Snowboarding’s ‘scary’ addiction to thrills and spills

Story highlights

Taylor Gold: Big tricks 'more scary than fun'

Psychologist: 'Every great athlete has anxiety'

Risks examined as injuries mount

CNN  — 

If performing double backflips 40 feet above solid ice looks terrifying, that’s probably because it is – even to those who make it seem easy.

In what is fast becoming one of the most exhilarating sports in the world, halfpipe snowboarders are pushing the limits for their bodies and the boundaries of how high and how fast they can go.

The motive to thrill during competition can lead to some unnatural sensations for a world-class athlete.

Take it from some of the best in the business.

“Most of the time when you’re going as big as you can and doing the hardest tricks you can, you’re pretty scared,” US Olympian Taylor Gold says in a revealing interview with CNN.

“I think there are people who would think, ‘that looks so fun,’” the 23-year-old Colorado native explains. “It is fun, but at the same time you’re pushing your limits so much that it’s scary – it’s really scary.

“I think if you asked any snowboarder, they would answer that way.”

Taylor’s sister Arielle Gold, a former halfpipe world champion, would be the first to agree.

Turning fear into fun

“Snowboarding is kind of a combination of enjoyment and fear – because there is definitely that fear element to it,” the 20-year-old says.

“But if anything it just makes that adrenaline that much stronger, because you’re overcoming fears and having fun.”

The comments are eye-opening, not only for the siblings’ unexpected frankness in a world of showmanship, but also because snowboarders exude such relaxed vibes.

Runs that appear so effortless to the casual observer are the result of endless hard landings and a constant battle of nerves.

“It’s honestly such a weird feeling,” Taylor admits. “There are so many times when I’m dropping in on a contest and I have this inner monologue going on that’s just like: ‘What am I doing here? This is crazy what I’m about to do.’

“And then you just drop in and it melts away. And no matter how hard you try, you can’t hold a thought. When you’re in a run you’re just so focused.”

‘Fear is just enjoyment in disguise’

The ability to contain that fleeting self-doubt separates the world-class athletes from the weekend warriors, says Adam Naylor, professor of sports psychology at Boston University.

“Fear is just enjoyment in disguise. It’s the same physical mechanism,” he says, referring to enhanced stress levels, elevated heart rates and the adrenalin rushes experienced when in full flight.

“Every great athlete actually has anxiety and is quite aware of the dangers, but it’s this balance of accepting it,” Naylor adds.

“I actually think athletes are pretty bad when they don’t admit to being scared of such things. It becomes more dangerous, and there’s a delusional quality to it.”

The Golds made headlines in 2014 when they both represented the US at the Sochi Winter Olympics.

Taylor finished 14th in the men’s halfpipe, while teammate and longtime face of the sport Shaun White was placed fourth.

But Arielle did not even get out of the gate, after separating her shoulder on a practice run on the morning of the first round.

“That was definitely a tough pill to swallow,” she reflects. “Obviously snowboarding is a very high risk sport, and a lot of times when I’m trying to learn these new tricks I don’t feel as in control as I would like to.”

Tellingly, Arielle is less intimidated competing in her other sport, barrel horse racing, because of the companionship. “Whereas, when I’m dropping into a halfpipe to try a new trick, I feel like I’m totally alone in that,” she says.

When first interviewed for this article, Taylor had been nursing a broken kneecap suffered in a crash in January 2016. Oddly, the accident happened on a quiet ride over powdered snow – he hit a hidden rock while pivoting – rather than while flipping around in a halfpipe.

After surgery and a “long, frustrating” year of rehabilitation, Taylor is targeting a January 2017 comeback at the Laax Open in Switzerland followed by the Winter X Games in Aspen – albeit with a different approach.

“Most of my injuries happened because I was tired or sore already, so listening to my body is a great tool I’ve learned,” he says. “I still want to be every bit as aggressive with my riding, but maybe just with a little more awareness.”

‘Closest thing to flying you can do’

A blown kneecap here, a separated shoulder there – it’s all part of being an extreme snowboarder. And as the sport takes off, the risks are just getting bigger.

Every rider worth their mettle has a signature daredevil move to fall back on.

For Taylor Gold, it’s a “Double Michalchuk” with a nose grab. In plain English, that’s a double backflip while holding the tip of the board for extra style points.

Sochi Olympic winner Iouri Podladtchikov, AKA “The iPod,” famously landed his patented “YOLO Flip” on his winning run, consisting of four full rotations among various twists and flips.

The mechanics of levitating above ice can be counterintuitive, however. For instance, higher isn’t necessarily riskier.

The Golds agree that the evolution from the traditional 18-foot high halfpipe to the current standard – the 22-foot superpipe – is safer because there is more room to land (both sexes compete on the same pipes).

‘Calculated risk-taking’

“It’s definitely catered to more dangerous tricks, but I think it’s a lot safer in that sense,” says Arielle, explaining that organizers need to give riders enough distance from the ground to descend.

“One of the biggest concerns when you’re riding a halfpipe is that you want to land in the perfect spot,” she says. “You want to catch good transition so it’s not a high-impact landing.

“I’d say the takeoff and the landing are the two hardest parts, and the-in-between is just time for you to enjoy the feeling.”

2002 Olympic gold medalist Kelly Clark says there is a “calculated risk-taking” to the halfpipe.

“When you’re doing it right there is an effortlessness to it, which is something people wouldn’t assume,” she told CNN in an interview published in March.

“There is a weightlessness – I would say it is probably the closest thing to flying you can do.”

Clark – who was the first female to ever nail a 1080 twist, or three full rotations, in competition – works with a sports psychologist, but she says visualizing a run is not in her routine.

“I’m not going to make it or break it that day. [If you] get a good drop in – that’s the first two seconds of your run – the rest will fall into place with muscle memory because we’ve practiced it a million times.”

Too dangerous for its own good?

But practicing is when things can get pretty hairy – even for the most skilled riders.

White, formerly known as “The Flying Tomato,” is the Roger Federer or Michael Jordan of snowboarding.

The two-time Olympic gold medalist is reportedly a multimillionaire thanks in large part to groundbreaking tricks like his signature “Double McTwist 1260.”

In 2012, he had his mind set on being the first to ever land a triple backflip in a halfpipe. Instead, he crashed badly while trying the stunt in preparation for the Sochi Games, sidelining him for a month.

The documentary “Shaun White: Russia Calling” chronicled weeks of failed further attempts with the cameras rolling.

He finally gave up on the triple. “I’m just intimidated. I hate to admit it,” he confided to a friend.

In 2014, Chinese snowboarder Yiwei Zhang became the first to nail the triple cork, although it’s yet to be landed in competition.

Taylor Gold says it “doesn’t seem realistic,” but it’s just a matter of time before someone tries.

Will there be a point when tricks are just too reckless and limitations need to be put in place for safety?

Filmmaker Lucy Walker explores this topic in 2013 movie “The Crash Reel,” which shadows Shaun White’s rival Kevin Pearce after he sustains a traumatic brain injury while practicing on a halfpipe in Park City, Utah. Both Taylor Gold and Clark have avoided watching the film.

In her director’s statement, Walker said snowboarding is “literally evolving before our eyes.”

For more snowsport news, visit CNN’s Alpine Edge page

“A trick that would have won gold in the 2002 Olympics won’t get you on the team today,” she explained.

“The pace of change is dizzying; so fast that our understanding of the phenomenon is likely to come much later, when there is time to pause and reflect on the achievements of these early pioneers.”