The Education of Dollo: Henrik Harlaut is your 2013 Skier of the Year

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A group of girls attempted to steal Henrik after last call, but he came jogging back up the street with a rueful smile. “No YOLO Dollo?” Phil joked, a phrase that referred to Henrik’s occasional après-ski dalliances with admirers of the female persuasion. “Not tonight,” Henrik said, “gotta hang with Blunt, Wrecka, and Shark Ducks.”

I had decided to leave the rental car in the lot, and the four of us made the slippery trek back to the condo that B and E shared with Bergeron and the brothers Gagnier. We stayed up until the glow of dawn came through the sliding door, rapping about skiing. Henrik volunteered to sleep on the floor. The Swedish team had a suite reserved for him at the Mammoth Inn, but he preferred to be with his people.

Åre, Sweden. Shot by Daniel Rönnbäck.

Hungover in the lift line. Someone behind us was yelling, “Henrik! Henrik Harlaut!” I turned around to see a 50-year-old man in the kind of baize lumberjack pants that racers used to wear over their GS suits back in the 90s. I don’t know whether I was more surprised by the man’s age or the fact that someone had called Henrik by a name other than Dollo.

“I was wondering if you’d gotten Skier of the Year,” the man said, as his kid tried to hide behind him in shame. “Are the results in?”

“Not sure,” Henrik replied. “I think they’re still voting,” but then he looked at me knowingly and quickly flashed that old familiar smile. He had somehow figured out that the reason I had come to Mammoth to write the Freeskier story was that he had already won Skier of the Year. “Well I voted for ya,” the man said. “Good luck in the Olympics. Hope you win,” winking, “even if you’re not from the US of A.”

It was off-putting. Here was a grown man fan from a very different subset of skiing. Could he really grasp what Henrik was about? Or had he simply regurgitated something that his kid had told him? The man’s bandwagon enthusiasm was a reminder of the fickle popularity of any niche sport; the reality that the staying power of freeskiing as an Olympic event has yet to be determined, yet to be weighed against perennial favorites like downhill racing.

Since Jonny Moseley’s meteoric rise to stardom after the ’98 Nagano Games, the sport of mogul skiing has become all but extinct. Moseley has hung around, if only as a B-list celebrity and reality TV host. As far as the general public is concerned, he is surely better known as a TV personality than a gold medalist in a discipline that, in its heyday, was at the forefront of the Olympic program.

While Moseley’s then avant-garde approach to mogul and park skiing will always have a special place in my heart, the fact that he was even considered to announce the freeskiing events in Sochi begs the question: can Moseley even know the first thing about the sport he helped create as it is today? In fifteen years, freeskiing has made the leap from a Cro-Magnon huckfest to a nuanced system of styles and influences, indexed according to the dogmatic whims of its various sects. That gap in time and development is akin to the space between Rodney Mullen’s invention of the kickflip and Nyjah Huston doing a front blunt on a 20-stair handrail.

In the ever-changing world of action sport, only those equipped to adapt will survive. Only the youth are upwardly-mobile, and even they should be apprised of their expendability. I fear an age where freeskiers will have become aging ex-Olympians that revel in the faded glories of a dead sport—a freestyle discipline that was approved, sanctioned, judged, and finally killed at the hands of the IOC.

Yet, as I watched Henrik tear through Mammoth’s park that first day, I realized that the Olympic debate is moot. The global stage and the bureaucratic restrictions that come with it will not make or break freeskiing. It sounds trite, but as long as people are still having fun on skis, nothing else matters. Freeskiing, for those who know its true essence, is an art form.

“Henrik’s skiing is a symphony that he was born to compose, an opus that the whole world will soon watch with bated breath.”

I spent the next few days skiing and drinking with the boys. I had passed every waking moment with Henrik, but he had been noncommittal when it came to my questions about the Olympics. The only thing that he’d told me so far was that he was pleased with the suit that the Swedish team had tailored for him. “It’s 4XL,” he’d told me proudly. “Maybe even a li’l bigger than my Armada gear.”

It wasn’t until my third and final night in Mammoth that the necessity of a formal interview began to weigh upon my conscience. I was playing chess with Casabon, laughing at Vinnie Gagnier and Henrik as they analyzed video of the 2006 US Freeskiing Open Big Air that one of them had dug up in some musty corner of the Internet.

“Here comes Clarke. Oh no, it’s Hathaway. Same suit, doe,” Henrik said before the skier’s name popped onto the screen. Vinnie has a similar command of the microfiche of ski history. Both can spontaneously produce a name, landmark moment or particular date from the dustiest tomes of the past. Listening to these two talk about freeskiing was like attending an epistemological debate between Chomsky and Foucault about the origins of social dissent. Any attempt to contribute on my part would have been an exercise in futility.

Phil had beaten me handily in chess. Twice. I won the third game by baiting B-Dog with a sacrificial knight. “Nice playing with you as always, monsieur,” Casabon said softly as we shook hands. “We are two and two, all time now,” he added, recalling a game that I’d won in Breckenridge a year earlier.

“Yeah, but Shark Ducks,” Henrik weighed in, “you are two and one in Mammoth, no?” It was the kind of classic balancing of the scales that I had come to expect from Henrik. He’d sleep on the floor for you, buy you dinner—hell, he’d give you anything he owned, but he wouldn’t let you get away with much. Especially not if you planned on taking it from Phil.

I poked Henrik in the ribs and told him that it was time for the interview, sitting him down at the kitchen table and sticking a Captain Morgan and Coke in his hand. It was nice to see Henrik cut loose and have a drink once in a while. Skiing is an addiction like any other, and if there’s one thing to be said for habits, it’s that one can usually help take the edge off another.

270 to railslide. Åre, Sweden. Shot by Chris O’Connell.

As we began talking, Henrik was reserved, probably mistrusting me in my journalistic capacity for the same reasons he’d often confided in me as a friend. But as the Captain did its work, he hit a stride in which I was no longer asking questions but scribbling chicken scratch on a piece of notebook paper that I’d purloined from B-Dog’s journal. Henrik told of his family’s move from Stockholm to Åre when he was nine. About the formative backyard jump sessions with his two older brothers in the light of a lamp that was propped in the kitchen window, “I was on Head 131 racers, Oscar had Salomon Snowblades and my biggest brother Philip had plastic skis with tie-on bindings.”

Henrik recalled the biggest decision of his life: quitting school at 16. At the behest of Patrick, his teacher and coach at the Gymnasium (the Swedish equivalent of a sports school), a meeting had been called with Henrik’s mom, a local dentist. “They decided it was a good idea for me to quit school so I could travel and ski,” he told me.

His parents had supported him every step of the way, but his grandparents thought it rash to pursue a career in such an unestablished sport. His Olympic bid, Henrik seemed to suggest, will be the proving ground for an older generation who might not understand a sport that is as yet unadorned by the laurels of tradition.

Still, tradition is hardly his concern. In the end, everything can be boiled down to a passion for the craft itself. “I just want to go there and represent it to the fullest,” he said. “Even if a skateboarder could see it, that they would realize that there is cool shit in the Olympics.” He paused, as if conscious of the uncharacteristic swearing, “And I want to change people’s minds. I go to the clubs in Stockholm, and they won’t even let me in because of the way I look. It will be crazy to know that even if they hate me, that Swedish people will back me because I’m doin’ it for them. And most important, doin’ it for the people that know what’s up.”

The interview was over. A fitting epitaph for the trip. Henrik Harlaut: the man who has become the face of skiing, would break down the conventions of ski style and the iron curtain of Olympic regulation, only to reassemble them in his own image. He has done it a thousand times already. He will do it again.

The addition of freeskiing to the Olympic lineup, I know now, is more than just a necessary evil. I can see the gold-medal slopestyle score already, with a very specific face next to it. A familiar visage, wreathed in dreadlocks. There will be no shortage of stoke in that face, but I hope that there will be something else, too. An element of cunning, perhaps. A smile that will be seen by all, but understood by just a few.

Olympic Issue Download: This information was originally presented in Freeskier’s special edition, 2014 Olympic issue, available on iTunes beginning January 14. The Olympic issue will also be available on newsstands, as of the same date.

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