KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia -- Devin Logan’s athletic work is not timed, measured or calculated. When she is finished, there is no winning time or distance, no verifiable accumulation of points. There is a final score, but that score descends from judges on high, who measure her performance -- even though it is by definition immeasurable -- and assign a number to it. It is not unlike scoring a concert: Springsteen: 84. Deal with that; they can’t give everybody a medal.
Logan competes in slopestyle skiing, which was added to the Winter Olympic program on Feb. 11, 2013, exactly one year to the day before Tuesday’s medal competition at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park, 40 miles north of Sochi. It is newest of all Olympic events, winter or summer (along with its partner, slopestyle snowboarding). Its parameters are increasingly familiar to mainstream Olympic fans: A vertical run in which skiers (or riders) navigate a series of rails and jumps and are scored for their efficiency and creativity.
As Logan, who turns 21 next Tuesday, stood at the top of the slopestyle course for her first run in the two-run finals, the run that would carry her to a silver medal behind Canada’s Dara Howell, she had DMX in her ears (“X Gonna Give it to You” and “Ruff Riders Anthem”) and a set of moves in her head. “I’m going to bump up my rails,” she had said before the final. “And pull out a bigger trick on this bottom jump for everybody to see.” And she was uniquely qualified to understand what was needed, because Logan is not only a competitor in slopestyle, but also a judge, which in the broad world of athletics is like being in the Matrix.
When slopestyle was added a year ago, Logan was deep in rehab from a catastrophic knee injury she suffered on August 24, 2012, while training in halfpipe skiing in New Zealand (she is also one of the best halfpipe skiers in the world, although she will not compete in that event in the Olympics); she tore the ACL and meniscus in her right knee. To fill the downtime, she became a certified judge, and developed a heavy does of appreciated for the work. “It’s crazy,” she says, “Judging is like the hardest job in the world.”
Logan judged events at all levels of the sports, from the major league Dew Tour, which includes X-Games and Olympic level athletes to USSA junior events. She was given a fresh window into what’s needed for success in a nebulous world of any judged sport. “They want to see clean rail skills, difficult grabs, left and right spins, going big, holding your grabs,” says Logan, who is from West Dover, Vermont, “And just going big.”
On Tuesday, skiers were greeted by a course -- already exceptionally tough by women’s slopestyle standards -- that had grown teeth overnight. “They had a phenomenal day of practice [Monday] in very welcoming conditions,” says Peter Judge, CEO of the Canadian Freestyle Association. “It was soft, and comfortable. Then they show up this morning and it’s icy, it’s fast and [become softer] throughout the day.”
Skiers struggled with the conditions. “Normally we wouldn’t even be trying our gnarliest tricks [in such tough conditions],” said U.S. skier Keri Herman, who finished 10th in the final, “Because we’re getting stuck.” For emphasis, Herman slammed her ski boot into the slushy snow at the bottom of the hill. But these are the Olympics. Canadian skier Yuki Tsubota crashed on the final jump and slammed her knee into her chin, suffering what Canadian officials thought might have been a broken jaw. She passed a concussion test on the hill. Numerous other skiers fell, dumped skis or bailed on final jumps in the tough conditions.
But Logan delivered on her first run of the finals, clean on her rails and stylish in the air. Her promised last jump was a Cork 720 tail, which she nailed. Interlopers to the slopestyle world have learned that judges are not confined by strict rules; they can reward skiers for style. “And Devin,” says Herman, “has style for days.” Logan went into the lead with a score of 85.40.
That lead survived only three skiers. The fourth was Howell, who delivered what Judge called, “One of the most exceptional runs that’s ever been done by a girl.” She finished it with a soaring Flat Bio 900 -- two and a half spins on a flat axis -- and landed with her back to a roaring grandstand crowd. “Dara had the sickest run of the day,” said Logan. “She just killed it.” Howell, who competed with three stitches on the bridge of her nose where a lampshade hit her (sorry it’s not a better story) scored 94.20, a number that would easily hold up for the gold medal.
It was an emotional day for the Canadian team. Not only did Howell win, but Kim Lamarre skied into the third place on the penultimate run of the contest, knocking Australian Anna Segal off the podium. The contest came 24 months after the death of Canadian freeskiing pioneer Sarah Burke, who died at age 29 in January of 2012 from a head injury suffered in a training accident. Racers had lobbied unsuccessfully to wear helmet decals honoring Burke.
“I’ve been feeling her all week,” said Lamarre. “Before my run, I looked up and I’m like, ‘Sarah, let’s do this together.’ And then at the bottom, ‘Yeah, Sarah, we did it.’” Howell said, “I know she would be so happy and so proud.”
Theirs is a sport that mixes casual joy (in clothing, language and style) with a healthy appreciation for physical abuse that verges on danger. The favorite in the field had been Canada’s Kaya Turski, who won the sport’s three major competitions before the Games, despite three ACL reconstructions, the last only in August. She became ill in Russia and failed to make the final.
Against this backdrop Logan embraced her silver. “My knee felt good, I feel amazing,” she said. “This is my little comeback story.” Some outcomes transcend judging.