This article was originally published on The Toronto Star website.
This weekend, Mikaël Kingsbury will ski down an impossibly steep slope in Japan, race around four bone-jarring bumps every second and make it all look effortless.
Along the way, he’ll throw in the hardest back flip and twisting jump tricks in men’s moguls.
Right now, the 22-year-old skiing phenom from Quebec is so far ahead of the field he already has the overall title locked up, with a third of the season still to go.
And that leaves Kingsbury with an interesting dilemma: he can probably win the final three World Cup races of the season and become the most decorated moguls skier in history, or he can risk losing one to do something no one in his sport has ever done before.
Kingsbury is fairly confident he can land a cork 1440 — that’s a partial back flip with a quadruple twist. It adds one more twist to the hardest trick currently in moguls, the cork 1080, which Kingsbury and Canadian teammate Alex Bilodeau used to win silver and gold, respectively, at the Sochi Olympics.
The culture of freestyle skiing is all about the latest and coolest trick, so his coaches naturally “get excited” when he talks about wanting to try something new.
“But when we’re on skis and I tell them I want to do it then they get a bit worried,” Kingsbury said, with a wide, mischievous smile.
“I want to be the one to continue to push our sport . . . and not just to push the sport but to push myself,” he said, about why he’s considering trying the risky new move at his next World Cup race in Tazawa, Japan, on Saturday.
The last skier who got bored with the restrictive rules in moguls was American Jonny Moseley.
His innovative dinner roll, a double off-axis spin, at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics left him just off the podium in fourth place but inspired a generation of jump-inclined skiers, including Kingsbury. Moseley is more revered by freestylers for pushing the limits of moguls with that trick than he is for the gold medal he won at the 1998 Nagano Games.
Moseley’s dinner roll, which was closer to a flip than anyone had come before on a challenging moguls course, jolted the sport into a new era. The very next season, the international governing body changed the rules to allow single flips. That paved the way for the difficult moves Kingsbury and the now-retired Bilodeau perfected to dominate the international field.
But the sport hasn’t moved forward on the jump front since 2003. And, at a time when freestyle skiing in general has caught back up to snowboarding on the cool-meter, Canadian moguls skiers still find themselves, despite enormous success on skis, struggling to find lucrative sponsors.
Moguls, it seems, falls in the mushy middle of skiing: it doesn’t have the history and cachet of alpine and it’s not the flashy new kid on the block of slopestyle.
Kingsbury thinks more freedom around the jumps — the element that wows audiences — could help draw more attention to the sport he loves.
“We’re calling our sport freestyle and that means being free, free to do whatever you want,” he said. “We shouldn’t have limits.”
But moguls definitely does. The rules restrict skiers to single flips, which is why Kingsbury has to add more twists if he wants to try something new. He already does the hardest back flip on the first jump. But what he really wants to do is double back flips.
“The last time me and Alex Bilodeau asked, ‘what do you think about doubles?’ we got told, ‘If you want to do doubles go do aerials.’ ”
In fact, this season, FIS, the sport’s governing body, has changed the scoring system to de-emphasize jumps and reduce the incentive for skiers like Kingsbury to take risks by throwing new and harder jumps.
A moguls score has three parts: time down the run and the judged components of precision turns through the bumps, and the two jumps.
At the Sochi Olympics, jumps and speed were both worth 25 per cent of the total. Now, they’re down to just 20 with turns rising to 60 per cent.
The change was deliberate to “emphasize turns, which is fundamentally what the event is about,” FIS freestyle skiing co-ordinator Joe Fitzgerald said.
The new scoring system and course changes that make the bumps harder to ski hasn’t affected Kingsbury’s ability to win — he’s won five of the six World Cups so far this season.
With 26 World Cup victories in total, Kingsbury already is the most successful Canadian moguls skier. With three more, he’ll take over the all-time record held by France’s Edgar Grospiron.
When Kingsbury was a young kid, his mom used to tell him that winning didn’t matter, but he knew it did. He likes to win. He wants Grospiron’s title and he wants that fourth Crystal Globe as the overall leader, too.
“Crystal Globes are like the Stanley Cup in our sport,” Kingsbury said. “Once you hold it you never want to let it go.”
But he also wants to push his sport forward, and that means trying something new, even if there’s a risk he’ll miss a podium because of it.
Doing tricks in moguls is harder than other disciplines given the speed they have to come into the jump with and the unforgiving landing that requires an immediate return to skiing turns.
But if the conditions are right in Japan and if he’s feeling good, Kingsbury said he’d like to throw a cork 1440 on the bottom jump.
And if not at the World Cup in Japan on Saturday and Sunday or the final race in France a week later, then soon.
“I don’t want to get bored doing pretty much the same thing all the time,” he said. “We progress (as athletes) and the sport needs to progress, too.”
The dilemma of sticking with something known that can probably win or trying something riskier and more exciting is one Moseley knows well.
When the story of his dinner roll at the 2002 Olympics is told it’s often said he cared more about putting “free” back into freestyle skiing than winning a medal. But that’s not true.
“I wasn’t trying to be a martyr. I wasn’t going there to lose and just show off a trick. I genuinely thought I could do that and win,” Moseley said in an interview.
Now, it’s Kingsbury who thinks he can do both with a cork 1440.
“With the right conditions and the right jump I don’t think that’s out of his range,” Moseley said.
“It’s not in my range. It’s revolutionary for sure.”