The shoulder pops out of place as soon as I hit the snow. Immediately, I blame the gang of 12-year-old boys who’ve been ruling the mountain all day.
“Um, did you just dislocate your shoulder?”
I try to muster a very stoic nod. Those aren’t tears in my eyes. It’s just windy.
The gang of 12-year-olds hovers over me. The way I see it, it’s their fault I’m about to pass out on the side of the terrain park. They make riding rails look as easy as walking down the street. Ditto for every single Youtube clip of some kid throwing double flips off a jump. It seems the entire world has gone gaga for freeskiing. Meanwhile, I’m still stuck in the 20th century doing the same lame tricks I learned when I was 14 (spread eagle!). It’s like I’m sending Morse code when everyone else is tweeting.
In a desperate attempt to learn a couple of new tricks, I’ve embedded myself with Hegreness and the freeride team at Liberty University’s Snowflex Center, the country’s only public synthetic ski slope. The mountain is covered with tiny plastic bristles that are kept wet with a built-in sprinkler system. Imagine skiing on a giant, moist toothbrush, and you’ll begin to get the picture. The sensation of skiing on Snowflex is similar to skiing on real snow, but speeds are slower, and carving is more difficult. Liberty’s mountain is essentially a large terrain park with big kickers, half a dozen challenging rails, and a quarterpipe, all laid over a cushioned surface, making landings safer.
“I’ll try tricks on Snowflex that I wouldn’t attempt on real snow,” says Kevin Manguiob, Liberty’s snowboard team captain. “Real snow is too painful.”
More importantly, Snowflex can be ridden 365 days out of the year, regardless of the weather. Manguiob, for instance, went from barely being able to throw a 360 to consistently landing 1080s in just over a year of riding Snowflex. In operation just a year, Liberty’s Snowflex Center is becoming a hotbed of freeriding activity, and the school is poised to produce some of the region’s top terrain park talent. But can this ideal learning situation help an old(ish) skier become more park savvy?
Eric Hegreness is the founder and head coach of Liberty’s burgeoning freeride team and about to graduate from Liberty with a sports management degree. Post-grad plans are still up in the air, but there will definitely be a stint in Japan teaching freeskiing. Then maybe a summer skiing and teaching in New Zealand.
I feel certain that at no point during his travels abroad, will Eric ever have a pupil less suited for freeriding than me. I’m a perfectly adequate skier: put me on the steeps or moguls or trees and I excel. But throw a hand rail or jump the size of a Volkswagen in front of my skis, and I have as much grace as a pig on ice.
Eric nails an intimidating “C Box” effortlessly, then breaks down the sequence of movements I’ll need to execute to do the same thing on the pink baby box farther down the slope. He says things like “after bang.” I don’t know what “after bang” means, but I nod like I’ve been “after banging” for years.
The first “rail” Eric wants me to hit is a little kiddie box that’s painted pink, which is probably the least intimidating feature you’ll ever see in a terrain park. It may as well have a Dora the Explorer sticker on it, and yet, when I approach it for the first time, I get nervous, like I’m about to huck myself off a 30-foot cliff.
I’ve got to keep my feet wide and put my weight on my front foot. Riding a box or a rail is all about balance. If you’re off balance, the box will reject you.
I go through some visualization techniques and see myself approaching the box with confidence, transitioning to the feature with style, my hips low, my feet wide and balanced. In my mind, I am Shaun White about to win Olympic gold.
In reality, I am an awkward skier about to eat it on the Dora the Explorer box. My approach is fine, my transition onto the box is beautiful, but my feet are too close together and all my weight is on my back leg. As soon as my skis hit the box, they slide out from beneath me and I end up on my back.
I do it two more times with the exact same results.
There’s only one other person taking freeride lessons at Liberty