With the U.S. Extreme Freeskiing Championships just a few weeks behind us and the 12th Annual U.S. Extreme Telemark Freeskiing competition occurring from March 20-22, Crested Butte skiers are accustomed to the action, glory and sometimes painful wipe-outs associated with competitions. All eyes are focused on the competitors, but it is the laser-like attention of the judges that matters most.
"Some people think of judging as a cult. Some freestyling judges have been around for 25 years, since the inception [of the competitions]. They are die-hard ski bums. They have good jobs but manage to have freestyling lives," said Missy Ochs, head judge for the Rocky Mountain division of the United States Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA).
Freestyling and freeskiing competitions follow the rules of the International Ski Federation (FIS), the main organization of ski sports. For lower level, regional competitions, USSA rules may also apply.
A lot of ski competition judges are ex-competitors themselves. But that doesn’t exempt anyone from getting properly certified as a judge. All judges-in-training are required to attend clinics to learn FIS and USSA rules, watch videos, do practice runs and do practice scoring. There are different levels of judges; everyone comes in at "E," working their way up over time to the top "A" certification.
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"If you’re an A-level judge, you get to travel internationally. You get a free plane ticket, larger stipend and larger pay. I’m a B-level so I only travel nationally and to Canada. But I have friends who are going to Moscow, Japan and Europe," said Ochs.
To advance, a judge has to clear one level at a time–which can take a few years–by regularly attending clinics and satisfying FIS event requirements. A judge also has to remain in good standing. There’s a governing body for judges and they do background checks.
Day in the life of a judge
Ski competitions are usually a three-day event, starting at 10 a.m. and finishing by 3 p.m. The judges are seated together on a dais and confer with one another.
Even though it is an exciting opportunity for judges to witness skiing history in the making, the toughest part of the job can be sitting in the cold for five hours. Ski judges have learned through experience to dress warmly in their best thermals and thickest down jackets. Often, many wrap themselves cocoon-style in a sleeping bag.
If the competition requires some travel, judges receive a free breakfast and a shared room at a comfortable–but not luxurious–hotel like a Holiday Inn or Days Inn.
"For freestyling events, they pay for our local travel, give us a stipend for meals and pay us $100/day for five hours of work. That’s $20/hour. It’s a really good gig," said Ochs. "It’s just cold."
There is a good deal of camaraderie among judges, many of whom see each other regularly at events for years. After the competition, judges go skiing together, have a beer and meet up for dinner. "We used to party a lot harder. Now, a lot of us have families," said Ochs.
Responsible for split-second decisions
Judging a sport can be subjective, based on personal preferences. Like ice figure skating, a person can judge technical skills but then there’s also impressionable style. Even if a person is a good skier, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are good at judging. A judge has to be very good at analyzing a person’s skiing very quickly.
This can be another tough part of the job. For example, a whole freestyling mogul course is over in 22 seconds. A judge must be able to identify criteria and give the scores.
Their decisions have a significant impact on a skier’s career–for the better or the worse. It is a tremendous responsibility to bear and the judges take it very seriously so the ski community can have full confidence in them.
"A skier’s line score dictates to a large degree what you get for points. Control, fluidity, aggressiveness and techniques––these can only be two points higher than your line score. This prevents having a winner with a low line score," said Ross Matlock, head judge for the Extreme Telemark Freeskiing competition.
"Then there’s also a computer involved in the scoring. For example, a spread eagle earns 2.5 points from a judge. But to the computer, that’s the easiest degree of difficulty. Someone does a 360 and the computer’s [algorithm] will give that skier more points because there is more difficulty to it," said Ochs.
The evolving world of sport
Angie Hornbook began her stint as a head judge for extreme freeskiing events in 1997. Right around that time, she noticed that the big change in the sport came with the introduction of fat skis.
She said her most memorable competition was "the one in Jackson Hole a few years ago. Someone did 20 turns down a pitch on skinny skis. Shane McConkey and Seth Morrison did just three turns on fat skis and made it look like a blue run. They made the terrain look infantile."
Hornbrook also recalled the very first extreme skiing competition in Alaska.
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"Only a handful of guys and gals were competing. It was a whole different venue–the scale of the mountain. It was intimidating."
In clinics, judges are discussing new rules, because every year competitors are pushing the envelope a little more and throwing bigger tricks. "I’ve noticed over the years, lines that used to score 7 or 8 are now the standard lines," said Hornbrook. "You get more points for difficulty of line, and airs are getting bigger. But it also means risks are getting greater."
In the freestyling events, skiers are judged in aerial, mogul and slope style categories and compete for points. Ochs knows all about the competition points. In addition to being a head judge, she competed in moguls while she was a student at Western State College. "With the international point system, you get on this points list and compared to athletes from around the world. Points can earn you a spot on the U.S. Olympic Ski Team," said Ochs.
Hornbrook and Matlock both credit Gina Kroft at Crested Butte Mountain Resort for keeping the extreme freeskiing Alpine and Telemark competitions alive and well in Crested Butte. According to Matlock, Crested Butte has been the only place to put on a Telemark competition for five years.
"The Telemark competition is an avenue for young athletes to show themselves and prove themselves. They get recognition, build up a nice little résumé and get to solicit sponsorships from retailers," said Matlock. "In the competition, we make sure they’re Telemarking not Alpining. If they Alpine ski, they’ll get docked points."
Hornbrook, who competed in two extreme freeskiing competitions and wrote the first edition of the International Freeskiers Association judge’s handbook, loves the freedom of expression of the sport.
"It’s exciting. Freeskiing is not as structured as freestyle, which is an Olympic event," said Hornbrook. "There’s not a lot of money in freeskiing, which started as hot dogging 1970s event. That is the goal of freeskiing: To remain free. To have as little constraints and restrictions as possible."
"I’ve devoted my whole life to skiing and judging has given me the best seat in the house. It’s fabulous to watch what the skiers do, their creativity and the boundaries they push," said Hornbrook. "Because I have a technical eye for skiing, I’ll look up at a cliff while driving and see lines I may not have seen before."
"What I would want to add about judging is that it’s super fun. You get to know people who lead fascinating, dynamic lives. The basis of their lives is skiing. It’s their passion. It’s one of the top five loves of their lives," said Ochs. "It’s a really good group of people and that’s what keeps me coming back."