Humans enjoy competition, particularly in sports. So it’s not surprising that from the time people started strapping boards to their feet, they also found ways to compete on snow. In its earliest form, it was what we now call cross country skiing. Then ski jumping was added which actually turned skiing into a spectator sport. In the early 1900s, ski jumping events in the United States drew thousands of spectators! Alpine skiing events started in the 1920s, first with downhill races, then slalom, and eventually the other events we see today.
Skiing’s popularity boomed in the 1960s and with it some new stars emerged outside the conventional competitive circuits. They gained popularity in the ski movies of the day with their tricks, jumps, and mogul skiing. So it was natural that competition would arise among this new breed of skier.
In 1971 Tom Corcoran owned Waterville Valley ski area and Doug Pfeiffer was the editor for SKIING magazine. Together they planned a National Championship of Exhibition Skiing. Despite the name it was a competition, and it would be a professional competition! Chevrolet sponsored the event putting up $4500 in prize money plus a Corvette for the winner!
The event was held at Waterville Valley March 5-7, 1971, and is recognized as the first freestyle competition. I received no answers to last week’s trivia question. That’s a little surprising since I believe one of my usual readers was in that contest!
Contestants would take 3 runs on Waterville’s True Grit to show off their skills. The run had moguls, some manufactured kickers for aerials, and a less steep runout that would allow for tricks. The judges were led by Doug Pfeiffer plus a couple of 10th Mountain Division veterans. Interesting choices! I did find one reference that said Jean Claude Killy was one of the judges, but I couldn’t find any corroboration of that. The event drew about 2000 spectators to cheer on the contestants, an important aspect of freestyle skiing.
The winner was Hermann Goellner who was best known for his aerials. He was the first to do a triple flip and a full twisting flip, aka the Moebius Flip, which was featured in the ski movie with the same name. Originally from Austria, Goellner had been the Austrian National Junior Champion before coming to Killington as a coach in 1964. It was at Killington where he perfected his aerials.
Second place was Ken Tofferi from Ludlow, Vermont. I knew his brother who worked at IBM Burlington. Ken was an excellent mogul skier and featured in a couple of ski films. I believe he still runs Totem Pole Ski Shop in Ludlow.
Third place was Wayne Wong, a name that would become synonymous with freestyle skiing. Wong was a college student in Vancouver, British Columbia, who made the trip to New Hampshire to compete. He later would head the Freestyle program at Waterville Valley.
Fourth place went to the only woman in the competition, Suzy Chaffee! Suzy skied on twin tips to facilitate some of her ballet moves. She was way ahead of her time!
Waterville Valley can claim the first freestyle contest, but subsequent competitions followed quickly.
The very next week K2 sponsored a contest at Aspen which was really a mogul contest on the Ridge of Bell. And there is video of this contest that capture how “free” Freestyle was. I haven’t found similar video evidence from the Waterville Valley event.
And in April of 1971 Vail teamed up with Chevy and SKIING to sponsor the Rocky Mountain Professional Freestyle Championships. For this event, aerials, moguls, and ballet/tricks were contested separately. However prizes were based on total score with moguls counting for 50%. First prize was a Camaro and total prize money was $6000. Freestyle skiing as a competitive professional sport was off and running.
Today, 50 years after that first event, freestyle is part of the FIS and Olympic programs, but in separate specialized events. Plus there are new offerings such as Half-Pipe, Slopestyle, and Skier Cross. That last one should be a lot more exciting than it turns out to be! How many of us as kids raced our buddies down some narrow trail? We used to call it “bumper cars”, but I think a more popular term is “Chinese Downhill!”
I’ve complained before about how much of freestyle has become formulaic and lost some of its’ excitement, but I’ll finish with a quote from Wayne Wong from the 30th anniversary of the Waterville event in 2001. ”It’s wonderful to see how far these great athletes have taken the sport,” Wong said. ”I just hope they don’t forget why they got into this, I hope they don’t forget the free in freestyle skiing.”