It's a sunny mid-november afternoon, and Jan Bucher, freestyle ballet skier extraordinaire, is practicing gut flips on the slopes at Copper Mountain. Colo. The gut flip, a maneuver in which the skier plants her pole tips in the snow and the other ends against her abdomen and then launches herself into a forward full flip, requires intense concentration, so Bucher, whose name is frequently butchered (it's pronounced BOO-her). doesn't notice the menacing figure gliding toward her. Suddenly she looks up and sees someone straight out of Star Wars—it's Darth Vader. dressed all in black, cape and helmet included. Darth waves his Day-Glo wand, taps her with it and pronounces sonorously. "Obi-Wan Kenobi gave you the power to do this well." Then he skis on. Bucher laughs. She has run into a lot of wackadoos since she took up freestyle. At least this one didn't insult her.
Besides, Bucher doesn't need a bogus Darth to put the Force on her side; it seems to have been with her almost from the moment she first snapped on skis 10 years ago. Bucher, 30, has been the women's World Cup champion ballet skier seven times and the U.S. champion three times. And she's the odds-on favorite to win a gold medal at Calgary, where freestyle skiing (which, besides ballet, includes competition in aerial and mogul skiing) will make its debut as a demonstration sport.
Freestyle ballet is a lot like figure skating and a bit like Alpine skiing—though shorter skis and longer, stronger poles are used. The skier intersperses balletic dance steps with jumps, spins and flips in a two-minute-and-15-second routine performed to music on a 282-yard-long stretch of slope, and a panel of seven judges awards scores as high as 10 for technical difficulty, choreography and overall performance. Ballet skiers hope TV coverage from Calgary will make the world familiar with such maneuvers as the Rudy, the Post Toastie, the thumper and, yes, the Bucher spin.
Bucher and freestyle skiing have come a long way in the last decade. In the mid-1970s, she was a figure skater who had reached the limits in her sport, and freestyle skiing was a professional event caught in a downhill slide. It had had its heyday in the early '70s, when commercial sponsors coughed up big bucks to put the aerialists—those wild and crazy people who performed without apparent regard for life or limb—on the tube. At that point there were few guidelines and no safety rules for freestyle competitions, and the antics of these so-called hotdoggers gave the sport a bad name. The mustard began to fly after a few aerialists ended up in wheelchairs. In 1977, U.S. insurance companies decided not to issue policies to ski areas that held freestyle contests, and as a result inverted aerials—backflips on skis done off small, steep ramps—were banned. Two years later freestyle went amateur and came under the umbrella of the Fédération Internationale de Ski, the governing body for competitive skiing. Safety rules were written to minimize the danger of inverted aerials, and regular international competition was organized. Freestyle had begun its long climb to respectability.
While freestyle was growing up, so was Bucher. A native of Salt Lake City, she started her athletic career at the age of 10—on figure skates. "I went to a skating party with some friends," she says, "and I just loved it. I saw these girls out there doing spins, and I decided right then I wanted to be a skater." The children of Bea and John Bucher are a hardworking, determined lot with a penchant for the entertainment world. Jan's sister Gerrie, now semiretired and living in Rome, was a dancer with the San Francisco Ballet, and her sister Jyll is an opera singer (brother John is a criminal lawyer), so when Bea put Jan in skating classes it was no surprise that the youngest of the Bucher girls "was hooked right away."
A year later she was competing. "By 15 or 16, I was pretty good, but I wasn't Debi Thomas," says Bucher. "Then I started getting injuries." She suffered from a back ailment, and when she was 17 she fell while running to meet a friend. Result: a shattered bone and badly torn ligaments in her right ankle. An operation patched the ankle back together, but, says Bucher, "as for serious skating, it was bye-bye after that."
This didn't keep her off the ice, mind you, it just slowed her down. One day when she was at the Salt Palace ice rink she struck up a conversation with a friendly bunch of people who had been watching her skate. They were ballet skiers looking for some new ideas for their routines. "I started teaching them some skating moves," says Bucher. One thing led to another, and before you could say triple toe loop, the skiers suggested that Bucher join them on the slopes. They would teach her their sport. "You'd be great at it," one of them said prophetically.
"So I snuck up there," says Bucher. "I had spent so much time and money learning to skate that I was worried if my mom found out I'd been skiing, she'd kill me."
It was the start of her brilliant career. "They took me up on the chair lift," says Bucher, "and I couldn't get off the damned thing. They had to stop the lift, and then I fell off. I couldn't do much of anything; I couldn't even snowplow. But the one thing I could do was spin." She was 20 and attending the University of Utah when she began this secret life. Every weekend she would tell her mother she was going skating or to the library. Then she would drive to nearby ski areas for regional competitions.
"The freestylers paid for my rental equipment," says Bucher, "because I was helping them, too. Things the skiers had been working on for years, I could do really quick, because it was the same kind of stuff I'd been doing for almost all my life on skates. The big difference was now I had these long edges, where before I had teeny ones. It was much more stable."