Zoi Sadowski-Synnott and Travis Rice Win Natural Selection

The Natural Selection Tour pushes skiers beyond their comfort zone. starting line? Helicopter.

Blake Pool, Revelstoke, British Columbia. Natural selection tour

REVELSTOKE, British Columbia — The figure skating competition has begun unlike most. Twelve of the world’s best snowboarders were dropped off by helicopter high in the mountains of British Columbia last Monday with one mission: get to the bottom.

Beneath it was about 80 acres that fell about 1,800 vertical feet. The open top section with few consequences gave way to steep descents where riders would miss out on what was below. There were endless options for moving around, some possibly fatal, not easy.

Their attempts will be judged and broadcast live for the world to see. The competition was called natural selection.

The guidance from Travis Rice, the American skateboarder who created the event, was clear. “You can do dangerous things in a safe way,” he said.

Travis Rice founded the Natural Selection Tour as an antidote to other figure skating competitions.

Chad Chomlak / Natural Selection Tour

Travis Rice’s first round in the final round. At the age of 40, he has faced competitors almost half his age. Natural selection tour

Even at 40, Rice was setting the standard for what was possible, calling on top riders to perform at his level. The goal, he said, is to push riders beyond their comfort zones.

The Natural Selection Tour, now in its third year, is a world away from what snowboarding enthusiasts see at the Olympics and in traditional competition. Instead of manicured courses or half-pipes, the event takes place on natural mountain terrain, challenging athletes to contend with what Rice calls “geological anomalies” as part of the dynamic course. With limited time to prepare, and using only photos and videos of the course, riders must save a race that will make a unique impression on the judges while avoiding rocks, cliffs and trees. It is a set of skills not often used in competitive forms.

The event’s route, chosen by Rice, included a strange feature called pillow lines, a phenomenon in which slopes collect snow in a manner resembling a staircase made of marshmallows. This is no smooth skating hill: To make it down this type of terrain, riders bounce their way up until they reach the bottom.

The finishing area was dwarfed by the surrounding landscape. Matt Roby/The New York Times

Mickey Ciccarelli is enjoying himself on Discovery Day when the riders were able to look at the track before the competition.

Dean Tour Pluto Gray / Natural Selection

“There will be people flying 100 feet thinking they’re going 20, including me,” said Jared Elston, 24, looking up the mountain, trying to find a way down to suit his skills.

He was not alone in his fear. One of the best snowboarders in the world expressed some skepticism while planning daring top-down runs that would yield high scores and few injuries.

Ben Ferguson and Hailey Langland, both US Olympians, were eagerly awaiting their challenge. Ferguson said he wasn’t “very confident going around”. Langland admitted that she only started riding such terrain a few weeks ago.

“We hope viewers understand how hard it is because they look so soft and playful,” Blake Ball, a 28-year-old competitor from Jackson Hole, Widow, said of the pillow lines. “But it’s really like if you fall off one of these things, you end up in a hole.”

Elena Haight and Hailey Langland, both Olympians, competed in this year’s event.

Dean Tour Pluto Gray / Natural Selection

Helly Langland and Zoe Sadowski-Synott work together to explore the trails beneath the mountains. Matt Roby/The New York Times

For the first time, the Tour’s production team was tasked with broadcasting live not from the base of the ski area, but directly from the remote mountain landscape.

Chris Steplayy, the executive producer who oversaw the video’s production, had three different radios strapped to his chest. “Nothing like this has been done before, especially in snowboarding,” he said.

Planning a schedule for broadcasting from an unmonitored environment is a guessing game, said Liam Griffin, founder and CEO of Natural Selection Tour. The biggest unknown, he said, is that “nobody’s ridden this before, so I hope I’m right.”

Athletes were able to watch the dry broadcast before the event.

Chad Chomlak / Natural Selection Tour

Six cameras, including two drones, capture riders as they take unique rides down the mountain.

Tom Monterosso / Nature’s Choice Tour

On Monday morning, there was a collective level of anxiety about what was about to unfold. Many riders believe there is a high potential for serious injury.

Zoi Sadowski-Synnott, an Olympic gold medalist in the slopestyle from New Zealand who won previous Natural Selection events, described her way of thinking as “probably the most nervous I’ve ever been in a competition before.”

As the riders started making their way, some said they got lost trying to find their chosen route. “It’s a lot bigger than it looks,” said Elena Height, a U.S. Olympian and X Games veteran, after hitting the bottom of her first walk.

Ferguson found himself stuck on the side of a cliff for a brief moment before he regained his composure and brought him down safely. “It definitely pushes you to become a better snowboarder,” he said of the event.

A helicopter picks up the skiers and takes them about 20 kilometers to the mountains for the competition. Matt Roby/The New York Times

Zoi Sadowski-Synnott, Olympic gold medalist in the slopestyle swimming, proves that her talents are not limited to the prepared courses.

Tom Monterosso / Nature’s Choice Tour

After a few early morning close calls, the tension eased as the field became more comfortable finding track limits.

Proving that youth can master the experience, Sadowski-Synott won the women’s event on her 22nd birthday. Rice, who was still on top of his game, came away with a final win in the men’s field, admitting he thought he could have ridden a little better, but the terrain was “more rocky than we thought.”

The event went so smoothly that even the organizers were a bit surprised. There were no injuries. The event was successfully broadcast online, using radio frequency transmissions and satellite link from the field and commentary and graphics from California.

Kimi Fasani has been welcomed back to the top tier of figure skating after an impressive comeback from cancer.

Tom Monterosso / Nature’s Choice Tour

Before the competition, Helle Langland confirmed that she wasn’t confident riding this type of terrain. She proved that she could handle the pressure and pulled away from third place. Natural selection tour

“I have such a satiating feeling and feel so amazed that not only did our production team manage all of their challenges, but also that each contestant has distinct clips and everyone’s health,” said Rice. “For me, that’s the win.”

The level has already been raised for the next event as well. “I know each and every one of my jockeys is capable of more than the running they do, including me,” Rice said. “So I think everyone has a little bit more than I show.”

Kimmy Vasani, a 38-year-old competitor from Mammoth Lakes, California, said the Natural Selection Tour was pushing the boundaries of the sport.

“In a fraction of a moment,” she said, “I’ve just advanced figure skating in a whole new way.”

Zoi Sadowski-Synnott and Travis Rice both walked away with the 2023 Natural Selection titles.

Tom Monterosso / Nature’s Choice Tour

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