Ski and snowboard air bag comes to Calgary

Freestyle skiers and snowboarders rocketing off a jump into an enormous air bag Monday at Canada Olympic Park compared it to jumping into a giant marshmallow.

The new inflatable landing pad billows like a waterbed when an athlete lands on its surface and slithers off the side.

“It’s a good tool to learn new tricks,” freestyle skier Luke Heck said Monday.

The behemoth landing cushion — 17 metres long and 11 metres wide — is the first one in Alberta and one of the few air bags in Canada.

The head of the Canadian Freestyle Ski Association believes, however, the use of air bags is going to take off in popularity. The International Olympic Committee recently added freestyle and snowboard slopestyle, as well as women’s ski halfipe to its Winter Games menu.

CFSA Chief Operating Officer Peter Judge estimates there’s between six and a dozen air bags operating in the country right.

“I think we’ll see that easily double in the next year and the next year after that,” he said.

About 16 skiers and snowboarders were trying out the new air bag and ramp Monday at COP. They all wore helmets and wetted down their skis and snowboards to slide down a ramp also sprayed with water.

The athletes quickly learned to aim for the centre of the air bag because landing on the edges could catapult them off the sides.

“It helps if you land on your feet,” Heck said. “You can land anyway you want, just not on your head.”

The air bag at COP has been open for a week and Heck, a 16-year-old on the Southern Alberta Freestyle Ski Club, estimates he’s slid down the ramp and flown into the bag at least 200 times since then.

World champion aeralist and Calgary native Warren Shouldice watched the next generation hone their skills Monday. The air bag at COP isn’t meant for elite athletes like him.

The 28-year-old was scheduled to depart for Quebec City on Tuesday to train on a water ramp which accommodates him launching off jumps four metres high and moving 65 kilometres per hour before landing in a pool of water.

The COP air bag is for the athletes aged 12 to 18 who don’t fly as high or as far as him.

“This is the first time I’ve ever seen an air bag like this,” Shouldice said. “I’m familiar with jumping into a water ramp. The general idea is the same. If you’re going to be landing on your head, it’s a lot safer to do it onto an air bag, or into the water, than doing it on snow.

“This could absolutely produce an Olympic athlete. Freestyle is aerials, moguls and we have slopestyle and halfpipe, so you’re talking four disciplines that can train here. Even though I can’t train here, you could certainly get your start in aerials here. In 2018 or 2022, you might see a kid at the game that first started out on this WinSport air bag and learned their single flips here.”

While nothing is safer than landing in water, the advantage of the air bag is that it’s portable and doesn’t require the water testing and inspection that accompanies a water ramp, because the landing pools often fall under municipal regulations, says Judge.

“It becomes quite cost prohibitive to manage and maintain a pool that size,” Judge explained. “Sometimes you’re talking about the size of what a normal municipal pool would be.”

WinSport Canada, which oversees the legacy of the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, bought the air bag from the Dutch company BigAirBag for about $30,000 and installed it for less than $50,000, according to WinSport CEO Dan O’Neill. WinSport has planned an after-school program for this fall so young athletes can test their skills on the air bag.

“I think you’ll see a group of younger athletes using this quite frequently,” O’Neill said.

The CFSA bought a 15-by-15 metre air bag from the company Bag Jump and installed it in Whistler, B.C., for the national freestyle ski halfpipe squad. They fly out of the halfpipe and execute a move in the air before landing on the bag.

The technology isn’t new as Hollywood stunt people have used air bags for years, but the application of it as a training tool for athletes who perform tricks on skis and snowboards is significant, said Judge.

“They can jump in the summer, that they can jump in the winter and it becomes cost-effective for the club,” he explained. “Overall, based on that, the athlete gets far more cycles that way.”

COP is situated within city limits on the west end of Calgary, which now has a population over a million. It’s where many youngsters in the city get on skis and snowboards for the first time in their lives.

The National Sport School, which caters to teenagers pursuing elite athletics, is about to open its doors at the $220-million sport institute still under construction at COP.

The air bag could be about to take a beating.

“It will be one of the most productive facilities and uses of a bag in the country, for sure,” Judge said. “It’s a game-changer. It brings inverted aerials and acrobatics to places and people that would not normally would have access to it.”

Note to readers: This a corrected story. A previous version incorrectly identified the company that sold the air bag as BigAirJump.