By Jess Clay
Big Air at Fenway.
For three weeks, the ski tower had grown steadily upward from the fallow baseball field. The thing had been months in the making, had taken nearly a million pounds of wood, cement, and steel, and now, in its full incarnation, it soared above the upper decks of Fenway Park. The tower stood taller than the Green Monster, taller than any foul pole ever conquered by Pesky or Fisk, taller even than the light towers now darkened in deference to the evening’s central object. From the stands, the tower seemed even taller than the neon Citgo sign and the Boston skyline that loomed a ways off in the night. The tower was a hundred and forty feet high and three times that length, stretching like a great white roller coaster from dead-centerfield to the brink of the backstop behind home plate. The structural support consisted of pure scaffolding, gleaming silver rods which girded and gridded and crisscrossed airily so as to lend the lower portion the look of an Apple store or a museum of modern art. A stairwell hid back within the sheen, while an elevator buoyed contestants from the outfield up to the top of the ramp. The ramp itself was clad in snow and flanked with fluorescent lights which blared brightly upon the jump.
Thousands of people had paid between fifty and two-hundred dollars for the chance to glimpse the structure and its denizens, who together enacted the Polartec Big Air at Fenway. Big Air is a U.S. Grand Prix tour event for snowboarding and freeskiing, a winter-sport extravaganza that runs for two nights and found itself at Fenway for the first time ever. The target audience for the entire affair was likely people who love Red Bull and gonj, but the Fenway crowd assembled more out of curiosity than connoisseurship. Among the masses were big men with thin beards and thick Boston accents and cajoled girlfriends, freezing alongside middle-school boys who roved in even-numbered packs and carefully took their assigned seats.
The night’s feature event was a freeskiing competition. The sport is a young school of skiing, which emphasizes aerobatics over the long-gliding flight of traditional ski jumping. However, the competition was prefaced by a movie premiere, cryptically entitled The Sammy C Project. The film proved to be an homage to freeskiing and its dedicated practitioners. The heroes were all young white men who talked in a way that suggested they had indeed inhaled, and inhaled often. Some donned non-technical camouflage, while others wore warm, bright ski pants so as to make them visible amidst the powder showers that trailed behind them and occasionally threatened to engulf them like the great breaking waves that hound after surfers.
For half an hour, the ebbing crowd watched the skiers careen off the trunks of evergreens, shoot off places with names like Copper Peak, and ride public transit in Switzerland, all in a well-choreographed effort to show the vast lengths to which these men would go in their interminable quest for fresh snow. The video also featured a big air tower of its own, though Polartec was surely not its proud sponsor. This tower was presumably tucked within some Western ski haven, far from the gleaming lights of Fenway Park and the dimly lit skyline beyond it. If the Fenway behemoth looked like the brainchild of Renzo Piano and a silver-medalist at the X-Games, then the Sammy C Project tower looked like the bastard son of local prospectors and the owner of the proximate gristmill. It was a great jalopy Babel of a structure, built not for the limelight but for the freeskiers alone.
The accompanying narration offered glimpses into the skiers’ various ethoses, but their words were largely lost amidst the echoes of the sound system. In a way it was fitting, for the central thesis of the Sammy C Project seemed to be that these were not men of words. No, they creatures of action, dropping tirelessly down cliff faces so sheer that it seemed an overzealous lean might send them tumbling into free fall and pristine oblivion. The closing shots of the film featured starlit skies above empty mountaintops and blood-orange sunsets backlighting the steep ridges from whence the skiers flared off in crisp silhouettes. They were the raddest of dudes, men who earnestly claimed the title of freeskier. They clung jealously to each component of this new and compound word, a word forged as they themselves had come of age, and they strove mightily to live it.
Later, the announcers rattled off the names of the contestants. There was Austria’s Viktor Moosmann, and Klaus Finne of Norway, and a host of other names that sounded like stock villains of Cold War-era spy movies. One of the less menacing names, Vincent Gagnier, was a French Canadian champion whose last name literally meant “winner” in Québécois and portended the night ahead. He wore a Boston Bruins jersey, a detail he regularly peddled to the home crowd who received this entreaty with general approbation. Gagnier had only one rival for the sympathies of the stands: McRae Williams, the lone American entry. He was born and bred in Park City, Utah, twenty-five years old, and festooned with a rust-colored mustache and long falling hair which made him look like a direct lineal descendant of Wild Bill Hickok. The crowd went wild at his introduction.
Six women had entered the competition alongside the ten men. Gender stratified the skiers into two distinct events, but all gunned for the grand prize and accompanying purse of a hundred-and-fifty grand. Two commentators outlined the format of the event for the benighted masses, with rules as follows:
1) Guys and girls get three jumps apiece, each scored by a panel of judges.
2) The top two scores count the total score.
3) A skier could not perform the same trick twice.
This last rule was elaborated upon by one of the commentators, who noted sagely that the judges liked variation and awarded scores accordingly. It was absurd to imagine such a prefatory explanation before Opening Day, or Wimbledon, or most any other sporting event. The mere mention of the rules betrayed the novice majority of the crowd, but the people listened keenly to the announcement. They were grateful for not having to Google how such competitions were regulated, lest they expose their fingers to the bitter cold.
In the buildup to the opening run, the powers that be barraged the unsuspecting crowd with a techno remix of “O Fortuna” and a flashing red-white-and-blue lightshow spectacular. Shortly thereafter, the first of the women crested the ridge atop the ramp and the contest was underway. What followed was ignorant bliss for the untrained eyes of the crowd. As the freeskiers sprung off the jump, they gyrated wildly through the night. The announcers sought to color the meaning of whatever was happening, and perhaps their jargon held real meaning for some small portion of the crowd. But most just listened wistfully to uninterpretable accounts of corking it out, stomping it, Japan grabs, tail contact, nutcrackers, double-misties, and the ejaculatory “Booyah!”
The only somewhat comprehensible terms were shouted numbers, ranging from five-forty to fourteen-forty, which presumably indicated degrees of rotation. Yet to see the number of rotations in real time was to see the numbers in the early spin of a roulette wheel, and most of the crowd surrendered to muted wonder and thunderous applause. The scores were awarded out of a hundred points, but such figures were rendered meaningless by the cheers which thronged spectacular crashes alongside the thrills of victory. For the skiers, success rested in the judges’ hands as they nudged each competitor toward or away from the title and the treasure. But for the spectators, the triumph bloomed between liftoff and landing, when the freeskiers hurtled themselves upward and outward and corkscrewed wildly like wounded hornets hot from the nest.
When the last skier had skittered to an icy stop, before a final score was even issued, people pressed toward the exits and cheaper beer available at warm bars just outside the ballpark. The loudspeakers crackled forth the champions, but the coronations mattered little. We had witnessed The Sammy C Project, after all, and we knew that the only real prize in life is big air.
Jess Clay ’17 ([email protected]) is an occasional viewer of ESPN 8: The Ocho.