Inside Colorado’s obscure world of synchronized skiing.
A freshly groomed slope spreads out like a blank canvas of corduroy. With their skis in pie wedges, two men—standing one behind the other, staring straight down the fall line—await the start of their run at Aspen Highlands. A radio squawks to life. It’s the judges. They’re ready.
With his ski poles planted ahead of him so he doesn’t slip downhill, Jim “Schanzy” Schanzenbaker glances over his shoulder to Andy Docken, then raises one pole high into the air. Both men draw their right legs in, then bring their second skis parallel. Their arms relax, and they begin to slide. Pole once. Pole twice. Then turn…right, left, right, left.
The well-rehearsed sequence is like a piano teacher cocking the pendulum of a metronome. When the pendulum is released, the rhythm begins: click…click…click. Only on a ski slope, the sound comes from carbon fiber and stainless steel carving into snow. Schussss…schussss…schussss. The cadence is crucially important, especially when two skiers must ski as one.
The art of choreographed skiing has its roots in both Europe and North America, though admittedly, the sport’s growth and popularity abroad has far exceeded anything we’ve seen in the United States. The running joke within synchronized skiing circles is that the sport started as soon as the second pair of skis came along. In reality, the sport took off during the 1940s, about a decade after the invention of the parallel ski turn.
American synchronized skiing competitions began with BOSS, the Battle of the Ski Schools, in which professional ski instructors from different resorts competed against one another. Places such as Switzerland, Canada, Vermont, and Colorado had particularly intense and well-organized BOSS competitions. BOSS also gave birth to a cousin of synchronized skiing, a competition dubbed the Powder 8’s. The Powder 8’s, or P8’s, are so named for the shape carved into the snow when the S-turns of two skiers intertwine, like the double helix of a strand of DNA. Colorado’s first Powder 8’s event likely took place at Vail, where the state’s synchro scene flourished for much of the ’80s and ’90s. Today, Colorado’s synchro scene—as well as the Powder 8’s—has settled in Aspen.
Powder 8’s teams are judged on a set of four criteria: synchronicity; the quality of the skiers’ turns; the shapeliness of their 8’s; and their “dynamism,” that you-know-it-when-you-see-it quality that refers to how deeply skiers lean into their turns, how well they carve a line, and how athletically they transition between turns.
The P8’s are not to be confused with the Aspen World Synchro Championships, Aspen’s other marquee synchronized event, which is held a few weeks later in the season (April 3, 2011). World Synchro is like the P8’s on steroids. Instead of pairs, the synchro event features teams of six or eight skiers or snowboarders clad in matching pants, jackets, and skis. They ski to soundtracks—ZZ Top, AC/DC, KISS—that are pumped over speakers pointed at the ski slope. The Worlds and P8’s are both mesmerizing to watch, yet the entire scene feels a bit passé—like you’ve been transported back to a time when fluorescent-colored ski gear and headbands were in vogue.
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.
The second day of the 2010 Powder 8’s (this year’s event will be held on March 3 and 4) found competitors at Little Annie, snowcat-accessed terrain on Aspen Mountain. Conditions were dust over breakable crust—the opposite of the deep powder that creates the best competitive conditions. Anyone can look like a hero in bottomless pow; manky crud is another story. Even so, a former member of the Beaver Creek Demo Team shrugged off the less-than-optimal surface: “There’s no crappy snow,” Rob Mahan says. “Only crappy skiing.” Santiago Mazza and Hernan “Tito” Franco, ski instructors from Aspen, took the 2010 Powder 8’s title, dethroning defending champs Schanzy and Docken. The winning duo handled terrible snow the way most of us shred the bunny slope in ideal conditions. They skied with just a bit more control, symmetry, style, technique, and, well, synchronicity.
The only spectators cheering for the competitors were other competitors. Which was fitting. The only people to witness the crowning of the new champions were the people who cared the most about the outcome—and about this elegant, possibly endangered, sport.
Peter Bronski is a Denver-based freelance writer. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.