Lloyd Langlois was hanging from the sky by his heels, a hundred feet over the nearest French Alp with nothing to hold on to but the royal-blue air. Langlois had just launched himself from a ramp with a 65-degree incline, and now he was climbing like a comet to the apex of his jump—well, perhaps not exactly like a comet, given the fact that he was traveling tail first. Getting air was the only part of skiing that ever interested Langlois, 23, when he was growing up in Canada. "You see little kids jumping on the hills," Langlois says, "but most of them stop after they break their necks a couple of times. I didn't." Standing only 5'6" under his mop-top haircut, Langlois still looks a lot like the kid from Magog, Que. But the little sky pilot never stood as tall as he did last week in the air over Tignes, France, where he won the men's aerial competition at the first World Freestyle Skiing Championships.
Langlois and his strongest competition for the world title, Yves Laroche, 25, of Lac Beauport, Que., battled for the gold in a final-round duel in the sun. Laroche, who is only 5'5", and Langlois are the two leading fly-boys in an elite corps known in freestyle skiing as the Quebec Air Force. Laroche trains at home during the summer on his own water ramp, a 70-foot edifice that he designed and built himself. For the finals at the world championships, he had planned to do a quadruple-twisting triple back somersault, but his left knee had swelled after a training fall, making the maneuver too risky. He settled for a jump composed of three full twists on as many backward rotations, with a difficulty factor of 4.35 in the complicated scoring system used to judge aerial skiing. One mistake and Laroche could have become a giant pretzel, but he landed the jump well.
Now Langlois was ready for his last jump—a half-twist, followed by a one-and-a-half twist and a full twist, all performed at the same time as three dizzying backward flips—with an excruciating 4.40 degree of difficulty, the highest anyone had thrown at Tignes. Langlois insists that there is nothing he loves more than getting major air, but as U.S. coach Park Smalley says, "All the jumpers have that little reserve of fear in the back of their minds. You have to respect the jump or you can get into big trouble."
As soon as Langlois had left the ramp and hung himself in the sky like a bright red Christmas tree ornament, his body began to whirl, first this way, then that. He came down dipped in gold, beating Laroche by 20.92 points.
These, the first official world championships ever held in the short, goofy history of freestyle skiing, were an eye-popping warmup for the '88 Olympics in Calgary, where freestyle will be a demonstration sport. After a visit to the worlds by International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch, there was even speculation that freestyle could be elevated to a full-fledged medal event at Calgary. Because American women swept the golds in all three of the sport's disciplines—aerial, ballet and moguls—that would be good news for the U.S. Ski Team, whose Alpine and Nordic squads are in disarray.
The championships began with mogul skiing, a race down a steep slope covered with large bumps; technique is more important than speed in determining the winner. American mogulist Steve Desovich, 20, qualified first among the men, while Hayley Wolff and Mary Jo Tiampo of the U.S. team finished first and fifth in the women's heats. Desovich had won three of the four World Cup mogul events held so far this season and was a strong favorite in Tignes, but in the semifinal round against France's Eric Berthon he rushed through the bumps too quickly, costing himself crucial points in technique.
Desovich later told a friend he had "flipped out" on his final run. His father was a football coach in Middlebury, Conn., and Desovich brings a linebacker's intensity to mogul skiing. "He is very bold, sure of himself," said Berthon, "but there are many competitors who don't like him because he is very serious and doesn't talk a lot." Berthon then blew away Petsch Moser of Switzerland in the final. "Moser is not a beautiful skier, and I ski beautifully for the judges," said Berthon. "My legs and arms were very perfect."
The women's final matched Wolff against her soon-to-be-wed teammate, the future Mrs. Mary Jo Tiampo-Oscarsson. Tiampo, 24, is to be married in June to a member of the Swedish mogul team, which will account for the Oscarsson addition.
Tiampo has spent six years on the freestyle World Cup circuit, the first three as a combined (all three freestyle events) skier. She then moved to moguls—which in France are known as les bosses—and last year became the World Cup champion. Though she is popular with her American teammates on the freestyle circuit, they were all thrilled this year when she began rooming with her Swedish swain. "Nobody could stand to sleep in the same room with me," she says, "because I snore like a bear." And stings like a bee. When Wolff struggled with her form during the final in Tignes last week, Tiampo went zooming by to become freestyle's capo di tutti capi, The Boss of All Bosses.
Tiampo spent eight weeks training in Tignes last fall, and she bristles at the old "hotdogger" label for freestyle skiers. "Hotdog skiing has really held the sport back, especially in the States," she says. "We have this image that we do drugs, party and then go out and ski."
Hotdog skiing, which had its vogue in the U.S. during the mid-'70s, began to die out after several hotdoggers suffered paralyzing injuries and sued the ski areas. "This sport is no longer the guy who comes out for the day, has a bottle of wine and decides to throw a flip," says Smalley. "That image is a hole I've been trying to climb out of for 14 years."
The hole nearly swallowed up the U.S. aerialists, who had their insurance coverage yanked back in December and were told at a World Cup event in Lake Placid in January that they couldn't jump again this year. The Americans came to Tignes not knowing whether they would be able to do the inverted aerials that are the core of the competition. Then, three days before the championships, the team received word from the U.S. Ski Association that it was insured through the end of the season. Maria Quintana, a softspoken 19-year-old aerial skier from Steamboat Springs, Colo., had been so upset by the insurance problem that she had written her Congressman.
With all this on her mind, Quintana has been struggling with her concentration and often has been landing one jump perfectly and botching the next. During qualifying heats for the women's finals, she surprised everyone—including her coaches—by moving from the 7½-foot high kicker used by all the top women to the 9½-foot high kicker used by the men. Why had none of the other women tried this? "Awww, they're scared," Quintana said. She also had little use for the women who closed their eyes during the jump. "They're missing a lot," she said.
Quintana had never before been pitched so far into space during a competition, and as a result she overrotated slightly on her first jump in the finals, but she enjoyed every liberating moment of her added airtime. "It's a great feeling when you're going up," she said, "but I like it best when you're at the highest point. It's kind of a weightless feeling. You don't always see everything because it's all going by so quickly and anyway you're upside down, but you feel like you have so much time when you're up there." Quintana was in third place after her first jump, then nailed her second perfectly—a backward double somersault, the first rotation in a full layout, the second in a tuck—to take the gold.
The American dominance of the championships continued when Jan Bucher of Salt Lake City won the women's gold in ballet, an event in which the skier jumps, twirls, slaloms, etc., down a slope to the sound of music. Bucher, 28, has won six World Cup titles in seven years despite the fact that she didn't start skiing until she was 19. "I couldn't even get off the chair lift," she says, recalling her very first day on the slopes. "They had to carry me off." Now Bucher and her sport are both standing on their own two feet. Even when their feet are upside down.