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The Method Olympians Use to (Safely) Test Out Big-Air Tricks Is Dangerously Cool

How do athletes learn a quadruple cork or a triple-twisting triple backflip? For starters, they hop on a trampoline and throw themselves into a foam pit. But when they need to latch skis or a snowboard to their feet, how do they hone those skills on hard, icy snow and not dismember themselves?

On a trip to Utah Olympic Park late last year, I stumbled upon the freestyle world’s answer to throwing more complex stunts: giant swimming pools and airbags the size of a football field.

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If you venture to Utah Olympic Park, the site of the 2002 Salt Lake City games, or the Lake Placid Jumping Complex, you’ll find these 20-foot ramps that lead to one giant pool. Here freestyle skiers add an extra flip or an extra twist to their repertoire. They strap on a life vest and light-weight skis with holes in them and “send it,” as they say.

The water isn’t as soft a landing as you might think, according to Chris Lillis, an aerials skier who’s on the U.S. team but is currently injured. The athletes still fly as high as 60 feet in the air and essentially free fall, which hurts. (These daredevils have also found a way to monetize the ridiculousness, which helps because winter athletes don’t make much money. They put on shows all summer for those of us who wish we were that agile.)

For the snowboarders competing in the new Big Air event, which starts Monday, January 19th, they’ve ditched the water landings in exchange for stuntman-inspired pads. The riders fly off the ramp and instead of landing on snow they land on a sloping air bag, kind of like a slightly-deflated bounce house. It almost completely alleviates the risk of injury, which gives the athletes more time and margin for error in throwing tricks like the quadruple cork—four off-axis flips and five 360s. It’s never been attempted in Olympic competition before, but we can certainly expect it when competition starts next week. Here’s a clip of riders using the practice air bag.

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