American synchro skiing gained momentum after the 1983 movie Aspen Extreme immortalized the Powder 8’s. Throughout the rest of that decade, Aspen’s ski scene became a haven for those who prided themselves on making perfect turns. Popularity peaked in the ’90s, when Colorado competitions might draw 20 or more teams. Since then the sport has been on a downhill slide. Event organizers today would be happy to field 12 teams (compared to Europe, where a synchro event might start with a knockout round of 64 teams). That decrease in stateside fame can be chalked up to a simple fact of life: Times change.
For example, “Powder 8’s” is largely a misnomer these days because the event is almost never held in actual powder. As competitors prepare to board the lifts at Aspen Highlands for the first day of P8’s competition in March 2010, a ski patroller teases them through a smile: “You all here for the Groomer 8’s?” The joke reflects skiers’ shifting priorities. “Nobody wants to rope off powder,” says Joel Munn, a longtime judge and ski instructor since 1966. “The locals go crazy.”
And although the lack of access to fresh powder has taken its toll on the sport, the bigger issue is that synchro skiing simply no longer resonates with young skiers and snowboarders who crave speed and aerial exploits. “This sport requires a lot of discipline,” Munn says. “The kids who are extreme skiing—in the halfpipes, at the terrain parks—are not into it.” Today’s skiers—and for that matter, skiing spectators—don’t get the appeal. “It’s a finesse event,” says Fred Rumford, a former Swiss Powder 8’s champ and now an instructor at Keystone. “There’s no carnage like in skier cross.” In essence, synchro and P8’s skiing is to skier cross what figure skating is to ice hockey. It’s one thing to ski hard and fast; it’s another to do it with exacting technique, under scrutiny, with mandatory maneuvers. Synchro and P8’s competitors take pride in the technical aspects of their skiing; they’re less interested in if they can ski a run than in how well they do it. That means the competitions remain most popular with ski instructors themselves, with whom it all began decades ago. For them, pride is on the line.