On Monday, Feb. 2, snowboarder Isaac Gibson is camped out in a corner of the Liberty Mountain Snowflex Centre (LMSC), working on homework.
The senior snowboarder grew up skateboarding in Danville, Virginia, just an hour south of Lynchburg. He first rode Snowflex as a 16 year old, right when it opened. He twice got the chance to try it again, attending Liberty University’s College For a Weekend events.
He arrived on Liberty’s campus as a freshman in fall 2011, the first year the school hosted its annual Trails 2 Rails competition. Gibson jumped at the challenge.
The event places riders with little to no snowboarding experience into teams — complete with coaches — and trains them to compete against one another in a final rail jam. Gibson didn’t win the competition, but the rapid progress he made throughout it left him hooked.
“Having a coach definitely helped,” Gibson said. “I learned actual technique to snowboarding, because before I just kind of winged it and did whatever seemed to work.”
The transition from skate to snow would seem smooth — both are boarding, right? — but Gibson knows different.
“I definitely think skateboarding helped with fears… but snowboarding was definitely a lot different than I thought,” he recalled. “Like the first time I tried it, I was mad. It was way harder than I thought it would be.”
Despite their similar names and shared equipment, weight distribution and positioning are near opposite for the two sports. Skateboarding relies on steady back-foot weight, while snowboarding — especially on the slower, synthetic Snowflex — places the weight on the front foot and pivots from that point to turn and stop.
Both use the shoulders to direct momentum, and rails are comparable; but add snowboarding’s constant attachment of board to rider and the use of edges (a non-factor for skateboards, given their wheels) and you’ve got, well, a whole different sport.
Trails 2 Rails offered Gibson a chance to bridge those gaps. Confident of his newly refined abilities and comfortable on Snowflex, Gibson joined Liberty’s club ski and snowboard team.
Now well into his third competitive year, Gibson is a regular fixture at the LMSC (the graphic design major films video for the facility and works as a snowboarding instructor) and a leading rider on the team.
Gibson hopes to make his final year as a Flames snowboarder the best yet. With the United States Collegiate Ski and Snowboard Association Southeast Regional competition — the big test before nationals in Mount Bachelor, Oregon — just 17 days away, you’d think he would be scrambling to perfect the ultimate routine.
But hey, this is snowboarding.
An art and a science, a method and a madness; snowboarding is a sport unlike any other.
Like any sport, personalities differ from athlete to athlete. Not all football players are meatheads, you know; not all cheerleaders are human energizer bunnies, and not all golfers are obsessed with brightly colored, pleated clothing, probably.
Still, stereotypes rarely exist without some form of basis. In a regionally, seasonally and economically limited sport like snowboarding, narrowed size and demographics naturally lead to a more focused culture.
Those concentrated style and social influences contribute to the easygoing vibe associated with the sport; but on top of that, snowboarding simply demands it of its riders.
Traditional sports are played within set spaces: a standard field, court or rink. In snowboarding, the playing field changes with every competition.
Slopestyle — Gibson’s primary event — is particularly blind. A manmade course involving multiple rails, jumps and occasional other features; even tedious study of a mountain’s terrain and weather won’t tell riders what to expect before arriving on site.
“A lot of times we’ll go to the websites for the mountains and try to kind of figure out what they have set up,” Gibson explained, “but it’s usually not a really good description. You can’t really see what it’s going to look like until you get there.”
For that reason, despite the importance of regionals, Gibson has none of his competition routine planned.
“We never plan out our runs until we get there and we’ve actually looked at what they have,” he shrugged. “We’ll show up to a competition and if we have like, an hour of practice, within that hour we have to figure out the run we’re going to do.”
That’s the madness and the art: taking an unknown course, in an impossibly short amount of time, and designing a unique routine.
There are no set plays or objective scoring as in other sports. Instead, riders are judged based on technicality (how difficult their tricks are), amplitude (how big they’re going) and style (how smoothly they execute them and the sequence overall).
While the weight of the categories and measurement of them admittedly varies from panel to panel of judges, together they provide a (very) basic framework for competing athletes as they quickly craft their routine.
“We really just wing it,” Gibson stated.
But they wing it smart: that’s the method and the science.
“We only get two runs,” Gibson explained. “So what we do is have a ‘safety run’ for our first run, something that’s pretty simple that we’re confident we can land, because if you fall on that first run there’s a lot of pressure for you on the second. Once we land the first run, we have the second to try harder tricks, and if we fall, we still have that first run to rely upon.”
As far as those tricks go, riders pull systematically from the grab bag of those they know and arrange a run from there.
“I have a handful of tricks that I’m really, really comfortable with, so those tend to be in my first run,” Gibson said. “You know, backside 360s, 360s off jumps, a method — which is a straight-air grab — and simple board slides, like a board slide with a 270 out.”
Those easier tricks are the foundation for more difficult ones. The more each trick is performed, the more comfortable a rider becomes with it and the bigger the grab bag becomes.
It’s less like a dance, each movement connected to the last, and more like architecture; an original, interchangeable sequence of building blocks.
At this point, Gibson is busy adding building blocks to his collection.
Already armed with the aforementioned tricks, he hopes to be comfortable enough with a few more complicated ones to incorporate them into his regionals routine.
“I would love to be able to spin over 360 degrees,” Gibson said. “Maybe 540, and, if possible, maybe a 720 — two full rotations. So far this year I haven’t done either of those things on snow. I’ve done 540s on Snowflex, and I’ve spun almost 720 here as well, so I know I’m capable of doing it. It’s just a matter of having a jump that’s big enough and getting over the fear of trying it.”
In snowboarding and similar sports, the first attempt is half the trick-learning battle. At some point, the idea for a series of flips or spins has to be tested by hurling oneself into the air and giving it a go.
“It’s pretty much overcoming your fear to actually try the tricks,” Gibson said. “I’m sure there’s probably a lot of tricks I could physically do right now, but I haven’t done them because I haven’t overcome the fear of doing it.”
Beyond pure intimidation, of course, snowboarders are athletes. Threat of injury means constant weighing of risk versus reward when it comes to new tricks.
“You don’t want to hurt yourself, obviously,” Gibson said. “But at some point if you want to get the trick, you have to decide, well, I’m just going to do it. If I get hurt, it happens — but I might end up getting it.”
That’s not to say every new jump riders take is a leap of faith. As with anything, there are fundamentals to be learned beforehand.
“If you wanted to learn to do a 360 on a jump, you need to first learn how to do the jump by itself, and do it comfortably,” Gibson explained, adjusting his toque and going into instructor mode. “Then you learn your S-turn, which is where coming into the jump you make an S in the snow. There are two different S-turns — one is to set you up for your toe side, backside spins, and the other is to set you up for your heel side, frontside spins.
“When you can do your S-turn, you would probably do a 180 [degree spin] first — just try that. Once you get that, you can kind of go on from there to try the 360, and you just start building up from there.”
Gibson walked through the similar progression for rail tricks and cautioned against skipping baby steps. Attempting the 540s on which he is working without mastery of the 360 would be unwise, to say nothing of that 720.
Often, Liberty riders get acquainted with new tricks by first trying them on the Snowflex trampoline and airbag.
The trampoline provides air awareness, practice spotting landings and a rough idea of the feasibility of an invert or flip, while the airbag provides a low-consequence landing for the first few attempts of it.
Gibson acknowledged the need for physical training off the board and mountain, as well, though less-than-enthusiastically.
“Working out is to keep me healthy and prevent injury, so that’s the biggest motivation to do it, but it’s not always fun,” he conceded. “I have a routine I try and do — a lot of functional movement kind of stuff. It’s uh, bear crawls, Turkish get-ups… there’s something called the rolling pattern, I do that. Um, I do push-ups. And like, well, basic…”
Gibson trailed off, glancing out the window, then up at the ceiling, rubbing his beard. He broke into a sheepish grin.
“I haven’t actually done it in a while,” he admitted, laughing. “You know you’re not doing it too well when you don’t know what the routine is.”
Like most riders, Gibson’s primary and preferred training for snowboarding, is, well, snowboarding — and in his case, as much and as often as possible on real snow.
“Snowflex is only about a quarter inch thick, so you can’t really dig your edge into it and carve — it’s more just pivoting your board and sliding,” Gibson explained. “On snow, you can really edge and carve because your board digs into the surface instead of just slipping over it. The speed of snow is a lot faster than Snowflex, as well; and snow can be moved and messed up, whereas Snowflex is always consistent.”
To accurately prepare for on-snow competition, Liberty travel team riders were provided with season passes to Wintergreen at the start of the competition year.
“We’re practiced twice a week at least because we usually travel to Wintergreen on weekends and ride both Saturday and Sunday,” Gibson said. “Then I try and go once or twice during the week myself, and then if I can work out one day a week, that’s prime.”
He may not have a routine mapped out, but between his preparation on and off the board, Gibson will be well equipped to design and execute a creative run.
By Friday, Feb. 13, regionals are just a week away and Gibson is pleased with his progression.
He tried the backside 540 he hopes to use in competition recently at Wintergreen; happy to report getting the trick around, but disappointed to have trouble landing it due to slushy snow. Figuring out a frontside 360 off his toes, though, seemed to make up for it.
“Usually you spin off your heels for that one, so it’s kind of weird, but it felt easy for me — I hate spinning off my heels, I don’t know why,” Gibson shrugged. “I’m way more comfortable spinning off my toes, so last week I just decided to try it. I got really close to landing it, so I kept at it over the weekend, and then went to Wintergreen Wednesday and landed a couple. I’m excited about that.”
Based on the improvements he’s made, and with just two more riding days before the big competition, Gibson has a better idea of what his regionals slopestyle routine might look like.
“So if there are two jumps, I’ll probably do that frontside 360 off my toes, then a backside 540 if possible — or some kind of variation of that,” Gibson mused. “It depends on how many jumps there are.
“I don’t know about rails, that’s tough, because it depends on the rails that are out. If it’s just down rails, then probably something like a tail side 270 out or a front block 270 out. If it’s cannon rails, probably something like a 50-50 backside 360 out; or the opposite, a 50-50 frontside 360 out.
“If there was a cannon rail into a jump and then another jump, I’d probably do a 50-50 backside 360 into a frontside 360 off the jump to a backside 540 off the other jump.”
It all depends on what the slopestyle course actually looks like when Gibson arrives. Weather, too, will play a big factor. He has a wary eye on the forecast, especially the potential rain for which it calls.
And there’s always a chance, of course, that Gibson scraps it all the day of and drops in with an entirely different routine. There will be a method to his madness and a science to his art, but hey.
This is snowboarding.