Can These U.S. Women Sweep Big Air Snowboarding’s Olympic Debut In PyeongChang?

By Peggy Shinn | Dec. 07, 2017, 1:08 p.m. (ET)
(L-R) Jamie Anderson, Hailey Langland and Julia Marino pose for portraits at the Team USA Media Summit on Sept. 27, 2017 in Park City, Utah.

 

Jamie Anderson already has one Olympic gold medal. Soon, she might have three.

The free-spirited rider dominated the Olympic debut of slopestyle snowboarding, winning gold at the Olympic Winter Games Sochi 2014. In just two months, she hopes to defend her Olympic title in PyeongChang. And then win another in the latest snowboarding event on the Olympic program: big air.

Once dominant in slopestyle, Anderson, 27, is now being pushed by younger competitors — namely two Americans. Both 17-year-old Hailey Langland and Julia Marino, 20, have beaten Anderson in slopestyle and big air in the past year.

With athletes competing on a combined slopestyle/big air team in PyeongChang, these three women are medal contenders in both events.

“For sure, the American girls could sweep the podium,” said Anderson, who has a rare combination of an excited but laid-back demeanor. “That would be so fun to be a part of. I’m going to put that out there. First time ever, two rounds at the Olympics.”

The U.S. has only swept the podium three times in Winter Olympics history, all by U.S. men.

 

What Is Big Air?

Big air snowboarding is like the last jump in a slopestyle course, only bigger. Snowboarders fly down a steep ramp that resembles a ski jump (the PyeongChang ramp is 49 meters high — as tall as some of the old ski jumps). They then do one big trick after they fly off the jump.

Big air competitions have qualification rounds and finals, where each rider takes three jumps, with the top two counting toward his or her final score.

Big air is contested in both freestyle skiing and snowboarding. But only snowboard big air has been added to the Olympic program for 2018. Snowboard big air has been part of the world championships since 2003 — but only men’s big air. Women’s big air was not contested at worlds until 2015.

Big air was added to the world cup circuit in 2014, and the X Games re-introduced it in Norway in 2016, then in Aspen in 2017 (it originally ran from 1997-2001, then was dropped from the X Games for 15 years).

 

How Successful Are U.S. Women In Big Air?

To date, no American women have won big air medals at world championships. But they have been successful in world cups and at X Games. The first women’s big air world cup was held in Istanbul on Dec. 20, 2014, and 2014 slopestyle Olympian Ty Walker won.

Fourteen months later, on Feb. 11, 2016, big air came to Boston’s Fenway Park. Six women made the finals — three Americans and three Canadians. And Julia Marino won that event (with Jessika Jenson in fifth and 2014 Olympian Karly Shorr in sixth). Jamie Anderson just missed qualifying for the final. Two days later, Anderson won a big air world cup in Quebec.

Last season, Hailey Langland arrived on the scene, finishing second in the season’s first big air world cup in Milan. Anderson then won the big air event at Copper Mountain, Colorado.

Then at the PyeongChang big air test event last November, Marino finished second (behind Austria’s Anna Gasser, who won the world cup big air title last season), with Langland and Anderson just off the podium in fourth and fifth.

At 2017 X Games big air competition in Aspen, Langland won, with Marino and Anderson in third and fourth, respectively (Gasser finished second). Langland landed a cab double 10 (basically three spins, two flips) to win her first X Games gold medal.

“It was literally one of the best things I’ve ever seen a girl do,” said Anderson, who is stronger in slopestyle than big air. “I’m so impressed with her riding and her courage to step up and do that.”

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Who Are Langland And Marino?

From Southern California, Langland started snowboarding with her dad when she was 5 years old at Big Bear Mountain. At first, she did not like it.

“I didn’t like the cold,” she confessed.

But she kept going to the slopes with her dad and gradually “gained the love that he has for snowboarding.”

Once a halfpipe and slopestyle rider, she decided to focus on slopestyle when she was 13 — around the same time she began homeschooling herself. More recently, she added big air. But she never expected to make it as a pro snowboarder.

At age 15, she gained an X Games invitation, and “that kind of sealed the deal for me right there.”

Langland finished third in slopestyle at X Games in 2016 — one point and one place behind Anderson. Last year, she won the big air event at X Games in Aspen. Langland’s X Games bio calls her “the up-and-coming face of slopestyle snowboarding.” And big air, too.

When asked what it’s like to see her name listed with Anderson’s as a favorite, Langland shyly admits, “It’s a little shocking.”

“But it’s cool because she respects us, and we show her the same respect back.”

Marino has had a more surprising journey to the top ranks of snowboard slopestyle and big air. From Connecticut, she grew up skiing at Beaver Creek, Colorado, but only during the family’s one-week-long winter vacation.

When she was 13, she broke a ski in the moguls. She asked her dad if she could rent another pair of skis, and he said no. She had a brand new snowboard at the house (that her dad had bought for her years earlier). She had barely touched the snowboard. Why not give it a try?

After a couple days riding around Beaver Creek, she was hooked. She had grown up skateboarding in Connecticut, so she quickly picked up snowboarding.

Back home, her dad drove her to Stratton Mountain on weekends to ride. Finally, she enrolled at Stratton Mountain School but was only there for a year. She made the U.S. snowboarding team as a rookie, and she and her dad moved out to Colorado.

“Every year was kind of a new thing,” she said shyly. “It kind of escalated pretty quickly.”

She announced her arrival at the top level of women’s snowboarding when she won the big air event at Fenway in 2016. She wasn’t even scheduled to compete that day but was pulled off the alternate list when Ty Walker withdrew with an injury.

A month later, Marino finished third behind veterans Anderson and Finland’s Enni Rukajarvi in slopestyle at the world championships of snowboarding in China (hosted by the World Snowboard Federation, not FIS). At that event, Marino became the first woman ever to land a double cork in slopestyle competition. Her cab double underflip became her signature trick. (With her non-dominant foot forward, she does a 90-degree turn, then a double back flip, then another 90-degree turn to bring her back to her dominant foot.)

A year ago, Marino finished second in the big air test event in PyeongChang (behind Gasser). In her X Games debut in 2017, she beat Anderson doing her signature trick. She repeated the feat a month later, beating Anderson again in a world cup in Quebec City. But she credited Anderson — a four-time X Games gold medalist — for her podium performances.

“[Jamie] set the stage by being the reigning champion for so many years, she definitely inspired the girls to really push themselves so that they can compete with her,” said Marino.

“I don’t really think about, ‘Oh, I beat her in a contest,’” Marino added. “Competing at that level and pushing it each time is a really cool feeling.”

For the Olympic year, Marino has been working on new tricks that will hopefully keep her at the top of the slopestyle and big air podiums.

“The thing that I’ve always wanted to do is push my limits and see where I can go and see how strong I can be and what's the biggest spin I can throw,” she said. “As a group, all the ladies are doing that together, and I think that’s a really cool aspect of it.”

 

Will Anderson Remain On Top In Slopestyle?

Anderson acknowledged that she is no longer the runaway leader in slopestyle, nor has she ever been in big air. For years, she finished at or near the top of every slopestyle contest that she entered. And she won her Olympic gold medal in 2014 by a large margin over Rukajarvi.

“Forever, I was just chillin’, cruisin’ along,” she said with her laid-back, sunny demeanor. “I knew sooner or later there were going to be some young athletes coming along.”

To stay on top, she is “upping” her tricks by 360 degrees, or a full rotation, and working on “getting through that fear and risk that it takes to be an extreme athlete.” She is still healthy and strong but admitted that she should have worked harder in training this year.

Still, Anderson is winning when it counts. Last February, she won the first Olympic slopestyle qualifier in Mammoth, with Langland in second and Marino third. And the previous February, Anderson won the PyeongChang slopestyle test event, where she beat U.S. teammate Karly Shorr on her third run by over 10 points (Shorr finished second in that contest). And Anderson began the Olympic season by winning the first world cup — in September in New Zealand.

“Now that these younger girls have been looking up to me for so long, and now I look up to them in different ways, it’s kind of a good way to bring the new energy in and actually, like, help me,” she said. “I know I’m capable of more, and I want to do more before I move on to a different chapter.”

A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered four Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.