The U.S. Grand Prix at Copper Mountain is the start of the World Cup season in the Northern Hemisphere, and with it comes the pressure not just to earn a series title, but to land eligibility for the Olympics.
The process is different for each country, but the goal is the same: Put athletes in the top 30 finishers in a World Cup or World Championship event and earn them International Ski Federation (FIS) World Cup points.
In the United States, the 2013 season isn't a qualifying season for next year's Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Athletes' best performances help them become eligible, but don't guarantee a spot on the team.
Instead, this season, the United States wants to build its pool of eligible athletes at the same time it is landing the nation its fully allotted team size. To do so, athletes must also rank top in the World Rankings following the events.
In snowboarding - which in the global forum includes halfpipe, slopestyle, snowboard cross, parallel giant slalom and parallel slalom - the States is allowed to send a team of 24 to Sochi, with a maximum of 14 in a single gender. However, the country must earn those slots. To do so, four male and four female American athletes must be among the top 40 men and top 30 women in the halfpipe World Rankings or the top 30 men and top 24 women in the slopestyle World Rankings.
Count the spots. A maximum of eight athletes, half male and half female, per discipline. That adds up to far more than the 24-spot allotted size.
"It's happened before that (athletes) earn the nation a quota spot, but don't go," U.S. Snowboarding program director Jeremy Forster said. "We have to somehow fit the best athletes for each of these events into this quota of 24."
So how does the U.S. Snowboarding governing body select its athletes?
"Once we have that pool of athletes that are eligible (with the top 30 and the FIS points), since 1998, the Grand Prix series has acted as the qualification process for halfpipe snowboarding and now, looking to 2014, we'll include slopestyle snowboarding and skiing and halfpipe skiing. We'll qualify the U.S. Olympic team at home through the Grand Prix events," Forster said.
Because U.S. Snowboarding provides strong support for just two of the five disciplines (still, Americans are competing on their own in snowboard cross, parallel giant slalom and parallel slalom to become eligible and content for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team), the choices among snowboarding athletes isn't as difficult as it might be in freeskiing.
In FIS' eyes, the freeskiing spectrum includes moguls and aerials - an entirely different division within the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association from U.S. Snowboarding and Freeskiing. All five disciplines have strong support - halfpipe, slopestyle, skier cross, aerials and moguls - and all five have athletes looking to be on the 26-person team (maximum 14 per gender).
That is, of course, so long as the Americans fulfill the requirements to be able to send the full-sized team. Again, four male and four female Americans must be ranked in the top 30 men and top 24 women in the halfpipe and slopestyle disciplines to land its 26-person team. Failure to do so would lower the team size that can attend the Olympics.
Qualification is the same for freeskiing athletes: compete in the 2013-14 season and earn your spot on the team.
"We felt like ... if you look at the performance of the U.S. Snowboard team at the Olympics, I think the qualification process has ensured that the best athletes go and that they're ready to perform at the Olympics," Forster said. "You get the athletes that are riding the best at the appropriate time."
In Germany, creating an Olympic team takes a different form. A country with a less competitive freeski program, Germany has fewer athletes vying for spots on the national team. An athlete who earns Germany a quota spot and makes him or herself eligible will almost automatically attend the Olympics, said Oliver Kraus, the media information liaison for the International Ski Federation.
And in Canada, top athletes can become part of the Canadian Olympic team this season. The country has a two-tiered system set up that allows its snowboarders and freeskiers to secure a spot on the team in the 2013 competition season instead of waiting to qualify just prior to the Olympics.
To gain an early entry to the Games, a halfpipe or slopestyle athlete must be in the top five in the World Rankings as of April 2013. Those nominations go to the Canadian Olympic Committee for final selection (same is true in the United States). Other disciplines is more simplified: win a World Cup or World Championship snowboard cross event and become automatically eligible, for instance. And in the speed events, the key competitions to win are the Sochi Test Event or the World Championships.
"The reason we do that for the really high performing athletes is to get the pressure of making the Olympic team off their back," said Kelley Korbin, the communication manager for Canada Snowboard. Once qualified, athletes can then tailor their training and competition schedules so they peak at the Games. Missing a competition or entering a competition with a training strategy is less of a big deal, Korbin added.
To make the Canadian freeski team, athletes must medal in two of the five designated events (Dew Cup, X Games, European X Games-France, Sochi Test Event and World Championships) as well as one top ranking (top 16) in either the World Championships or the Sochi Test Event. At the Dew Tour in Breckenridge, three halfpipe athletes earned one of their two podium finishes and are on their way to gaining early admission to the freeski team, Korbin said.
Forster said his athletes have already begun making themselves eligible and earning quota spots for the American team, by way of Southern Hemisphere contests in New Zealand and Argentina. The eligibility and quota processes began on July 1 and will end January 19.