The unnerving heartbeat of Pyeongchang

“When the moment is traumatic for the athletes, it should be traumatic for the people. What is more dramatic than the heartbeat?” said Hello Haas, the venue producer for all freestyle ski events in Pyeongchang. Photo by Mark Reis/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire

Boom boom. Boom boom.

In the spectator areas at the freeski venues at Phoenix Snow Park, as athletes wait for the judges to decide their fate and parents hold their breath waiting to find out if they will console or celebrate with their Olympians, the venue quiets. All that's audible is the drum of a heartbeat.

Boom boom. Boom boom.

The longer the wait, the faster the beat, the more deafening the silence and the more tense the moment. "I've never been that stressed out watching Maggie compete," said Tucker Voisin, the twin brother of U.S. ski slopestyle athlete Maggie Voisin. "That beat, it kept getting quicker and quicker and time slowed down. It was rough."

And it was all by design.

"The idea is simple," said Hello Haas, the venue producer for all freestyle ski events in Pyeongchang and the man responsible for cranking up the dial on some of the most nerve-wracking moments at these Games. "When the moment is traumatic for the athletes, it should be traumatic for the people. What is more dramatic than the heartbeat?"

Take Tuesday's women's ski halfpipe final, as American Brita Sigourney waited to find out if her third-run score would be good enough for bronze and bump her teammate Annalisa Drew off the podium. "That's when we play the beat," Haas said. "When it comes down to a medal. The whole stadium gets quiet waiting for the score. That is our feedback that it's effective."

The beat itself was a simple creation. At Haas's request, Venue DJ Michael "Naka G" Nakagawa, who's DJ'd four Olympics and 16 X Games in his hometown of Aspen, downloaded slow and medium-paced heartbeats from a catalog of sound effects. For the fast-paced beat, he got a little more creative.

"You remember the '80s movie 'The Lost Boys?'" Nakagawa asked. "The fastest heartbeat with the music behind it is a 30-second clip from the beginning of 'Cry Little Sister,' the theme song from that movie. That's my favorite."

The heavier the moment, the slower the beat. When skiers are forced to wait exceptionally long periods for their scores -- as Voisin did during the second run of ski slopestyle qualifiers -- Nakagawa speeds up the beat to intensify the drama. "Hello gives me a signal to cue up a heartbeat after a run and I decide what works in the moment," he said.

At past events, Nakagawa said he used moody songs to ratchet up the intensity of an important score drop -- "Victory" by Puff Daddy and Notorious B.I.G., "The Happiest Days of our Lives" by Pink Floyd, "Survival of the Fittest" or "Shook Ones" by Mobb Deep. "Dark tracks," he said. "And I only use the instrumental parts. I don't want announcers to have to talk over lyrics."

Tuesday afternoon, the fans and families of all four American skiers competing in men's ski halfpipe qualifiers suffered through moments when they could hear their hearts beating outside of their chests. As defending gold medalist David Wise waited for his second-run score, the heartbeat began, slow at first, and then quicker. "Stop with the heartbeat!" someone yelled from the crowd. "This is stressful enough already!"

When Wise's score dropped, he let out a sigh of relief. He would join his three teammates in Thursday morning's final. That day, Nakagawa said he will be rooting for all four American skiers, but he has a special place in his heart for fellow Aspen locals Alex Ferreira and Torin Yater-Wallace. Ferreira's mom, Colleen Delia, is from New Jersey, and requested that her son drops in to Bruce Springsteen.

"Last Olympics, I was DJing when the Americans swept the podium in ski slopestyle," Nakagawa said. "I know we have the depth to do it again, but I don't want to jinx it."

He'll just be there to provide the beat.