Castles In The Sky: This Non-Contest Is The Total Opposite Of The Olympics, So Why Is It So Important For Team GB?

I’m sitting half way up an Austrian mountain. The sky is blue and through a haze of sunshine I’m watching three of Team GB’s top snowsports athletes, Katie Summerhayes, Aimee Fuller and Olympic medallist Jenny Jones, launch themselves off a giant snow castle in the sky.

And nope I haven’t been eating spiked brownies. I’m at the Suzuki Nine Queens contest in the Austrian Tirol, the setting for the GB Park and Pipe Team’s second edit from their #ProjectPY2018 Series, which you can watch below. You can watch the other episodes on their YouTube channel here.

At the Winter Olympics in Sochi just over a year ago, the GB Park and Pipe Team made their strongest showing yet. Especially on the girls’ side where alongside Jenny Jones’s historic bronze in snowboard slopestyle and Aimee Fuller’s semi final show, Katie Summerhayes finished seventh in the ski slopestyle.

But the next Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang is still three years out, so how are the team going to keep up their momentum and focus, while still progressing and propelling their sports forwards?

As Jenny Jones tells me: “A track and field athlete who runs the 100m at the Olympics knows what their goal is everyday. When I go snowboarding, I don’t think like that, it’s more I want to get better at that trick or I want to do rad methods like she does. Or I want to hike and build or ride through the trees or shred the mini park or ride massive kickers.”

“For those training towards the Olympics, it’s so important they still get to do all those other things and Nine Queens is one way of doing that. It’s contest-based, but it’s creative and relaxed.”

In truth Nine Queens is less a ski and snowboard comp and more a week-long jam session on a big, well-made and visually impressive jump, with a public Big Air contest tacked on the end. There’s no prize money, instead the organiser Nico Zacek, a German former pro freeskier and total dude, pumps that cash into a making a monster jump of a level rarely seen in other contests.

And it shows. This year’s castle is roughly 22m high with a 12m gap. It took 10 days to build with 35,000 cubic metres of snow, all pulled in from Serfaus mountain. If you think it looks impressive in pictures, imagine seeing it in the flesh. It’s a wonder, and even has steps up inside the turrets!

It’s certainly a big jump for a girls’ event but as Zacek tells me: “It’s not about building the biggest jump in the world. It should be a good size but not scary, as you want it to be where they do their new tricks. It’s got air time and it’s poppy.”

Nine Queens centres very much on the visual. It’s a truly modern contest in that sense. Photographers swarm around the jump like paparazzi, drone cameras buzz about above; unless there’s a sponsor clash the riders wear GoPros. I even see Katie Summerhayes wearing the new 360 degrees GoPro, which spins around her head making her look part-human part-helicopter.

Alongside the world’s best snowboarders and skiers, including the GB Park and Pipe Team trio, all there on an invite-only basis, Zacek also brings the industry’s best photographers in for the week, and runs photo comps to encourage them to hustle for the raddest shots. No easy feat, as one of their number, David Malacrida tells me: “I hate that castle. It’s too easy to take a good picture on it.”

Zacek even brings in a heli one day and on another organises a sunrise and then night shoot at the castle to help get the best possible pictures for the riders, their social media feeds and in turn the sponsors.

Here’s what Jenny Jones had to say about the sunrise session: “I went to bed thinking should I go? Then 4am rolled around and I just wanted to go. It was such a lovely atmosphere, a bit like when you do a dawnie surfing. We got a lift in the CAT in the dark, waited for just enough light to start hitting the castle and then everyone just hit it.”

“It was just beautiful and one of those rare moments in life that I know I’ll look back on. Everyone knew. Everyone was like this is so cool. Especially Katie Summerhayes, she was loving it which was so nice to see.”

Nine Queens is fully rider-driven. The girls stay in a fat hotel, are treated to regular spas, massages and late breakfasts so they can lie-in. On any given session Zacek is constantly asking the girls if they’re feeling it. If not, because the wind or weather isn’t right, they ditch it and head back to the hotel. No questions asked. He wants them happy and chilled as he firmly believes they’ll ride the most creatively that way.

As Zacek says: “Nowadays [snowsports has] become so professional. It’s nice to give them a high level core event that they get media exposure out of but it’s really different and more relaxed than all the other ones they have.”

In that sense Nine Queens couldn’t be further removed from the Olympics or even the X Games, where the schedules of sponsors and TV networks dictate that a run must take place according to a timetable, horizontal blizzard, whiteout or melting pipe notwithstanding.

That focus on the visual and rider experience make Nine Queens one of the most important things going on in women’s snowboarding right now. Especially at a time when questions are being asked around whether the girls’ side of the sport is progressing fast enough.

As Desiree Melancon told Whitelines recently: “The best professional woman cannot come close to putting down a comparable run to the worst amateur male. Women’s contest riding is strictly strategic; they have limited themselves because of the desire for success. No one is competing at the best level that they can, and this is why we see the same tricks year after year.”

So it was particularly pleasing to see a tonne of new tricks go down at this year’s Nine Queens. First up was Jamie Anderson on the back of the sunrise session landing her first cab 1080. But that was nothing compared to the heli session the next day which Jenny Jones described as “one of the best sessions I’ve ever been a part of” and which the Canadian Olympian Spencer O’Brien dubbed “best girls session of all time.” See the highlights reel above.

As Jenny Jones says: “There’s something about when the heli arrives that gets everyone really pumped.”

Like being on a film set or something? “Yeah people just started trying tricks, I think one of the skiers started it off doing a 1080 and then Jamie tried her 1080 and got it again and then Spencer O’Brien tried a backside 900, and she hasn’t done many of those so she was now pumped. Then Klaudia Medlova from Slovakia was doing big backside rodeos that everyone was getting stoked on so there was a collective vibe going round.”

Jon Moy, one of the filmers of the GB Park and Pipe Team  #ProjectPY2018 Series, sums it up pretty well: “Events like Nine Queens have a really important place in competitive skiing & snowboarding because they nurture creativity and give the girls space to just relax and enjoy what they do.”

“It’s really exciting when the pressure to simply land a run is lifted. The riders are just jamming together, getting more and more stoked as a group and new things start to happen.” Amen to that.

For a last word we asked Nine Queens organiser Nico Zacek what he makes of the GB Park and Pipe Team trio. He said: “I love them. Katie Summerhayes = legend, Aimee Fuller = legend, Jenny Jones = legend. I never get how there are so many amazing snowsports athletes coming out of Britain. It’s so weird.”

Be sure to follow the GB Park and Pipe team on social media: FacebookYouTubeTwitterInstagram 

Suzuki Nine Queens takes place at Serfaus-Fiss-Ladis in Tirol, Austria

To find out more head to Suzuki Nine Queens

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