Up in the Air, and Down, With a Twist

The following is an excerpt from an article published at NYTimes.com:

The first time you watch skiers hurtle off a curved ramp at 30 miles per hour, soaring six stories in the air while doing three back flips and up to five body twists, you can’t help but think:

These people are crazy.

Keep watching and you will quickly have second — and third — thoughts. You begin to notice how the skiers adjust their starting point on the inrun to reach the proper takeoff speed, how they practice odd arm movements, like giant Barbie dolls whose limbs are being manipulated by unseen hands.

Freestyle aerialists, as these athletes are known, are not actually throwing caution, along with themselves, to the winds. It is not fate that plops them down at the end of their jumps, more or less upright and safe, in a cloud of powdery snow. It is physics, and plenty of preparation.

Aerials, in which skiers are judged on how stylishly they perform their flips and twists and whether they stick their landings, has been an Olympic medal event since 1994 and will be featured in prime time this month at the 2010 Games in Vancouver, British Columbia.

It has roots in freestyle skiing, the devil-may-care approach to the sport that started catching on in the 1960s and ’70s. But aerials has developed into a serious discipline that borrows much from gymnastics. It is two parts hot-doggery to one part Nadia Comaneci, with Isaac Newton keeping everybody honest.

“The forces are pretty simple,” said Adam Johnston, a physics professor at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah, who broke away from his teaching duties one recent afternoon to watch aerialists with the United States Freestyle Ski Team train at Utah Olympic Park, which was built for the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City.

“There’s the force of the ramp on his skis, and the force of gravity on him,” Dr. Johnston said, after Ryan St. Onge, the reigning world champion in men’s aerials and a member of the Olympic team, zipped down a steep inrun, leaned back as he entered the curved ramp until he was nearly horizontal and flew off at a 70-degree angle. “That’s all there is.”

Click here to read the entire article.

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