TRACE WORTHINGTON HAD A JUMP-START on the competition. He spent much of his boyhood in Minneapolis catching big air on trampolines. Later, when his family moved to Winter Park, Colo., the teen-age Trace reached new heights, hot-dogging on snow.
So it should come as little surprise that Worthington, 24, a world-class freestyler for six years, is the odds-on favorite to take home the gold in the new Olympic sport of aerial skiing. This February, for the first time, aerials —– a thrilling combination of midair gymnastic twists and turns at heights of up to 50 feet —– will join traditional Alpine and cross-country events as an official medal sport in Lillehammer, Norway.
"I was psyched that by competing in 1992, we proved to the world and to the Olympic committee that we should be a medal sport," says Worthington, nicknamed the Ace. "We had to do everything clean and nice to get the sport in, so we backed down on difficulty. Still, the level of difficulty that we backed down to was insane. No spectator was going to say, 'I wish he had done one more twist.' "
Along with aerials, freestyle includes moguls (that's a downhill race against the clock over deep ruts and Volkswagen-size bumps), which became a medal sport in the '92 Olympics. The third leg of competitive freestyle, ballet, has yet to become a full medal event, though its technique, according to Worthington, is perhaps the most difficult to master. Worthington skis all three, but since there's no Olympic medal for combined points, he has focused on aerials. (Last season, he finished second in the world in aerial points, despite a shoulder injury that kept him from competing in two of the 12 World Cup competitions.)
Worthington started skiing at age 2; jumping came naturally after that. "A buddy and I built a jump in the woods, and started to throw some backflips," he says. "I never knew I was starting a career by taking chances with my life." By 14, he was at ease off the ground. "I was always a crazy skier, trying to kick out all kinds of tricks, jumping off every possible bump. I just thought it was cool. I never saw it on TV. I wanted to do it for myself."
After years of living on the road and in training camps, Worthington has just bought a house in Park City, Utah, near the state-of-the-art training facility at Utah Winter Sports Park. He has been working on his technique for a jump that is guaranteed to make Olympic spectators gasp: a quad-twisting triple. "Even though I'm pushing the envelope with three flips and four twists, I have no fear," he says. He'll perform for judges who are scoring points for takeoff, form and landing multiplied by degree of difficulty. "If you're clean in the air, sticking your landing is obvious," says Worthington.
At an autograph signing for Hart Skis at a Gart Bros., sporting-goods store in Park City, Worthington is looking worried. "This is going to be a Spinal Tap autograph session," he says. It turns out he's wrong. The shop is packed. Moms, dads and little kids are lined up for free posters signed by Worthington and his fellow U.S. Olympic freestylers. Despite the old free-spirit hippie image that attached itself to freestyle, these new-school guys are as clean as fresh snow. In fact, this could be an ad for the Milk Advisory Board.
According to Park Smalley, a pioneer in the sport and a former coach of the first U.S. national freestyle team, aerialists in the '70s were "a wild and crazy bunch of people who had little respect for mind and body." Back then, there were no safety standards, and people got injured. This led to lawsuits, which led to sponsors backing away and the near-demise of aerial competition. "Ski areas ran scared," says Smalley.
Spectators, however, never stopped loving the sport. At an Olympic exhibition event in Calgary, Alberta, aerials was the first event of any kind to sell out. "Sixty thousand spectators," says Worthington. What's the big attraction? "Crankin' music, everyone's catching big air, and it's all controlled but looks out of control. That's what's cool about it." Coach Smalley agrees. "As much as it's a competition, it still remains a show," he says.
This month the big show will be the hunt for the gold at Lillehammer. But Worthington is not allowing himself to be psyched out. "The Olympics is a bonus," he says. "My goal isn't to win, it's to put down two flawless jumps and beat everybody by an absurd amount of points."