This high-flying, acrobatic sport, added to the program in 1994, is probably the most awe-inspiring Olympic event -- winter or summer. Picking up speed down a hill, skiers take off a massive ramp that sends them some 60 feet into the air, where they twist, turn, and flip with the grace of gymnasts, before landing on a snow-covered downhill incline. Yeah, it looks even harder than it sounds.
With all the air and the incredible tricks, it's an absolutely breathtaking sport to watch. Now in its fifth Games, the jumps are reaching extreme levels of difficulty. A handful of male athletes, for instance, are thought to be prepping a quintuple-twisting triple backflip, the most difficult jump allowed in international competition. That's three back flips with five full twists, and all with a snowsuit on and a pair of skis strapped to their feet. Even if you can't respect the skills, you really can't deny their courage.
Athletes to watch
Steve Omischl, Canada: The Ontario native will have the crowd behind him, but it's his remarkable résumé that makes him a favorite to win gold. In 78 career international competitions, the 31-year-old aerialist has landed on the podium in 40 times; 20 of those were gold. Sttill, an Olympic medal has eludeed him. While Omischl says he's capable of pulling off the quint, he's also learned about biting off more than he can chew. In Turin, he flubbed the landing on an unnecessarily difficult preliminary jump and failed to qualify for the finals.
Ryan St. Onge, USA.: While Omischl might be a favorite, he isn't the reigning world champion. That title belongs to three-time national champ St. Onge, who edged out Omischl by less than three points with a couple of impressive jumps that included a flawless double full-full-full, a jump that requires four twists and three flips. His jumps are really the only part of St. Onge that could be considered textbook. As a child, he spent third grade sailing with his family on a boat, visited third world countries in the Caribbean and took to aerial skiing.
Anton Kushnir, Belarus: The overall World Cup leader this season has not finished out of the top five this season, and in all four World Cup events, the 25-year-old aerialist has landed on the podium, winning two of them. After an eighth-place finish in Turin, Kushnir is hitting his stride heading into Vancouver. He is attempting to step out of the shadow of fellow Belarusian Dmitri Dashchinski, a two-time Olympic medalist, who will also have a shot at the podium.
Li Nina, China: The 27-year-old Li has placed out of the top five just once in the last year, picking up four wins on the international circuit. And though she currently trails fellow countrywomen Guo Xinxin and Xu Mengtao in the overall World Cup standings, Li knows how to respond in the big moments; her three World Championships titles suggest that much. When she and her teammates Guo and Xu Nannan held onto the top three spots going into the finals in Turin, she pulled through when the others didn't, earning a silver medal behind EvelyneLeu of Switzerland.
Apart from St. Onge, who is still working his way to qualifying for the Games, Jeret "Speedy" Peterson can certainly put on a show. His signature move, a quint jump he calls the Hurricane, incorporates five twists and three back flips. Though he completed the jump in Turin, he put his hand down on the landing which dropped him to seventh place. While Peterson has never struggled with difficulty, if he can nail his jumps, he could certainly make Olympic history and win the competition. Also winning at the U.S. trials was LacySchnoor, who came out on top after top Americans Emily Cook and Jana Lindsey took spills. Cook, who took a two-year layoff after shattering her feet right before the Salt Lake Games, just missed the podium at Worlds last year, finishing fourth.
Grudge match: Chinese women vs. the world
China owned the top four spots in the World Cup standings this season and will enter Vancouver as favorites, maybe to even sweep the entire podium. The Chinese aerialists, many of whom were formally trained gymnasts, have unparalleled acrobatic skills. "I wont be really threatened by the foreign skiers at the Winter Games," Li told China's People's Daily. "Anyway, the gold medal will be in China's pocket." But Lydia Lassila might pose a threat. At Deer Valley last month, the Australian, who ruptured her knee on a landing in Turin in 2006, posted a world record, two-jump score of 220.91.
Bet you didn't know
A quick primer on the jump lingo: A back-lay is a flip with no twists. A Full is doing one twist during one flip. A Double Full is doing two twists in the course of one flip. A Triple Full is doing three twists in one flip. So, a Full-Double Full-Full, known as The Daddy, means the skier does a total of four twists and three flips, cramming in two rotations during the second flip. Ever wonder why the skiers usually wear white? The contrast to the night sky makes it easier for the judges to make out the lines of their bodies.
Gold medal dates
Ladies: Feb. 24Men: Feb. 25
Bouncing down the hill like Plinko chips, skiers speed down a bumpy course that breaks twice so that they can perform trick jumps. Combining skillful skiing with a dash of flashiness, moguls has new-school appeal, as evidenced by its distinct X Games feel and the fact that rock music is pumped during runs. Scores take into account the quality of the turns through the moguls, the two jumps and the time it takes to get down the course. As in aerials, the athletes are looking forward to pushing the difficulty level of tricks, like off-axis jumps and more complicated flips.
Athletes to watch
Jennifer Heil, Canada: The reigning Olympic gold medalist hasn't slowed since Turin. Even with the weight of competing in her home country, the 26-year-old skier has been unstoppable this season. She has placed first in each of her last four World Cup events and hasn't finished outside of the top five this season.
Dale Begg-Smith, Australia: Nearly as dominant as Heil, the '06 gold medalist, born and raised in Vancouver (more on that later), has become the man to beat at Cypress Mountain. The 25-year-old skier, who suffered a torn right ACL at Deer Valley in January '09, hasn't been slowed by the injury. In fact, since returning, he has three wins and hasn't finished outside of the top five.
Hannah Kearney, USA: The '05 world champion booked her ticket to her second Games by winning the U.S. Olympic Trials last month. But she's going into Vancouver with a different mind set. After going to Turin as the favorite to win gold, Kearney lost control after her first air in the preliminary round and failed to advance. "I'm going there to win a gold medal," she said. "I'm not going in there [like] last time to experience it. I already did experience it."
Kearney leads a deep women's team that also includes Heather McPhie, who tied Heil for first place at Deer Valley last week. The 25-year-old McPhie, who used to be a gymnast, has got some tricks up her snowsuit, including a back full, which is a back flip with a twist, and an off-axis 720, in which she tilts her body off the jump and completes two spins. The level of difficulty is among the highest for women, and if she has a clean run, she can challenge Heil for the top spot. The international competition is much stiffer for the American men, but the search for the next Jonny Moseley may finally end with Patrick Deneen, a 21-year-old skier who won the world championships last March (in Begg-Smith's absence) and then the U.S. Trials last month.
Grudge match: Begg-Smith vs. Alexandre Bilodeau, Canada
The Vancouver homecoming for Begg-Smith may not be so warm, considering the Canadian-born skier left his home country for Australia as a teenager in part to join a more relaxed ski program Down Under and chose not to ski for Canada. In a sense turning his back on his country, Begg-Smith has all the trappings to play the villain here. (To boot, he is a multi-millionaire who earned his fortune as a teenager reportedly creating Internet pop-up software and spyware, to the annoyance of millions worldwide.) The dashing, young Bilodeau, of course, plays the hero. The Quebec native has won seven World Cup events, including last year's Olympic preview at Cypress Mountain.
Bet you didn't know
If you think the U.S. women are accomplished on the course, Shannon Bahrke's portfolio is more than the Olympic silver medal she won in '02. She also started Silver Bean Coffee in '07 while sidelined with a knee injury. The coffees have a distinct ski/sport theme to them: Last Chair Decaf Blend, Experts Only Blend, Powder Blend. ... Another U.S. hopeful, Michelle Roark, created her own perfume line, Phi-nomenal. This isn't like some celeb trying to cash in on a scent; Roark has a degree in chemical engineering and has concocted different smells for every occasion. "Confidence," she says, is the one that helps her on race day.
Gold medal dates
Ladies: Feb. 13Men: Feb. 14
The only new event added to the program this year, ski cross pits four skiers against each other in a simple race to the bottom, last-one-down-is-a-rotten-egg style. The success of snowboard cross in Turin -- with its banks, rollers, turns and, of course, jumps -- makes ski cross a surefire crowd-pleaser, and the added novelty of it being the new event in town makes it worth having a look. The course at Cypress Mountain promises a lot of air for the skiers, and with that, a greater chance to see some epic wipeouts and collisions. And if you reminisce about the good old days of alpine skiing, the days before Bode Miller, you'll take comfort in the familiarity of names like Puckett and Rahlves.
Athletes to watch
Ophélie David, France: The top-ranked ski crosser has won 21 of the 46 World Cup events she has skied. David, 33, has won a world championship and earned the overall World Cup title six times and is bar-none the most accomplished athlete in her sport.
Ashleigh McIvor, Canada: The 26-year-old British Columbia native will have the best chance to unseat David. McIvor leads a talented and deep Canadian women's team.
Christopher Del Bosco, Canada: Born and raised in Vail, Colo., with dual American-Canadian citizenship, Del Bosco began freestyle racing for Canada after his American alpine career ended after he tested positive for marijuana and battled alcoholism. He's resurrected his career in ski cross and hopes he can earn a medal in the sport that gave him a second chance.
The U.S. team is two-men deep: Casey Puckett and Daron Rahlves. That right, Daron Rahlves -- remember him? The U.S.' most decorated male alpine skier has transitioned from the steep slopes to the ski cross course in an attempt to keep his competitive fire burning and achieve what he couldn't in three previous Winter Games: an Olympic medal. The 36-year-old father of twins is currently ranked 12th in World Cup standings, but earlier this month climbed his first podium, placing second in Austria. Puckett is recovering from a shoulder injury and missed the Winter X Games, but says he will be ready for Vancouver. There won't be any women representing the U.S. in ski cross.
Bet you didn't know
Rahlves has gotten into the habit of running through the course with a helmet-cam on. He posts the videos on his Web site, so you can get a feel for what it's like to race down the hill, as well as fantastic views of who's behind him.
Gold medal dates
Ladies: Feb. 23Men: Feb. 21