Heading into the second run of the men's freeski halfpipe finals Friday morning, Canada's Mike Riddle was solidly ahead of the pack by more than 20 points with a 90.2.
Putting solid back-to-back runs together to take the U.S. Grand Prix at Copper Mountain amidst heavy snow at the start of the finals and strong winds toward the end, Riddle is looking to the season ahead hoping he can maintain consistency on the road to the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, where freeski halfpipe will make its debut.
"(Today is) definitely a confidence booster and it helps me on my way (to the Olympics), but I'm definitely trying to stay in the present and not get ahead of myself," Riddle said.
He wasn't entirely safe with his 91.2 score, though, as U.S. Freeski Team rookie Aaron Blunck from Crested Butte upped his ante to an 87.0 (first run score was 64.0).
As Blunck captured the attention of the crowd gathered at the top of the pipe, the 16-year-old surprising star of freeskiing born in Englewood and part of Ski and Snowboard Club Vail put together a run that bested the best, including America's Simon Dumont (70.0) and Gus Kenworthy (62.0), France's Kevin Rolland (68.8) and Canada's Matt Margetts (48.8).
"This feeling is incredible. This is the first big pro podium I've ever had. I'm on Cloud 9 right now. I can not believe it. I'm so stoked," Blunck said, adding that he hopes it's a good sign for the rest of the year. "Hopefully, this will shape up really well and I can get a spot for X Games. It's a huge confidence booster. I'm stoked."
Coming in behind Riddle and Blunck for third place in Friday's freeski action was America's David Wise, the 22-year-old Lake Tahoe native threw down a solid run coming off knee surgery eight months ago to be back in action. And not just back, but back on top, as Wise also landed the Visa $1,000 prize for big air for his right side 900 tail grab that kicked off his second run.
Wise wowed the crowd by following up his initial 900 with a double cork 1260 mute grab, right side 720, switch 720, and boosted an alley-oop flat spin 540 tail grab to finish things off.
"I was feeling a little stressed going into my second run, so I had to take a little while to calm down and be like this just another run through the pipe. I went as fast as I could and sent it and tried to land high on all my tricks so I could carry my speed as good as I could. It worked out," Wise said.
On the women's side, America again sent two freeskiers to the podium, with Maddie Bowman (South Lake Tahoe, Calif.) landing first place with an 84.6 and Brita Sigourney (Carmel, Calif.) finishing third with a 79.0. Bowman's winning run started off technical with a huge 900 into a 540, then she tamed her second 900 to ski into an alley-oop 720 and finished the run off with a switch 540.
"The second one I really wanted because I didn't land my first run," Bowman said, adding that mixing technical tricks into the run is "exciting. The scary tricks make it more fun. I'm pretty stoked I did it."
Canada's Rosalind Groenewoud stomped her first run to start the second round in first place with a 77.4, but, far from safe, she headed into the swirling wind and snowy pipe to up the score to 79.2
"It felt alright. I've definitely skied better in my life, but I'm happy with how I did for the conditions. On my second run, there was some pretty serious wind and on my first run, there was a lot of snow. That's the way it goes, being outside, a Mother Nature sport, so I'm just happy to pull off what I did," Groenewoud said. "In previous years, I might have been really scared going into it, but this time, I knew I could pull off my tricks in the wind because I did so much training" in New Zealand in high winds.