The sun set on a cool Saturday evening as a large crowd gathered around a freestyle ski and snowboard course set up on the Memorial Union Terrace. Hoofers 11th Annual Rail Jam brought competitors of various skill levels to the rails, including the organizers of the event Eric Okmin, Ryan McKernan, Michel Justen and Chris Bierman, all pushing the limits of what they can do in a limited space, one run at a time.
The Terrace’s stage sat in the midst of the crowd, containing judges, an announcer bouncing from foot to foot and speakers pumping music out into the crisp February air.
Behind the stage, dozens upon dozens of people wandered around frozen Lake Mendota and skated on its exposed ice. An inflatable Statue of Liberty appeared to protrude from the snow Planet of the Apes style and people gathered around it to take pictures.
As I approached the crowd, I easily found a place to stand where I could see the events, thanks to the track having been constructed at a low point on the Terrace.
A snowboarder ground down a rail and took a spill upon reaching the ground again. As he tumbled, the “bruh” sound effect, which has been especially popular in memes, played in response.
Cooper Olsen was the primary DJ utilizing a phenomenal playlist and soundboard. He used it to react to competitors — praising a particularly impressive trick or throwing a good-natured jab at easy ones.
The skiers and snowboarders began each run shooting down the steep, constructed ramp into the fenced-in snow-packed rail area. The course consisted of one rail at the bottom of the ramp, next to a small jump feature with a barrel built into the lip of the jump. After these features, competitors had the option to hit either a quarter pipe feature with a box on top, or a flat-up rail at the end of the course near the front of the stage.
McKernan, the announcer, narrated which tricks we were witnessing, who some of the competitors were and his speculations on which trick the competitor was attempting or was hoping to accomplish in a later run. He actively rooted for the competitors and maintained an excited demeanor to hype up the crowd.
Though it took some time, the crowd caught up with the announcer, oohing every wipeout and whooping after particularly cool tricks. Outkast’s “Hey Ya” got some people dancing, to the announcer’s delight. Half an hour later, the first heat of snowboarders ended with a much more energized crowd than the one with which it began.
The turnover between heats was very quick. Bierman, with a box of merch, tossed hats, shirts and lanyards into the crowd as they prepared to unleash a heat of skiers onto the slope.
By the time the heat was ready to begin, the sun had set and the moon hung low in the sky, just above the festivities. The skiers were anxious to get started, picking up the level of intensity on which the snowboarders left off. They seemed emboldened after waiting through a heat and gave us a valiant attempt at a backflip within the first fifteen minutes of their first heat.
The evening was a cold one, but the Memorial Union provided a respite for warming up between heats, and heaters were scattered about the terrace for a quick fix if one didn’t want to get too far from the action. The experience was worth leaving the comfort of home to watch competitors of all skill levels challenge their control and style in creative ways and have fun doing it.