Once upon a time the World Skiing Invitational was the biggest event in pro freeskiing, breaking new ground in the sport when only a handful of skiers dared to challenge the terrain park, before twin tip skis were widely available.
Some of the top freeskiers in the world cut their teeth here, some of them as teenagers accompanied by their parents. Careers were launched and legends made.
Soon, it seemed like every resort in the world was hosting freeski events, some of them competing directly with the WSI for top athletes and sponsors. The event never disappeared but it declined slightly and in 2010 there was only one superpipe event on the schedule, complimenting the Orage Masters pro team event.
The 2011 event, however, promises to be the biggest ever with the announcement that the WSI would double as the AFP (Association of Freeski Professionals) World Championships with over $125,000 in cash and prizes up for grabs. That puts the WSI on the same level as X Games and the Dew Tour when it comes to pro contests.
Then, two weeks ago, the International Olympic Committee announced that the sport of ski halfpipe would be included in the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi. That made the WSI the first major contest with a superpipe since the announcement.
While the competition is still in conflict with the Jon Olsson Invitational, most of the top skiers in the world have decided to come to Whistler.
There are three events in the WSI - the slopestyle today (April 21), the Big Air Finals on Saturday and the Superpipe Finals on Sunday. The Big Air and Slopestyle are invite only, while there is an open qualifier for the Superpipe on Friday.
The course, which is being created in Blackcomb's Highest Level terrain park, is open for training from 9:30 a.m. to 10:15 on April 21. From 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. it's the men's elimination round, where a field of 40 athletes (top 30 of AFP rankings plus 10 wildcards) will be narrowed down to the top 10 on the men's side.
There will be half an hour of training, with the finals running from 1:45 p.m. to 3 p.m.
The women's field is comprised of 12 athletes (top 10 AFP list plus two wildcards) all of them heading to the finals.
Athletes get two runs and only the best run counts. The top three men will get $8,500, $4,500 and $2,000, and the top three women $6,000, $3,000 and $1,000.
With Fire and Ice Shows running every night during the Olympic Games, the WSI organizers decided against holding a major big air contest in the 2010 WSSF. This year it's back at Skiers Plaza, with a jump at the base of Whistler Mountain that is specially built to let skiers do their biggest and best tricks - doubles, combinations and insane spins.
The field will include 25 men (20 from AFP rankings and five wildcards based on the slopestyle results) which will be narrowed down to the top 10 for a three-run super final where only the best run counts. There are 10 women invited, with two runs and the best score counting.
The Big Air runs from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Saturday, April 23. First prize for the men is a Chevrolet Cruze valued at $24,000, followed by $7,500 and $5,000 cheques for second and third. The top female will earn $5,000 plus $2,500 in prizes, second will earn $2,500 plus $2,500 in prizes, and third will earn $1,000 plus $1,500 in prizes.
With training, the Degree Superpipe will actually run for five days including training and the qualifier, building up to the grande finale on Sunday on Blackcomb Mountain.
There will be a men's semifinal from 10:45 a.m. to 12:15 p.m., with the finals getting underway at 1:15 p.m. with the top 13 women and top 15 men going head to head in a two-run, best-score format. As usual, the event will be followed at 2:30 p.m. by an athlete-judged SuperHit contest where athletes compete to land the best pipe trick.
The top three men will earn $15,000, $8,000 and $4,000 respectively, and the top three women will earn $7,500 plus $2,500 in prizes, $3,500 plus $1,000 in prizes and $1,500 plus $500 in prizes. The top male and female in the SuperHit will earn $2,000 each.
Canadians to Watch:
Sarah Burke - A former freestyle skier from Ontario, now living in Squamish, Sarah Burke has so many firsts for women in competitive freeskiing and she's only 29 years old. She missed most of this season after undergoing shoulder surgery last summer, but won at the X Games and picked up the overall World Cup title with two wins at the end of the season.
Rosalind Groenewoud - Roz won the opening World Cup event this year and then added a world championship title a few weeks later. She placed second behind Burke in the halfpipe standings and was third at the X Games.
Mike Riddle - The current FIS World Champion, with the Canadian Halfpipe Team.
Justin Dorey - Also with the Canadian halfpipe team, Dorey was sixth at the X Games this year and is ranked third on the AFP tour. He's had a lot of good results at the WSI in the past, and got his start here as a teenager.
Keltie Hansen - Hansen competed in every halfpipe competition under the sun this year, as well as the FIS Junior Championships where she placed second in slopestyle and fifth in halfpipe. Her best pro result was a second place result in the North Face Park and Pipe Open halfpipe, followed by a third place finish at the FIS World Superpipe Championships.
Simon D'Artois - Simon grew up in Whistler and has jumped into the competitive halfpipe world. This season he posted a fifth place finish in a Nor-Am Cup competition, was second in the Showdown Throwdown at Silver Star and second in the Gatorade Free Flow Tour Finals.
JF Houle - This Quebec skier didn't finish outside the top-10 at any AFP slopestyle events this year, and recently won the Winter X Games Europe title in slopestyle.
Keltie Hansen - Hansen competed in every halfpipe competition under the sun this year, as well as the FIS Junior Championships where sheplace second in slopestyle and fifth in halfpipe. Her best pro result was a second place result in the North Face Park and Pipe Open halfpipe, followed by a third place finish at the FIS World Superpipe Championships.
Dania Assaly - Hailing from Alberta, Assaly won the Dew Tour Superpipe and North Face Park and Pipe Open this year.
Kim Lamarre - Kim is the top Canadian on the AFP's slopestyle world ranking in third overall, with a win at the Volkl NZ Freeski Open and a third at the Winter X Games in Europe.
Superpipe Qualifiers - Some of our up and coming local athletes are looking to make their mark in the superpipe, including B.C. Freestyle Team members Cassandra Sharpe and Yuki Tsubota, who swept her category in the recent provincial championships. Kevin Labatte is vying for a spot in the men's final.