Big Air: Winter daredevils take over the home of the Braves

Sports
SunTrust Park

Crews work to construct and cover a giant ski slope with snow on the playing field at SunTrust Park Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2019, in Atlanta. The baseball stadium, home of the Atlanta Braves, will host the Big Air ski and snowboard competition Friday and Saturday. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

ATLANTA (AP) — The crack of the bat has been replaced by the swoosh of skis and snowboards at SunTrust Park.

Gnarly, indeed.

The home of the Atlanta Braves is hosting a Big Air competition this weekend, bringing a hip new winter sport to the heart of the deep South.

A daring group of snowboarders and skiers will be soaring off a 15-story tower that looks like a massive erector set in the middle of the 41,000-seat baseball stadium, making their runs down a treacherous slope covered with 800 tons of artificial snow in a city that rarely experiences the white stuff.

Instead of Freddie Freeman hitting homers, it will be Olympic gold medalist Red Gerard and Co. performing all sorts of twists, flips and gyrations.

“I was so excited,” Gerard said, standing right behind what is normally home plate after practicing Thursday. “Hopefully kids will see this and they’ll be like, ‘Mom, dad, can I get a snowboard?’”

U.S. officials believe that bringing a World Cup-sanctioned Big Air event to the Southeast for the first time will expand the popularity of a sport that won raves during its Olympic debut at the 2018 Pyeongchang Games but draws scant attention the rest of the time.

“People will just be super-hyped to see something they’ve never really seen with their own eyes,” said Mark McMorris, a Canadian snowboarder. “I don’t really know what they’re going to be able to make of it, but I think it’s a pretty eye-opening, wow-factor sport.”

The only Big Air competition at last year’s Winter Games was for snowboarders.

The acrobatic skiers will get their own event in 2022 at Beijing, where a massive new tower has already been completed.

Unlike other freestyle events, which require a variety of jumps and moves, Big Air is essentially a single run down a steep slope that looks a bit like a ski jump, giving the athletes a chance to show off their tricks in one soaring display after they fling themselves off the end of the run.

While more natural settings are surely the preference of the competitors — there are much longer runoff areas and plenty of room to warm up — they recognize the value of temporary structures and artificial snow in expanding the reach of their sport.

In 2016, a Big Air competition was held at Boston’s Fenway Park, the oldest stadium in the major leagues.

Now, it’s coming to one of the newest.

That’s really a thrill for American freestyle skier Caroline Claire, who spends much of her free time watching her favorite team, the New York Yankees.

“My family, we’re huge baseball fans,” she said. “It kind of runs in our blood and I watch it religiously. To be in a ballpark like this, which is pretty new, and to be in Atlanta with the Braves, who are such a storied franchise and a really good team currently, just being here is really exciting for me.”

SunTrust Park opened in 2017 in the bustling suburbs just outside the Atlanta city limits, the centerpiece of a massive complex that also includes hotels, shops, restaurants, offices, apartments and a music venue.

Vowing to make the development more than just a baseball park, Braves officials have sought out events beyond the diamond, from a Billy Joel concert to a college football game involving nearby FCS school Kennesaw State.

Big Air is the most audacious venture beyond the stadium’s primary purpose.

As if welcoming the winter stars to the A-T-L, the temperature dipped into the 20s the night before the first practice.

Under a bright, sunny sky, it warmed into the low 50s Thursday.

“I personally like the weather,” said the 19-year-old Gerard, who famously won gold in the slopestyle competition at Pyeongchang after staying up late binge-watching “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and sleeping through his alarm.

“You don’t have to fully bundle up. We’re always layering up completely to the point where you feel warm. It’s nice being able to wear a T-shirt and hit a jump, and the snow seems to be holding up.”

McMorris agreed.

“It’s actually a really nice temperature to have grippy snow,” he said. “It’s not icy.”

Julia Marino, a Winter X Games gold medalist, competed in the Big Air event at Fenway Park, not far from her Connecticut hometown.

The 22-year-old snowboarder hopes to get the same sort of vibe in Atlanta, which hosted the 1996 Summer Olympics but has scant experience with winter sports.

“It kind of brings the snow competition to the city, to the people, instead of the people having to come out to the mountains,” Marino said. “That way, a lot of people can come and watch it. The stadium environment means thousands and thousands of people can have comfortable seats and watch us do our thing, which is pretty cool.

“As much as we can get our sport on the map, it’s good for snowboarding and good for all the athletes.”

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Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 His work can be found at https://apnews.com

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More AP sports: https://apnews.com/apf-sports and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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