Freeskiers may need more than just big tricks to win halfpipe or slopestyle gold

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PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (AP) — For a woman with an Olympic gold medal sitting at home, Maddie Bowman sure took her share of grief over the past four years.

She did tougher tricks than anyone — thus, the halfpipe gold medal — but in pockets of the sometimes (nit)picky world of freeskiing, she wasn't considered all that great a champion.

The main complaint: She lacked style.

Style might be best defined as the cool grabs of the snowboards and skis, and the creative lines and tricks the athletes perform on the rails of the slopestyle course. A deft touch in those areas can turn a high-flying acrobat show into a true work of art.

"My mom doesn't (care) about my grabs," Bowman said, a nod to the fact that the casual viewer won't notice much of what the aficionado considers mandatory. "But to our sport, and as a person of this sport, it's super important."

Bowman concedes the criticism, some of it spelled out starkly in a 2015 piece , hurt her.

"It took me a while to kind of mend myself from that and be OK, and hear the criticism and say, 'OK, I'm still me,'" she said.

But she also went about trying to change things.

Bowman won last month's Winter X Games and qualified easily for the Olympics with a package of grabs that was a stark upgrade from her winning run in Sochi .

Grabs also are important in slopestyle, which offers rewards to those who take complex and interesting turns in the rails section as opposed to simply motoring through them as quickly as possible.

"Triple corks will be a big player at the Olympics," said bronze medal freeskier Nick Goepper, in a nod to the triple-rotation jumps that have become the price of admission to the medals stand. "But having the really technical rail tricks, I think that was kind of discounted in the past. I don't think it will be anymore."

There are no points awarded for rails or grabs or, for that matter, any other specific trick on a halfpipe or slopestyle course. Runs are graded on execution, difficulty, variety of tricks, amplitude and progression. But in an era in which all the athletes are jumping higher, it's the technical parts of the runs that can set them apart.

"I kind of felt for Maddie," said Steele Spence, the judging coordinator for the International Skiing Federation, who will be giving marks at the Olympics. "But I've been on a lot of judging panels that put her in first place without the grabs because she was really doing the most difficult runs. I felt it was a fair way to do it, but then some people who are a little more pure about style disagree with that."

A few of the best grabs and rails to look for over the next few weeks at Bokwang Snow Park:

— A "tail grab" is where an athlete grabs anywhere near the back of the ski or snowboard. A "true tail grab" is where the athlete makes a point of grabbing, and holding, the very end. "You see a guy like Gus Kenworthy, and they'll bend the tail of the ski because they're grabbing it so hard," Spence said. "It's definitely a nice one when you see people do it very well."

— The seatbelt grab isn't seen that often because it's one of the tougher ones out there. It's a reach completely across the body, like someone snapping in a shoulder seatbelt in the car.

— The mute grab is the classic made famous years ago by moguls skier Jonny Moseley, who won a gold medal in 1998 by reaching across and grabbing his left ski with his right hand. Twenty years later, it's not as innovative, but when done correctly, skiers will grab the tip of the ski and hold it long enough for everyone to see.

— Goepper is convinced the winning run in the ski slopestyle will include at least one pretzel — in which the skier goes onto the rail spinning in one direction, stops that spin and sets his skis, then spins the opposite direction off the rail.

— Another very tough trick is jumping on "lip" or "switch lip." The skier comes to the side of the rail and spins away from the rail, then jumps on. (Switch is the same thing, except skiing backward).

— Line choice is also important on the rails. At each rail pad on the Olympic course, there are three different rails to choose from. Rewards will go to those who mix things up instead of simply choosing the easiest, straightest path.