By David Rogers. December 20, 2019. ATLANTA, GA — Home for the holidays soon, but first Blowing Rock native Luke Winkelmann has some business to take care of in Atlanta’s SunTrust Park.
COVER IMAGE: Blowing Rock native Luke Winkelmann in a practice run Thursday morning at SunTrust Park. All photographic images by David Rogers for Blowing Rock News
From left-centerfield to home plate, the Atlanta Braves home for professional baseball is looking more like Europe’s Alps this weekend. The outfield grass and dirt infield are being dismissed as competitive playing surfaces, giving way to a more than 15-story structure of scaffolding (29,000 pieces) that is 410 feet long and built to replicate a ski slope with some 800 tons of snow on its surface. This special competition venue required approximately 18 days to finish construction. The Visa Big Air event is an FIS (International Ski Federation) sanctioned Snowboard and Freeski World Cup.
It is all part of the Visa “Big Air” series event, the first of its kind in Atlanta and the only event in the 12-event series to be hosted in the United States this season, Winkelmann explained to Blowing Rock News in a mid-day interview on site in SunTrust Park, on Thursday.
Almost a year ago, Winkelmann sat down with Blowing Rock News at App Ski Mountain where he was signing autographs for local ski and snowboarding enthusiasts during a break from his duties as a “rookie” on the U.S. ski and snowboarding team (CLICK HERE to read that interview).
Fast forward 11 months, and Winkelmann is arguably now one of the top five “big air” professional snowboard riders in the U.S., representing the Red Bull snowboarding team.
Although he started interrupting his studies at Blowing Rock School to compete in a professional snowboarding career while still in middle school, Winkelmann may still be in his relative infancy as a late-comer to the sport, one Red Bull representative explained to Blowing Rock News. “He is still growing into the sport and gaining confidence,” the sponsor rep said.
Winkelmann agrees. When asked by Blowing Rock News about his sudden ascent to the top of his profession, he just smiled and said, “I am gaining more confidence in what I can do and working on it every day.”
Winkelmann will look back at 2019 as the year that he will have “gone global.” From several featured ski and snowboarding venues in the U.S. to even more scattered across Europe, most notably Italy and Austria, as well as New Zealand, the young man is racking up some serious frequent flier miles.
However fast he might be getting around the world, Winkelmann is REALLY fast when it comes to the Big Air snowboarding events. On these man-made slopes made of steel scaffolding, a plywood “floor”, a layer of steel, and then 6-7 inches of man-made snow covering the entire jumping surface, the Blowing Rock native will reach speeds in excess of 40 mph, then launch himself off a ramp some 70-feet in the air to do flips, spins, turns, and other tricks before returning to good ol’ Mother Earth on a lower landing slope — on his feet no less.
According to the International Ski Federation handbook, snowboarders are judged according to their execution, degree of difficulty for their tricks, amplitude, variety, and progression. Each of those five criteria have subsets to consider, too.
Winkelmann noted to Blowing Rock News that the snowboarding Big Air event will feature between 40 and 50 male athletes and 20-25 female athletes, in separate divisions. More than $100,000 in prize money is at stake, with the winner in each division taking home over $11,000.
U.S. Ski & Snowboard is based in Park City, UT. The hosted a similar city-centered even in Boston’s Fenway Park in 2016 and hope to stage additional city-hosted competitions leading up to the 2022 Olympic Winter Games in Beijing, China.