U.S. Grand Prix returns to Breckenridge, may clear up Olympic picture | SummitDaily.com
Sebastian Foltz
sfoltz@summitdaily.com

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U.S. Grand Prix returns to Breckenridge, may clear up Olympic picture

The road to the Winter Olympics makes another stop in Summit County this week as freeskiing and snowboarding halfpipe and slopestyle competitions return to Breckenridge with the second stop on the Sprint U.S. Grand Prix — the third of five U.S. Olympic selection events.

With two events already on the books — the Dew Tour at Breckenridge and Grand Prix at Copper — the Olympic picture has yet to really clear. With just 34 days until the games open in Sochi, Russia, only slopestyle freeskier Nick Goepper and two-time Olympic snowboarding halfpipe medalist Kelly Clark are locked into spots on the U.S. Olympic team. Each finished as the top American in both the Dew Tour iON Mountain Championships and Sprint U.S. Grand Prix at Copper. With just three slopestyle and halfpipe events remaining, the picture could become a lot clearer after this weekend.

"Anything could happen," U.S. freeski team spokeswoman Haley Caruso said. "Keep your eye on the top five."

With a number of story lines heading into this week's Grand Prix in Breckenridge — originally scheduled for Northstar, Calif. — here's a quick look ahead at some potential news makers.

Mr. White's quest for two more

Shaun White has his sights set on doubling his Olympic medal count this winter. With the addition of snowboard slopstyle to the games, the two-time halfpipe gold medalist is hoping to bring home hardware in both events. With a second-place finish in the halfpipe at the Dew Tour and third in slope at the Grand Prix at Copper — finishing as the top American — he appears to be well on his way. But after opting out of the halfpipe competition at Copper to focus on slope, and missing the slope finals at the Dew Tour because of an ankle injury, White will be looking for another top finish in each to cement his quest.

Who's on top and who needs to play catch-up

There's a youth movement in the making with a number of podium spots already claimed by athletes with '90s-era birthdays on their drivers licenses. White's 2010 Olympic teammate Greg Bretz looks to be on his way to returning with first- and second-place finishes in the halfpipe already, but he may need another first-place finish to solidify his spot. Fellow Olympians Louie Vito and Scotty Lago are currently on the outside looking in and will need top finishes to return to Olympic contention. Vito is currently the fourth-ranked American with Lago in eigth. White is lurking in seventh, having competed in only one of two halfpipe competitions so far.

On the women's side, Clark's Olympic teammate and Aspen resident Gretchen Bleiler stayed in the running, taking third at Copper Mountain. She will need another top finish to stay in contention.

Steamboat's Brother-sister combo

For the Gold family of Steamboat Springs the holidays came with extra reason to celebrate. Thanks to two podium appearances each, sibblings Taylor and Arielle Gold may both be on the verge of punching tickets to Sochi. Heading into this week's competition, both are sitting in the No. 2 spot for halfpipe. Taylor claimed the top spot at Copper and Arielle placed second.

Colorado has a number of other Olympic hopefuls in the mix led by Crested Butte halfpipe skier Aaron Blunck, who's coming off a top finish at Copper. Breckenridge slopestyle skiers Bobby Brown and Keri Herman are in the running but both need another top-three finish to remain competitive. Brown is currently second behind Goepper, and Herman is fourth among women.

Injuries plague some of Colorado's Olympic hopefuls

It won't be competition results that keep Team Breckenridge freeskier Emilia Wint and Breckenridge resident Eric Willett from Sochi. Season-ending injuries knocked them both from contention. Wint tore her ACL in late November for the second time in as many seasons. Willett crashed during a practice run at the Copper Grand Prix, cracking a vertebra. He may be able to return to snow late in the season.

Olympic halfpipe sk-ing contender Torin Yater-Wallace, of Aspen, joined the list of walking wounded when he cracked two ribs at the Dew Tour, damaging a lung he'd punctured the month before.

Team spokeswoman Haley Caruso said Yater-Wallace was recovering but will miss the Breckenridge Grand Prix. He may return in time for the final two Grand Prix competitions in Park City, Utah.

"I would definitely keep your eye on him," she said. "If he's healthy he has just as good a chance as anybody."

Venue Change

Grand Prix competition gets underway Wednesday with qualifiers in skier slopestyle and snowboard halfpipe. Athletes are scheduled to practice in Breckenridge all week. The the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, in conjunction with the International Ski Federation, decided to move the competition, which originally was scheduled for North Star, Calif., to Breckenridge because of warm weather conditions that hindered snowmaking at the California resort. Having just hosted the Dew Tour, Breckenridge was the most feasible alternative.