In 90-degree heat, more than 20 professional skiers and snowboarders christened Liberty University’s Snowflex ski slope Saturday with a torrent of extreme tricks: frontside rodeos, backside 180s, 720-degree spins and the crowd favorite, a double front flip.
About 3,000 spectators watched the freestyle show during the grand opening celebration of the Liberty Mountain Snowflex Centre — the first synthetic ski slope of its kind in North America.
During the finale, Chancellor Jerry Falwell ditched his suit and tie for jeans and flannel and glided down the slope. As he skied, the crowd erupted into a slow chant: “Jer-ry. Jer-ry. Jer-ry.”
The event featured a slew of guest speakers, a freestyle exhibition and open slopes for students and the public until midnight. The crowd was mostly students and locals, but also included snow sport enthusiasts from as far away as England.
In his opening remarks, Falwell praised the vision of his father, the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, who announced the project shortly before he died. With the ski slope, Liberty aims to boost its reputation, attract more students and, ultimately, bring more people to Christ.
“We’re just proud to be the only university in the world with its own Snowflex ski slope,” Falwell said.
The ski slope aligns with his father’s philosophy of “saturation evangelism” or “reach every available person with every available means,” Falwell said. Snowflex is the latest in a slew of entertainment options built in recent years to enhance student life on a campus that prides itself on being booze-free.
“We really believe they can have just as much fun without binge parties and coed dorms,” Falwell said.
Snowflex has garnered national media attention from outlets such as ABC News and USA Today. The Discovery Channel Canada is in the process of producing a segment on Snowflex for its science show Daily Planet, which will air in Canada later this fall.
“We thought it was something interesting and unique as the first one here in North America,” said producer Shannon Bentley.
The region’s snow sports industry is also paying attention. Despite its southern climate, Virginia is home to a handful of ski resorts that use man-made snow to keep slopes open during the winter months.
Wintergreen Resort, located in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Nelson County, is the closest to Lynchburg.
“We think that it’s a great addition to this community. It will encourage people to learn how to ski and keep their skills going,” said Wintergreen spokeswoman Dana Quillen. “With regards to the ski market, it will continue to hopefully keep a high interest in skiing in this area.”
Kenny Hess, director of business operation at Massanutten Resort near Harrisonburg, has followed Snowflex’s progress in recent months.
“We’re looking at it to see if it’s something we want to do,” Hess said. “I don’t think we really look at is as competition. If it gets people into the sport of skiing than it’s good for everybody.”
Liberty students came out in full force for the opening. Some cautiously nudged the edge of the slope with flip-flop clad feet to feel the surface. Others came armed with skis and snowboards, ready to hit the slopes as soon as they opened.
For freshman Jackson Kearns of Georgia, an avid snowboarder, Snowflex played a major role in bringing him to Liberty. He tried out the slopes the first day he got to school for orientation and has been out five times since.
“It’s an opportunity all year round to just improve your skills,” he said.
The opening attracted curious locals like Ashley and Matt Rogers of Madison Heights, who stow away their skis and snowboards during summer months when skiing at local resorts is impossible. When the slope opened for public use, the couple stood by the ski lift and peered up the mountain. They watched in awe as snowboarders attempted difficult tricks and cringed when a skier took a painful-looking spill.
“Lynchburg doesn’t have a lot of stuff to do in it, so this is huge,” Ashley said.
For some, Snowflex was the reason for a first-time trip to Lynchburg. Julie Griffith came from Baltimore with her two kids and booked a three-night stay in the nearby Marriott to check out the slopes.
The synthetic surface took some adjustment for Griffith, who recently returned from a snowboarding trip to Mount Hood, Ore. So did the August heat.
“It’s hot. I’m sweating a lot. You have to drink a lot of water,” she said as she waited in line for the lift.
Skiers and snowboarders have a mixed reaction as to how Snowflex performs compared to real snow. Some says it’s close to the real thing; others say it’s completely different.
But there is consensus about one thing: wear long pants and long sleeves. Falls on bare skin can leave a painful, rug-burn-like injury.
Liberty sophomore Austin Thompson knows firsthand. He still bears the marks of a Snowflex battle wound from five days ago: a patch of white skin where a giant scab used to be.
Thompson fell down the slope on his snowboard after over-rotating a 360-degree kicker. Though he was wearing long sleeves, the surface snagged the fabric on one arm, exposing his bare skin.
“It took all the skin off, like a big rug burn,” he said.
But Thompson was not deterred. He said he’s “super stoked” about Snowflex and planned to go back out later in the night.
Liberty plans to add another 30,000 square feet to the more than 40,500-square-foot slope by the end of the year.