The Yukon Freestyle Ski Association has taken a giant leap forward in athlete development by allowing its athletes to take giant leaps.
Members of the association’s team can now attempt dangerous aerial tricks with minimal risk, thanks to its new giant airbag unveiled at Mount Sima on Sunday.
“It’s very exciting for our club,” said association president Lynda Harlow. “These kids, as you can see, are very talented. With this sport changing almost weekly, it’s getting more and more dangerous. These kids can now throw those big jumps now without getting hurt.
“They can get confident on the bag and perfect (the trick) and get ready to put it on snow.”
Similar to airbags used by Hollywood stuntmen, the airbag, which is 15 by 15 metres wide and 3.5 metres tall when fully inflated, cushions the landings of skiers who launch off ramps.
The airbag, made by Bagjump Action Sports in Austria, has put the Yukon Freestyle Ski Team on the fast track to developing “big air” stunts.
Previously, freestyle skiers would learn dangerous aerial tricks, such as flips and other inverted manoeuvres, with a ramp that propels them into a pool during the summer, either in Grand Prairie, Alberta, or Whistler, B.C. Skiers would have to land the trick numerous times in a row to receive certification to be allowed to try it on snow.
“This kind of opportunity is just not available to most teams in North America,” said Stu Robinson, the association’s head coach. “Having a bag here means the progression of the kids can be safe and can be fast.
“Normally you’d have to wait and do summer training with the water ramps to qualify and take that to snow, to make it safe for these inverted tricks that they’re learning. So it would take a whole season to get those under your belt. Whereas now we can do it in the same season. In one winter you can qualify on the bag and then do them on snow.”
As word seeps out about the Yukon association’s purchase, the Yukon Freestyle Ski Team will soon be the envy of almost every other amateur team in the country.
There are only about 10 airbags the size of the Yukon association’s in North America, and almost all are owned by resorts or professional teams. (Olympic snowboarder Shaun White has the same one in his backyard.)
“I think it’s even bigger than the one in Whistler,” said Harlow. “The company gave us a discount because we’re a member of CFSA (Canadian Freestyle Ski Association).
“Basically that means the bag is sanctioned and they back it up and they’re confident in the product.”
“It’s starting to sink in for the kids. I’m seeing how motivated they are to work hard,” said Robinson. “The kids are doing it all. They are learning how to use the bag, how to set it up. And we can only do so much work with the snowcat (grooming machine) so they built the landing by hand, built the jump by hand.
“It is amazing for their work ethic and their commitment to the sport.”
The ski association purchased the airbag for $42,000 with about $17,000 from Lotteries Yukon and over $25,000 from the Yukon government’s Community Development Fund.
“When I’m standing here, I still can’t believe it’s here,” said Harlow. “I think we’re so lucky that we have a government up here that’s so supportive of sport.”
Cold weather in the Yukon has limited the bag’s use so far this season – Sunday was just the third time it was inflated. Another setback came when Sima’s generator for the airpumps was not powerful enough, but Yukon Yamaha stepped up to lend a more powerful one until the association can purchase one of its own.
Even with the slow start, Yukon’s freestyle skiers are much better off.
“Last year we had a chance to use a bag for one session the entire year, so we’ve already done three times the training already,” said Robinson. “Even though we’re a little late getting started for the season, because of the cold we had there, we’re still getting ahead of the game.
“The other places that have bags, it’s also for the public. So they’re standing in line or getting time slots to use it. Just these guys use it, so there’s never a lineup, they get it all the time, and they train until they can’t walk.”
The training device is all but guaranteed to improve the Yukon team’s performance in big air competitions. That bodes well for the team, considering Yukon’s Sebastien Berthiaume placed fifth in the big air competition at the Canadian Junior Freestyle Ski Championships last year for the association’s best-ever finish at the national level.
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