The second consecutive week of pre-Olympic freeskiing and snowboarding competition got underway at Copper Mountain Resort Wednesday with the first of four stops in the Sprint U.S. Grand Prix series.
Wednesday’s events featured qualifying rounds in men’s freesking slopestyle and men’s and women’s snowboarding half-pipe.
Opening rounds continue through Friday with the first finals kicking off under the lights Friday night and running through the weekend. For prospective U.S. Olympians it’s the second of five qualifiers for Olympic team consideration.
The Grand Prix series, along with last week’s Dew Tour iON Mountain Championships in Breckenridge, make up the five events that will be key to determining the U.S. Olympic team in both slopestyle and half-pipe when the winter games open in Sochi, Russia, in February.
“The pressure is definitely on,” U.S. Freeski Team spokeswoman Haley Caruso said. “The level of competition is at an all-time high.”
In addition to being a U.S. team selection event, the Copper Grand Prix is also an FIS World Cup competition. With World Cup standings on the line, and other national team implications, the competition this week will include a deep field of competitors from 35 countries.
Story lines for the weekend
After winning the freeskiing slopestyle competition at the Dew Tour last week, 19-year-old Indiana native Nick Goepper will look to solidify his Olympic spot. He took that next step Wednesday by qualifying for Saturday’s finals.
“Qualifying today was relief, like getting a good score on your ACT,” Goepper said after the opening round. “It was just good to get it over with and start thinking ahead to finals.”
Two-time Olympic snowboarding gold medalist Shaun White, and his injured ankle, will continue to be a major focus as he pursues a spot on the U.S. team in both snowboarding half-pipe and slopestyle. After taking second in the half-pipe at the Dew Tour, White opted out of the slopestyle finals, because of a sprain he suffered in the superpipe. The Associated Press reported Wednesday that White has elected not to participate in the half-pipe competition this weekend, but is expected to participate in slopestyle. Needing a top-30 World Cup finish as well as at least one top-four result in Grand Prix slopestyle, this weekend will be critical for White.
Fellow former Olympians Louie Vito and Scotty Lago will also be vying for a top stop in half-pipe in hopes of returning to the Olympics. Vito is already on his way with a top-four finish at the Dew Tour. Lago failed to crack the top five, finishing 11th last week. Both qualified for the Saturday night’s Grand Prix finals in the opening rounds Wednesday.
They’ll be joined by Greg Bretz and Steamboat Springs’ Taylor Gold, both of whom made the Dew Tour podium last week.
“I’m super stoked I was able to put one down and move on,” Bretz said of his qualifying run. He beat out Shaun White for the No. 1 spot at the Dew Tour.
On the women’s side, three-time Olympic snowboarder and medalist Kelly Clark will look to solidify her Olympic return by building on her second-place finish at the Dew Tour. Clark was the highest finishing American woman last week.
Aspen resident Gretchen Bleiler will be looking to improve her sixth-place Dew Tour result and return to the Olympics. She’s currently fourth in Olympic team qualifying points.
After finishing in the top spot in slopestyle, dual-threat women’s freeskier Devin Logan — retuning from ACL surgery — will be looking to land on the podium in half-pipe this week after a disappointing sixth place at the Dew Tour. Maddie Bowman, who topped the podium in skier superpipe, will look to build on her Dew Tour win.
Skier half-pipe favorites Torin Yater-Wallace, of Aspen, and Simon Dumont will be out for redemption after having to sit out the Dew Tour finals due to injuries
Breckenridge locals Benji Farrow, Eric Willett, Keri Herman and Bobby Brown all will look to stay in the mix in their disciplines, along with a number of others who call Colorado home. Brown is currently No. 2 behind Goepper in U.S. slopestyle qualifying points. Herman took fourth in women’s skier slopestyle.
Spectators can take in the action all weekend, with half-pipe viewing opportunities from Center Village and slopestyle spectator areas along the course accessible via the Union Creek or American Flyer chairs. All half-pipe finals will be in the evenings under the lights.
Note: The women’s half-pipe qualifier results were not available at press time.