team any better for Tignes, Woods said: "It definitely makes you feel pretty good, but I don't think you ever go into an X Games with any ambitions of sweeping the podium. Honestly, like any other event, we try to go in and do what's in front of us and don't get too hyped up or look at our results too much."
Although each of the big three has enjoyed ample success in recent years, they've used different tactics to get there. And no team's journey has been more representative of the sport's broader history than the Canadians'.
Before the Canadian Freestyle Ski Association began funding the national halfpipe program two years ago, Trennon Paynter coached and oversaw the team independently. His athletes, including the late Sarah Burke, raised money from sponsors to be able to compensate Paynter and afford travel and other expenses. Their collective approach went against the individualist grain that had defined the sport for decades.
"One of the strengths we have is our team program and mentality was not only bought into by the athletes, but it was athlete-driven," Paynter said. "They wanted it so bad that they went out and raised money and paid for it to happen -- to have a team and a coach and a program. They've really invested in it."
This is contrary to the American team, which was formed under the new U.S. Freeskiing wing of the longstanding U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, America's national governing body. Prior to the team's formation, American athletes competed with little, if any, unity. Now, they convene for camps throughout the year, share coaches and physical therapists and often train at USSA's Center of Excellence in Park City, Utah, with athletes from other Olympic sports.
France, meanwhile, operates on a more freewheeling level, like the Canadians used to. The French Ski Federation does not fund a halfpipe program in the traditional sense; instead, the federation gives the top five men -- Rolland, Xavier Bertoni, Benoit Valentin, Thomas Krief and Joffrey Pollet-Villard -- approximately $4,000 apiece to allot as they wish. Guenet receives no federation money for coaching the team, which operates under an informal moniker called the French Freeski Project. Rather, the athletes pay him out of their personal sponsor retainers, and Guenet supplements their compensation with sponsorships of his own.
"The French federation just gives money, and the skiers have to manage with this money all year long," Guenet said. "It's nothing."
A private benefactor covers the French team's lodging when it travels to the U.S., but Guenet said it's still expensive to train. Copper Mountain gives the team a deal on lift tickets -- a benefit the resort also extends to the Canadian team -- but at Breckenridge, the French skiers paid $100 apiece for each day's training, Guenet said.
"It's really expensive for us to spend half the year in the U.S.," Guenet said. "We can't stay there as much as all the Americans do, so they're skiing more than us. It's the reality."
I think the U.S. is first right now, then France and Canada are really tight. The U.S. is better than us now, but not for long.Greg Guenet, French Halfpipe coach
Paynter echoed his French counterpart on this separating factor among the teams. "I think one of the biggest things about creating and training and developing halfpipe skiers is access to perfect halfpipes," Paynter said. "That's one big, measurable advantage that I think the U.S. has over everyone: just the fact that there's more perfect pipes in the U.S. than anywhere else."
The Canadian team receives complimentary season passes to Whistler-Blackcomb, while the U.S. skiers get passes to Breckenridge, Vail, Copper Mountain, Mammoth Mountain and Park City, among a handful of others. Each of those resorts builds an Olympic-size pipe with 22-foot walls.
Still, as Woods said, "It's not like we can just roll up and say we want private pipe time, accommodations and lift tickets right now. Like everyone else, if we want private pipe time, we've got to pay for it. Our accommodations, we've got to pay for it."
The American athletes aren't given cash like the French skiers, but the USSA has invested in a far deeper pool of athletes than either the Canadians or French, which bodes well for their future and has caused Paynter to take notice.
"We've kind of got all our eggs in more of one basket with the core team we have now," Paynter said. "It allows us to focus more on supporting those people because we're not spread out as much, but at the same time, you're not as protected in terms of depth."
Ultimately, despite the lack of parity on a global level, halfpipe skiing is more fiercely contested now because of the big three and their pursuit of one another. And in that sense, whether you're talking about X Games Tignes or the 2014 Olympics, it's hard not to argue that the sport is better off.
"I think it's great for the Olympics that there are a lot of people out there with the capability to podium," Paynter said. "It's not like eight years ago when you knew it was going to be Tanner [Hall] or Simon [Dumont]. Now you've got a whole pool of people, and every event you're like, who's it going to be?"