Meet Henrik Harlaut – Olympic Swede
Name: Henrik Harlaut
Born: 14 August 1991 in Stockholm
"Home mountains”: Åreskutan and Mammoth Mountain (California)
Online: henrikharlaut.com, instagram.com/hharlaut
Career: Freestyle skier, famous for his innovative tricks. Participated in numerous ski videos and competitions. Gained his first sponsor at the age of 11. A dominant force in Big Air in the X Games where he has won four golds. One of Sweden’s big Olympic hopes in Pyeongchang. He is not involved in the Harlaut family champagne business.
”He is untouchable,” shouted American commentators when Henrik Harlaut won his fourth X Games Big Air gold medal in March 2017.
“The X Games is the biggest and toughest competition to win in our sport. The Olympics is the biggest mainstream event, but only four qualifiers from each country can compete. In the X Games, it’s the top 16 from any nation worldwide. There are usually up to 10 Americans. Being at the top of the podium four times in the past five years has been incredible. It’s been the best experience of my life,” Harlaut says.
“I feel better now than I’ve ever felt before ahead of a competition season. Stronger mentally and physically, and I think I’ve got the tricks I need to do well this winter. An Olympic medal is a dream and I’m working as hard as I can to achieve that,” says the skier who caught the attention of TV viewers during the Sochi Olympics wearing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles gloves, dreadlocks and baggy ski pants that almost fell off, leading to a BBC commentator to call him “The Octopus.” After his run, Harlaut gave the Wu-Tang Clan hand sign to the cameras and declared, “Wu-Tang is for the children,” echoing the words spoken by rapper Ol’ Dirty Bastard at the 1998 Grammy Awards.
At the Olympic Games in South Korea, men and women will compete in aerials, halfpipe, moguls, ski cross and slopestyle disciplines. For the Swede it marks an opportunity and a challenge, according to Anders Wingqvist, Editor-in-chief of ski website freeride.se.
“I think Henrik both can and will improve on his performance at Sochi. Having said that, there are plenty of brilliant competitors starting. It’s a pretty new discipline in an Olympic context and Henrik has expressed some concern about the fact that the judges are not always up to date when it comes to the very latest tricks. Added to which, he’s promised a new, secret trick for the Olympics. This is the way it is with a creative sport that is continuously evolving,” Wingqvist says.
Freeskiing head coach Patric Hopstadius agrees with Wingqvist. “Our sport is based on innovation and it’s developing so fast that many freestyle skiers can compete for medals. It was far from obvious who was going to win the gold at the last Olympics. The best freeskiers from Switzerland, Britain, Norway, the US and Sweden will be tough rivals, but Henrik has what it takes. He has used his character as a persona and his relatively favorable background to follow his dream of becoming a unique competitor in a sport with no rules.”
Harlaut first met Hopstadius at university where the latter was a coach. The development of the sport and interest in it has accelerated greatly since those early days, and at Sochi in 2014 slopestyle for both ski and snowboard made its Olympic debut, with Harlaut finishing sixth.
The Swede, who came second behind Alex Bellemare of Canada in a test event for the Olympics in Pyeongchang last February, is also delighted with the strides the sport has taken.
“You can see how the sport is changing every year. Everything from new competitors to more and better parks. Plus, social media is far, far bigger than it was 10 years ago. This is something you really notice. It’s absolutely crazy how many cool things people are doing now, and it feels as though we’re reaching a limit when it comes to tricks. The focus will be more on your actual performance and how you express your grabs and so on. I also think the courses will be more creative, as there’s still room for development,” Harlaut says.
Head coach Hopstadius feels the sport’s recent inclusion in the Olympic program was due to a combination of determination, organizational capacity and market value.
“We’re involved in a sport that requires a certain amount of insight to understand it. You simply can’t compare it with team sports – first to the finish line, fastest descent, goals scored, and so on. We’ve come a long way with regard to its complexity in showing and fairly judging a sport with progress criteria but no rules. What the sport is based on, like snowboarding, is unique in an Olympic Games context and has significant potential in the sense of how young people become involved in the sport and how this is explained as a social phenomenon.”
One important aspect, according to Hopstadius, is that spontaneous sports, in which freeskiing has its roots, are based on putting the participant and experiments ahead of the organization and results. For this reason, many participants have little interest in the Olympics. At the same time, the Olympic Games and their rivals FIS have contributed to the development of freeskiing and given women the opportunity to fully compete. “For the athletes, it’s a global stage where they can showcase their culture, irrespective of gender,” he says.
Norwegian sports commentator Jonas Greve is pleased that free skiing is appealing to more and more people, although he feels it is more than just a sport.
“During the X Games, it’s the fans that watch – during the Olympics, it’s the whole world. Freeriding is a lifestyle with subcultures, trends, personalities, clothes, eyewear and brands. Harlaut stands out as a different character. It’s almost as if he wins competitions without showing up, simply by virtue of who he is. Added to which, he is one of the world’s best skiers, which you can see in the X Games where he wins with crazy tricks that nobody has ever done before,” Greve adds.
Harlaut is looking forward to another chance of an Olympic gold. “For me, as an athlete, it’s fantastic to be able to represent my country. The sport itself is an incredible spectacle. I’m absolutely sure it’s spectator-friendly, so it’s great that more and more people are becoming aware of it,” says the skier, who developed an early love for winter sports.
“When I was little, we lived in Stockholm. The ice hockey rink was three minutes and the ski slopes 15 minutes away. Ice hockey was a big passion. That changed when we moved to Åre, when I was nine. There, it was two minutes to the slopes and 20 to the ice rink. I loved the freedom of freeskiing. You don’t have to join a club or have special training times. It’s just a matter of having as much fun as possible with your friends of all ages, and practicing and skiing as much as you can.”
A quick internet search on Harlaut on the Swedish evening newspaper websites Aftonbladet.se and Expressen.se resulted in 50 and 40 hits, respectively. A similar search on Swedish cross-country skier Charlotte Kalla gave 25,000 and 11,500 hits. The X Games YouTube channel has over 500,000 subscribers. FIS Alpine has 23,000.
“Unfortunately, in my opinion, slopestyle and freeskiing don’t get the attention they deserve. For me, it’s far and away the most entertaining and stylish sport to watch. I hope and believe that this will change. I see many younger skiers that are interested in becoming freeskiers rather than downhill,” Harlaut says.
His big childhood idol was the American Tanner Hall.
“He was the biggest star when I was growing up and he skied in my favorite style. But I had many idols and sources of inspiration from other sports, such as skateboarding, snowboarding, ice hockey and basketball, that have all had a big influence on me. Plus, I get a lot of my inspiration from music that puts me in the mindset I want to be in when I ski. I always ski with music in my ears.”
The X Games YouTube video from Aspen 2013 when Harlaut won Ski Big Air has been viewed almost 400,000 times. He has 170,000 followers on Instagram. The star skier feels all this attention is fun so far.
“It hasn’t felt like a disadvantage as yet, I’m just thrilled that people come and show their support,” he says.
“Things can change from week to week. Travel depends on whether I’m competing a lot or filming. During shoots, as a rule, you’re in the same place for three or four weeks, but you’re seldom in the same place for longer than seven days when competing. I aim to train and keep myself fit every day, but when I’m competing, I usually take a day off before the competition starts, to go cycling and prepare myself mentally. If I’m out filming, it mostly depends on the weather. Then you ski for as long as the conditions remain good, and relax when the weather turns bad.”
Text: Øystein Tronstad