By NATHAN VANDERKLIPPE
Thursday, February 22, 2018
PHOENIX SNOW PARK, SOUTH KOREA -- The snow teams in Pyeongchang have done their jobs to perfection, grooming slopes and jumps that have launched some of the most spectacular performances of these Winter Games.
But why ski a groomer if there is epic powder nearby, even if that means cutting out on part of the Olympics?
It's not a tough call if you're the U.S. men's ski halfpipe team. While other Olympians were busy putting in training runs in South Korea, the U.S. skiers spent part of the Olympics in Japan - "Japow," as it's known in the ski community - plunging onto pillows of fresh stuff.
"We decided to skip out on opening ceremonies to ski pow and train in the pipe here in Aormori [sic] Springs!" Aaron Blunck wrote on his Instagram page next to a picture of him tearing through a blizzard of his own creation.
In South Korea, the natural snow outside Olympic venues can be measured in millimetres. At Aomori Spring Ski Resort in northern Japan, the current base is 210 centimetres, total snowfall this year has reached nearly 61/2 metres and there is "no competition for the abundant fresh powder," a powerhounds.com review promises.
"This must be just like livin' in paradise," Blunck wrote next to another photo of two skiers leaping above an untrammelled powder meadow beneath evergreens laden with snow.
Two of the team members - Alex Ferreira and David Wise - made it to the opening ceremonies, before flying to Japan.
Blunck and teammate Torin Yater-Wallace went straight for the powder after completing Olympic registration procedures in South Korea.
Their own event was scheduled late in the Olympics so they didn't miss any practice in Pyeongchang, said Bret Kelly, strength and conditioning coach at U.S. Ski & Snowboard.
Besides, "we just got done with X Games. That's a pretty high pressure situation," Kelly said. To go out and "just ski some powder have some fun, that's what the sport is all about."
Aomori is unusual in Japan in that it has a substantial terrain park, including a large halfpipe, Kelly said.
But it wasn't the pipe that stuck with them.
"It never stopped snowing the entire time I was there," Wise wrote on Instagram, apologetic he hadn't posted more. "I was too busy shredding every moment."
When Yater-Wallace came back to South Korea, he told Kelly: "I just had the best week of my life. And now I'm at the Olympics."
"The skiing was just ridiculous," Kelly said.
"They're all obviously insane skiers."
The team made quick work, too, of any notion that chasing fresh turns could hamper their performance.
After the second Olympic qualification run Tuesday, Blunck, Ferreira and Yater-Wallace are one, two and three. "It's just skiing at the end of the day and the only thing I really know, put my heart and soul into and I truly love," Blunck said afterward.
The final is scheduled for Thursday.
U.S. Ski & Snowboard declined a request to speak about the Japan trip.
But the idea of Olympians jetting out to chase powder has already added to the myth of an unrivalled group. Wise, the defending Olympic champion won gold at the January X Games in Aspen, Colo., followed by Ferreira and YaterWallace.
When Josh Loubek heard they went to Japan during the Olympics, "I thought that was the coolest thing," he said. Loubek is one of the deans of the sport; he was the head judge for slopestyle and ski halfpipe at the Sochi Games.
The men's team are "very calculated and incredibly trained athletes, just like everyone else at the Olympics," he said.
But who could resist northern Japan when it's just a little more than 1,000 kilometres from Pyeongchang?
"Number one, Japan is like 'Japow' is what everyone calls it," Loubek said. "It's the new frontier for powder skiing. So it's a legendary place to go. It is kind of that sacred feeling of getting out there into a different culture and skiing really deep powder and getting yourself into a really cool place."
In other disciplines, years of gruelling training for elite performance - 10,000 laps to perfect a speed skating stroke - can bleed the love out of sport. Some Olympians struggle to describe what they do as fun. Not so in freestyle.
"Of all the sports that are in the Olympics, skiing and snowboarding are not really sports.
They're more culture," said Mike Rogge, a ski writer and director who is a former managing editor of Powder magazine.
"Tell me: When is the last time someone quit being a lawyer and moved to a frozen pond so they can find their ice skating passion? That doesn't really happen.
People don't drop everything when they're 50 and hope to retire to a hockey town," he said.
Still, the rigours of Olympic competition have also had their effect on freestyle, a sport rooted in free expression whose skiers now approach competition with formal strategizing.
Before a big competition day, Canadian skier Cassie Sharpe and her team will write "on paper and really set this is Run 1, this is Run 2, this is Run 3."
"Obviously in the moment it can change. But we have a general idea," she said.
Even on training runs, the tricks are discussed ahead of time. "You've got it fully planned out just so you don't wear yourself out and it's not too mentally draining, either," she said.
The Canadian men's ski halfpipe team made its own stop en route to the Olympics, landing in Hawaii for a few days. But they didn't surf. The team cited "injury management."
It's all serious enough that getting onto some fresh snow is something most Olympians in Pyeongchang can only dream about.
"I mean, that's what Canada is for," Sharpe said.
She waxed wistful about a "powder pipe day" she remembered in Calgary. "It was incredible and so that's good for the soul," she said, speaking the day before her gold-medal run.
"But when we come out here, we know that it's business."
With a report from Carrie Tait
U.S. skier Aaron Blunck trains in Pyeongchang on Thursday. Because his event was scheduled later in the Games, he spent part of the Olympics skiing in Japan.
MATTHIAS HANGST/GETTY IMAGES