The winners won't get a medal — at least not yet — but they could get free coaching, lodging, food, school and a place to live at the Olympic Training Center.
In a quest to discover the next great freestyle skier, the U.S. ski team is sponsoring an online contest, urging acrobats, gymnasts and other daredevils to post videos of what they can do. Fans can vote on the videos at https://create.it/campaigns/us-ski-team-tryout-camp-for-acrobats-gymnasts. The top finishers will get an invitation to the team's tryout camp, with a potential spot on the U.S. Elite Aerial Development Program (EADP).
That's the program that produced Ashley Caldwell, a former gymnast, who made the Olympic finals in 2010. Also coming from that program is Mike Rossi, a 19-year-old from New Jersey who made it to the podium this year in a World Cup event, winning bronze in Deer Valley, Utah.
"My take on the talent ID thing is, there's no shortage of talent in the United States," said Troy Flanagan, the U.S. ski team's high performance director, who was formerly the talent search co-ordinator for the Australian program. "It's about how we harness it. One of the problems is, we have to get in a car and go find it. We didn't have a good piece of technology that found it for us and delivered it to our door."
Rossi's path to the top is becoming more common in the world of aerials, a sport in which skiers take off from a ramp and soar 50 feet into the air, trying to fit as many twists and flips as possible into their four seconds aboveground, before going for a clean landing.
He skied as a kid, then turned to snowboarding, but most of all, he loved jumping on the family trampoline in his backyard in Long Valley, N.J.
Spending a summer in Park City, Utah with his aunt and uncle, he heard about a water ramp camp — where the athletes land the jumps into water — at the U.S. Ski Team's headquarters and gave it a try. That led to a spot on the EADP, which eventually earned him a spot on the main U.S. team, so he moved in with his aunt and uncle so he could train full-time in Utah.
"I just liked doing flips, doing cool things in the air," Rossi said. "I used to rollerblade a decent amount, I did flips on those. What I learned from that and trampoline carried over to skiing. Once I found freestyle skiing as a legitimate sport, I decided to use my skills there to get better and better until I was really good."
He was good enough to win the bronze earlier this year, which puts him squarely in the mix for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team that will head to Sochi next February.
"It just showed me that all my hard work was paying off," Rossi said. "I haven't been doing this sport for a real long time. I've been in it for five years now. It showed me I can perform one of the harder tricks in aerials and do it well."
These are the sort of stories the U.S. team seeks more of, as it tries to maintain a foothold it has had in aerials since the sport was new in the 1980s.
Since it was introduced onto the Olympic program in 1994, the U.S. has traditionally had at least one or two medal-contending athletes at every Games. But over the last decade or so, the popularity of snowboarding has eroded the American freestyle pipeline, while China and Australia have continued to develop theirs. Over the last two Olympics, those countries have taken seven of the 12 medals.
The key to their success, aside from the sheer numbers in China, population 1.34 billion, has been finding non-skiers with a background in gymnastics, tumbling and acrobatics and bringing them to the slopes. (One small secret: Aerials skiers don't actually have to be great skiers to be great. The 2002 gold medallist , Alisa Camplin of Australia, famously fell while skiing to the bottom for her victory ceremony.)
"It's a new way of us recruiting," Flanagan said. "A lot of kids, especially if they're in gymnastics, they think their Olympic dream is over in their late teens. In some cases in this sport, it could be just starting. You take a kid with 10,000 hours of gymnastics training and that can be a real good start for aerials."
There are already a number of impressive videos posted to the U.S. Skiing website. A combination of votes, ratings and coaches' discretion will determine whether any invitations to the EADP are handed out. So far, about 2,000 votes have been compiled, spread among 32 entries.
"This is a nice way to get a lot of different people involved," said Eric Bergoust, the 1998 Olympic gold medallist who dominated this sport in the late 1990s and early 2000s and now coaches developmental jumpers. "Some 15-year-old athlete submits a video, then you've got grandma and grandpa talking about it, their friends see it, maybe they want to try it. It spreads pretty quickly this way. And parents are excited because of all the benefits their kids can get coming into the program."
But while Bergoust likes the online voting element to stock the EADP pipeline, he cautions that those expecting a simple results show, then a quickly emerging star, a la "American Idol" or "X-Factor," will be disappointed.
"It's a slow process," Bergoust said. "We've got some 14-year-olds in there, a few 17-year-olds in there. We just have to be patient. I'd say 2018, 2022, those are the realistic goals for these kids."