With no title sponsor, event producer Watermark Communications had to overcome some funding challenges in producing the 19th rendition of the World Ski and Snowboard Festival (WSSF) this year.
But you'd never notice judging from the hustle and bustle of activity throughout the 10-day festival's opening weekend, which drew thousands of people wanting to take part in North America's largest annual gathering of winter sports, music, art and culture.
"What we want is for nobody to be able to see that some of these challenges exist. We're a small community and … I'm pretty open and honest about everything, so people are aware but they shouldn't be based on what they're seeing out there on the street," said Watermark president Sue Eckersley of WSSF's first two days.
The biggest draw of the opening weekend was Saturday night's (April 12) Monster Energy Shred Show big air contest, with North Bay, Ont. native Max Eberhardt taking home the win and $15,000 after nailing his first ever triple-cork jump in competition. The signature event drew over 10,000 spectators, Eckersley estimated, and was one of the finest groups of riders ever assembled, she said.
"Amazing talent, huge crowds and the best big air competition the festival has ever had," Eckersley said. "The tricks those guys were throwing down and landing were just exceptional. That's the best rider group in over a decade."
Leading into the contest was a full day of free concerts held at Skier's Plaza, with Whistler's favourite hip-hop group, Animal Nation, kicking things off at 1:30 p.m. Rapper Prevail of multi-Juno winners Swollen Members — WSSF regulars by this point — was joined by his nephew, Neph, to rock the stage. This was capped by Long Island rap icons, De La Soul, who dug into their extensive 25-year catalogue to delight the diverse Skier's Plaza crowd. Eckersley estimated more than 7,500 were in attendance for the free show.
"The plaza was packed for De La Soul," she said. "It was parents with their kids, young kids and people that were 60 dancing in the crowd. It's their 25-year tour and it really is amazing how they've spanned the generations."
Friday, April 11 marked the opening gala of WSSF's State of the ART exhibit at the Whistler Conference Centre (WCC), which drew over 800 attendees and featured work from over 50 local, national and international artists. State of the ART curator Kevani Macdonald said art sales have been on par with last year so far, and that affordable items, like prints and jewelry, have been selling well.
"It went amazingly; We had a full house and lots of excited people looking at lots of great art," she said. "It was a good start for sure."
This year saw a live art installation by Vancouver's Tangible Interaction, who brought two large projection screens for eight artists to battle against each other on a digital graffiti wall. Whistler's own Kris Kupskay was voted the winner by the conference centre crowd, and used a digital "smart can" that emulates an aerosol spray to craft his piece.
"It was a full house and everyone was very happy and excited, and the artists had a good time trying out the new equipment," Macdonald said of the digital graffiti battle.
Friday also saw State of the ART move outside of the conference centre for the first time, with a live painting demo at Garf's by artists Stan Matwychuk and Shanna Duncan. There are also free live art demonstrations at the Creation Station eveyrday in the WCC from 3 to 6 p.m. The State of the ART gallery is also open everyday from noon to 6 p.m. where patrons can buy original art works.
With no title sponsor on the banner this year, Tourism Whistler and Whistler Blackcomb stepped up to help fund the festival, and local bar and restaurant owner Joey Gibbons kicked in $50,000 at the last minute to keep next week's skiing big air contest alive. Eckersley said the support from the community and resort partners is what makes putting on this festival so enjoyable.
"When the owners are stepping up, when people in the community are stepping up and when you're hearing such positive comments and the real love that this community has for this event, it becomes so easy to do," she said.
"This festival is never ever going to go anywhere, it's too much of who we are. It's a world-class festival that actually lives in the grass roots."
The World Ski and Snowboard Festival runs until Sunday, April 20. Visit www.wssf.com for more information.
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