How Park City became a hotbed for Olympic slopestyle skiers

Of the eight men and women representing the United States in slopestyle and big air, all but one live and train in Utah.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Colby Stevenson (USA) competes in the big air men's final at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing on Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022.

What kid can resist a pool party? Not a young Colby Stevenson, who was standing atop the small ski jump platform at the Utah Olympic Park in Kimball Junction during a Nordic combined practice one day when he looked down and noticed one — complete with cannonballs — taking place on the ramps below him.

“I remember just looking at the water ramp and being like, ‘I don’t want to do Nordic,’” Stevenson, now 24, recalled. “I wanted to go do flips and jump in the pool.”

The pool at the UOP is aerated, so it provides a forgiving landing for anyone who takes the plunge. Within a few sessions of playing hooky from his ski jumping and cross country lessons, the 6-year-old had taught himself to do a backflip.

“After that,” he said, “it was on.”

Eighteen years later, Stevenson is still doing backflips, usually in multiples, with a twist or two or five and a grab thrown in for style. As he proved by taking silver in the big air event at the Beijing Olympics last Wednesday, he is one of the best in the world at his sport. But when he clicks into his skis to compete in the men’s slopestyle event this week in the resort town of Zhangjiakou, north of Beijing, he will face plenty of competition — much of it coming from his neighbors.

Of the eight men and women representing the United States in slopestyle and big air, all but one live and train in Utah.

Salt Lake City native Marin Hamill and Park City residents Maggie Voisin, Darian Stevens and Caroline Claire are representing Team USA in the women’s slopestyle event. Qualifying was bumped to Monday after Sunday’s snowstorm created poor visibility. With the sun shining but temperatures below 20 degrees, Hamill and Voisin advanced to Tuesday’s final.

Hamill crashed on her final jump, however, and had to receive medical help. A U.S. Ski & Snowboard spokesperson said she injured her right leg and would return to Utah for medical care.

Voisin, who herself was injured during training at the 2014 Olympics and then placed fourth in 2018, called the course at Genting Snow Park “challenging.”

“I kind of feel like I got all of my messy runs out of the way,” Voisin said Monday, prior to finishing fifth in Tuesday’s final, “and am ready to go full send.”

In the men’s event, which began qualifying Tuesday, Stevenson will be joined by Park City’s Alex Hall and Salt Lake City resident Nick Goepper.

All except Hamill, the youngest at age 20, picked up the sport before it was added to the Olympic program in 2014. World Cups weren’t even a thing until 2012.

“The funny part is, when I was getting into the sport, it was only the X Games and, like, there wasn’t even World Cups yet. It wasn’t a sport yet,” Stevenson said. “It’s just, that’s why it’s so cool. I was just following my passion and expressing myself through skiing and different tricks, and my own style of tricks. And now that has kind of morphed into an Olympic sport.”

Stevenson and Hall grew up pushing each other to go bigger and get weirder with their tricks. Stevenson’s family moved to Park City when he was 4. Hall, 23, grew up in Switzerland but moved to Park City when he was a teenager.

Hall spends his summers surfing and skateboarding. But the variety and quality of park terrain near his home makes Utah the place he returns to every winter.

“Utah in the wintertime, I mean, it’s amazing,” he said. “There’s so much good skiing.”

Hall said he typically trains with the US Ski & Snowboard team at Park City Mountain Resort, but sometimes he’ll brave the Cottonwood canyons for a more relaxed and rail-heavy session at Brighton. On the weekends, he heads to the backcountry. Some of his favorite spots, though, are literally right outside his door.

Like the railing around a deck, or the handrail alongside some stairs.

“Another great thing that might sound kind of more weird or obscure is when there’s snow in the city, I love to go and try and ski handrails and ski in the city when I can,” Hall said. “Because that’s a big part of what I like to do. So when it snows to Salt Lake, which hasn’t been too much in the last couple of years, but when there is snow and I’m in town, I love to try and go down there and avoid the people at the resorts and kind of stick down there with some of my friends and try and get some video footage and stuff like that. And then it’s also great training ground.”

Goepper joined their crew when he moved to the state just three years ago. He has won a bronze and a silver in the past two Olympics and said he would like to have the complete set.

“It would be a cool story to kind of complete the trifecta, if you will,” he said. “And it definitely poses an opportunity to apply a ton of pressure on myself, which usually helps me. It’s kind of a nice little storyline. If it works out, it works out. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. I love it and I can’t complain.”

Stevenson said he didn’t know how the Park City area became a hotbed of slopestyle talent, as opposed to, say, Aspen or Breckenridge, both in Colorado. He guessed it had to do with many of the biggest names in the sport setting up camp there and then inspiring young rippers like himself.

“A lot of the pioneers of the sport were here, like Tanner Hall and George Christiansen, Simon Dumont, like all those people were here training,” he said. “They’re out here and hitting the water ramp all summer long.”

Most of them were like him, he said, frustrated by or bored with flying straight and narrow. At the heart of the sport, he said, is skiers wanting to express themselves through their tricks. And it doesn’t matter if that person is 6 or 56.

“The sport was just at an insane growth point. Just taking off like a wildfire, almost,” he said. “And it was everyone that was doing mogul skiing and these other forms of skiing that they couldn’t really express themselves in the way they wanted to. And so finally, they were able to. and then just sending it and just doing things nobody has done.”

Now it’s the next generation of Utahns’ turn to push the limits, and they’re not disappointing.

Hall, who entered the Olympics ranked No. 2 in the world in both slopestyle and big air, placed eighth at Big Air Shougang in Beijing. But that was only because he under-rotated and skidded out on the landing of the double cork 2160 — a six-rotation whirlybird of a trick that would have seemed impossible even to his peers, much less to the sport’s pioneers, if Hall hadn’t landed it last month to win X Games gold.

He said he’d rather have tried it than played it safe. And he might try it again Wednesday if he makes the men’s slopestyle finals. It is, after all, a crowd-pleaser.

“That’s the main thing that counts, everyone’s screaming and having a good time,” he said. “And as long as we’re putting on a good show and people are having fun, that’s all we can ask for.”

Kind of sounds like a pool party.