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Freestyle's evolution

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Spurred on by the tricks and jumps shown in ski films of the late ’60s and early ’70s, freestyle became an American interpretation of a European sport. Even the French Avalement technique, and the high-backed boots it spawned, were co-opted and used to perform Wongbangers. Very quickly all the hot equipment was made in America: Scott boots, Spademan bindings, K2 Bermuda Shorts, The Ski and Olin’s Mark IV model. Everything from boots to jackets to toques seemed to be either orange or yellow.

One of the first freestyle innovators – the original hot dog skier – was Vancouver’s Wayne Wong, who learned to ski on Mount Seymour. Wong hitchhiked from Vancouver to Waterville Valley, New Hampshire to compete in one of the first major freestyle events, co-sponsored by Skiing Magazine. Doug Pfeiffer, an editor at Skiing, was instrumental in promoting freestyle and convincing some of the magazine’s advertisers to sponsor a professional freestyle tour.

"He had a chance to be Mr. Freestyle," says Johnston of Pfeiffer, "but he didn’t want to do it."

Chevrolet was one of the big-name sponsors eager to be involved in ski competitions that were spectacular, easy to understand, took place in America and featured American stars. Bob Salerno, John Clendenin, Scott Brooksbank, Susie Shaffee, Airborne Eddie Ferguson, Floyd Wilkie, George Askevold and Wong were some of the first big names, who competed in front of crowds of 10,000 or more.

But as popular as professional freestyle was, it was a sport without foundation. In the ’70s there were only individual athletes and a few sport organizers, committed to making money.

"When it first started competitors weren’t doing too advanced manoeuvres," Johnston recalls. "But very quickly a lot of money became involved. People took greater risks, and there were injuries."

A number of aerialists sustained serious neck and back injuries. Some ended up paralyzed.

"I was the next jumper to go at Vail in 1974 when Scotty Magrino attempted a double back and ended up paralyzed for life," Johnston says quietly. "I was going to do the same jump."

That accident had a lot to do with Johnston getting involved in re-organizing freestyle. Law suits were flying faster than the freestylers; ski areas refused to hold competitions because they couldn’t get liability insurance, and a second rival professional freestyle circuit started up.

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