The evolution of hot-dog skiing on Mount Werner


— The 1960s brought free love. It was also a decade that brought free skiing.

Youngsters who came of age 40 years ago in the United States sought change from the social norm. Free spirits in Steamboat Springs found it on the slopes.

"It was a cultural thing," former U.S. Olympic Freestyle coach Park Smalley said. "They were looking for something a little bit different than making left or right turns."

The Steamboat Ski Area has played host to the freestyle revolution, from its maverick beginnings to its pop culture status today.

Those who helped nurture the sport in Steamboat recall a time when freestyle skiing did not enjoy such mainstream acceptance.

Those who believed traditional Alpine skiing was the only way to get down the mountain looked down on "hot dog skiing."

Smalley moved to Steamboat in 1975 to promote freestyle skiing. When he first approached the ski area about endorsing the sport, he was turned down. Freestyle skiing at the time was riddled with injuries that Smalley felt more adequate training and coaching could prevent.

"They really didn't want anything to do with the sport," he said.

So Smalley took his program to Howelsen Hill. The original group of athletes that agreed to try the sport was small, but many of the young participants went on to successful freestyle careers.

"It's pretty amazing for a small community," Smalley said.

For two years the athletes never performed any tricks on the snow.

They instead twisted and turned on trampolines and artificial jumps that tossed them into a pile of straw in the summer. "It was almost a Barnum and Bailey thing," he said. Curiosity often compelled onlookers to ask about the flying antics of the youngsters.

Jon Smalley assisted his older brother with the program. He laughs when he remembers baseball players in the fields around Howelsen missing a catch because the young aerialists were a distraction.

The Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club endorsed the freestyle program in 1978. The Great Western Freestyle Camp soon after became a permanent summer fixture at the base of Howelsen Hill.

Smalley marvels at how quickly his skiers developed their skills. His early students included U.S. Moguls Champion Cooper Schell, Olympic moguls medallist Nelson Carmichael and three-time Olympian and Olympic aerial coach Kris "Fuzz" Feddersen.

"The progression came so fast," Smalley said. "I knew the sky was the limit."

The sky is still the limit today, he said, as the newest generation of young free skiers and riders continue to push the envelope. "They want to be seen and heard and do their own thing," Smalley said. "It's a whole new wave of youngsters that are coming up."

Official acceptance of freestyle skiing by the international ski community did not come without some of the structure that freestyle skiers were initially trying to get away from.

But the Smalley brothers see a gradual return to the days of yesterday.

"It will be interesting to see where the next generation takes it," Jon Smalley said.

The constant evolution of freestyle skiing, he said, is what keeps it exciting.

Early advocates of the sport agree the sport has come a long way since the early days of hot-dogging in Steamboat.

Park and Jon Smalley remember hurriedly packing snow together to create makeshift jumps on the ski mountain, only to see them torn down by ski patrol.

Sometimes renegade freestyle skiers piled snow in the trees to ensure the longevity of their jumps. "We were always sneaking around," Jon Smalley said.

The Steamboat Ski Area has since embraced the renegade sport and freestyle skiers no longer have to take to the trees to hone their skills.

The Park Smalley Freestyle Complex that includes the Voo Doo mogul run and aerial jump facility was dedicated on Dec. 16, 1999. It served as the official training site for the 2002 U.S. Olympic Freestyle Team and hosts a slew of regional, national and international competitions. "It's come full circle," Park Smalley said. "It's certainly a dream come true to see the way it is now."


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