During the Winter Olympics, seeing an aerial skier perform is unforgettable.
It's like gymnastics in the air. And, like gymnasts, aerial skiers get points for doing a harder routine and for sticking the landing. But there's a crucial difference between the two sports.
In the final few rounds of aerials, you can't use the same trick twice. Sometimes, after seeing what the athletes before you have done, you have to change which moves you'll use in the very last seconds.
The aerialists are in the air for mere seconds, but they do so many maneuvers that they land before you can say all their moves out loud. Everything happens so fast, and the moves are so complicated, that skiers and their coaches use shorthand lingo. At times, it sounds like a made-up children's language.
There's the "double full, full double full," for example. Not to be confused with the "full, full double full." Ask an aerialist like Dylan Ferguson to translate and you can see why they use the shorthand.
"I do three flips with five twists. So a back flip with two twists, a back flip with one twist, and a back flip with two flips — twists," Ferguson stumbles on the words as he explains.
"I can't even say it," he says, laughing.
This year, the strategizing has come into play big time.
Emily Cook, who has been to two Winter Olympics, performs two variations on a triple twisting double back flip.
When the time comes, she'll have practiced them so much that the moves are stored in her muscle memory. So the question becomes: Which trick to do? You can't just do your best move all the time. You have to plan exactly when to do your best move. Saving the hardest trick for last won't guarantee the best score.
"When people are overperforming, sometimes you have to do your hardest jump first to make sure you are in the final round," says Todd Schirman, program director of the USA Freestyle Team. When one person performs a harder jump, everyone after that athlete reconsiders his moves.
"So they step it up and do the correct jump to get themselves in the finals," Schirman says.
Last weekend in Lake Placid, N.Y., at the last World Cup event of the season, Australian Laura Peel swapped tricks at the last minute. This is when it gets tricky for the other competitors.
Standing at the top of a hill, Cook can't see what tricks the other skiers just completed. A series of coaches relay them up the hill to her. Then, moments before she's about to jump, the coach at the top might say, "Do the harder trick."
Imagine a gymnast changing her routine five seconds before it starts. Cook says they train over and over again to swap tricks at the last minute.
She decided to do her hardest trick in the second-to-last round; she desperately wanted to get into the finals. It was great, but not great enough. She took fifth in the round, one spot shy of moving on. Sometimes, strategy isn't enough, she says.
That day, the Chinese team dominated. It performed the hardest jumps and nailed them every time. That kind of perfection is hard to outstrategize.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
The Winter Olympic sport of aerials is unforgettable once you see it. Skiers flying up into the air off jumps, twisting and flipping. It takes tremendous skill and lots of training, strong stomach muscles and it takes strategy. NPR's Robert Smith from our Planet Money Team looks at the game theory behind the aerial tricks.
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ROBERT SMITH, BYLINE: The skier takes off downhill, facing a jump so big he can't see the bottom of the hill.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: On course, kicker five.
SMITH: He is in the air for a mere three seconds. But in that time he does so many aerial maneuvers that he's landed before you could even say them all out loud.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: All right phone home. That was massive.
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SMITH: The skiers and coaches themselves use a short-hand lingo to describe what just happened there. It sounds like a made up children's language.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Double full-full. Double full.
SMITH: Which, as you know is different from a...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Full-full, double full.
SMITH: Ask an aerialist like Dylan Ferguson what that all means, and you can see why they use the shorthand.
DYLAN FERGUSON: I do three flips, five twists so back flips with two-two twists, a back flip with one twist and a back flip with two flips - twists, and hopefully land on my feet - can't even say it.
SMITH: Think of it like gymnastics in the air on skis. And like gymnastics, you get points for doing a harder routine and for sticking the landing, but there is a crucial difference between gymnastics and aerials. In aerials, in the final few rounds, you can't use the same trick twice. Every time you face that jump you have to come up with something different.
EMILY COOK: It's been a little different this year and the strategizing has come into play big time.
SMITH: This is Emily Cook, 34 years old, been to two Winter Olympics.
COOK: Right now, I'm performing two variations of a triple twisting double back flip.
SMITH: But the question is which of those two tricks do you do? You can't repeat a trick. You can't just do your best one all the time. You have to plan exactly when to do your best. Now you might think: Oh, well, you just save the hardest one for last. Right? After all, that's when you are literally going for the gold against the very best skiers. But the other skiers know this too and sometimes they'll try and get ahead of you, squeeze you out of the finals.
Todd Schirman is the program director of the U.S. freestyle team.
TODD SCHIRMAN: What happens is one person will do a harder jump. They have a bigger score and then everyone is like, OK, we have to change our jump too. Because if I do the jump I planned on, I just saw two really good jumps, so I'm not going to make finals. So they step it up and do the correct jumps to get themselves in the finals.
SMITH: At the last world cup event of the season, last weekend in Lake Placid, Australian Laura Peel swapped tricks at the very last minute.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: And that is an interesting strategy because she originally was going to do the full-full, and then decided to add a little more degree of difficulty - the full double full - so the double full...
SMITH: Now, this is when it gets tricky for the other competitors. When Emily Cook is standing at the top of a hill, she hasn't seen what tricks the other skiers just did. It gets relayed up the hill by a series of coaches. And then moments before she's about to jump, the coach at the top might say, yeah, do the harder trick.
COOK: You know, on the hill at the last second that'll be their call.
SMITH: Imagine a gymnast changing her Olympic routine five seconds before it starts. Cook says they train over and over again to swap tricks at the very last minute.
COOK: I've done all these jumps so many times in my career that that switch is fairly automatic at this point. For sure, the first couple of times that it happened, it needed some work.
SMITH: In Lake Placid, Emily Cook and her coaches decided to do her hardest trick in the second to last round. She desperately wanted to get into the finals.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Nailed it. Take out the Makita and put the screws to it, baby.
SMITH: And it was a great jump but not great enough. She took fifth in the round. The top four people moved on. At the bottom of the hill, Cook said sometimes strategy is not enough.
COOK: We were going for the podium. We were going for the win tonight. And if I had stepped down and not done quite as well, I think that I would have looked at as a poor choice. You know?
SMITH: On this night, the Chinese team dominated. They did the hardest jumps and they nailed them every single time. And that kind of perfection is hard to outthink.
Robert Smith, NPR News.
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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
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