As COVID continues, US halfpipe riders ready for return of stars, start of Olympic qualifiers
FRISCO — With sports still mired in the novel coronavirus pandemic, the Winter Olympics may seem a world away. After all, the next Olympics on the horizon is the 2021 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, after the summer games were postponed by a year.
But this coming 2020-21 winter season — if it plays out, and however it looks — will begin the Olympic qualifying process for the 2022 Winter Olympics slated to begin February 2022 in Beijing. Pending local and state approvals at Land Rover U.S. Grand Prix locations such as Copper Mountain Resort and Mammoth Mountain Ski Resort in California, the first Olympic qualifying events are slated to take place before this winter ends.
Last month the United States’ two 2018 snowboard halfpipe gold medalists Shaun White and Chloe Kim returned to the halfpipe during an international preseason training camp in Saas-Fee, Switzerland that the U.S. Snowboard Team attended. Winter Park native and Frisco resident Jason Wolle, a member of the US Halfpipe Rookie Team, said it was good to have White, the 34-year-old 3-time Olympic gold medalist, back on the snow.
“He brings an interesting energy to the team,” Wolle said. “He’s so professional. He operates on his own timeline, works at his own pace. He’s always hitting the (air)bag, and (executing) hard tricks. A 14(40) into the bag, it’s like, ’ok, here we go.’ Then, double (cork) 12(60), double 10(80) on snow. He brings that kind of shock and awe factor to the team.”
While White and 2018 Olympic silver medalist Ayumu Hirano of Japan were absent from halfpipe competitions since the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in 2018, 2018 Olympic bronze medalist Scotty James of Australia dominated the halfpipe circuit with an undefeated streak until the Burton US Open in March.
Right before COVID-19 shut down the world. Japan’s Yuto Totsuka and Switzerland’s Jan Scherrer bested James at Vail Mountain Resort. Before James’ Burton Open loss, the Australian’s championship reign since the 2018 Olympics had many asking the question if anyone could best him anytime soon. Now after the Burton US Open result, and with White and Hirano waiting in the wings, the competition within the men’s halfpipe community heading into the Beijing Olympic cycle involves a strong group of gold-medal halfpipe challengers.
White trained last month in Saas-Fee with the current crop of U.S. Halfpipe Pro Team snowboarders, including team veterans Chase Josey of Idaho, Breckenridge resident Taylor Gold and 2018 Olympian Jake Pates. There’s also a younger crew of riders including pro team member Chase Blackwell of Dillon, White’s protégé and Blackwell’s good friend Toby Miller of California and the youngest of the bunch, 18-year-old Joey Okesson of Connecticut.
The 21-year-old Blackwell, who made his X Games debut in January, said having White back among the team “fires everyone up.” With strong international competition from the likes of James, Scherrer and Totsuka challenging the top US halfpipe riders in recent World Cup seasons, Blackwell and Wolle believe White’s return can only help the Americans as a whole and individually.
“Everyone realizes he’s here and he’s kind of always been one of those people, someone that you want to beat in a way,” Blackwell said. “For me, it fires me up he’s going to make a run for it again.”
Blackwell singled out Okesson, the newest member to the U.S. pro team, as someone “slaying it” in Saas-Fee. Blackwell said the teenager learned two new tricks while he was in Switzerland and is definitely a halfpipe rider to look out for.
“He’s one that’s going to be a competitor for sure,” Blackwell said. “He’s one that’s keeping all of us older dudes who’ve been on the team for a few years, keeping us on our toes. He’s firing us up a lot.”
Wolle gave props to Blackwell for his growth at the Saas-Fee camp where he landed a backside double-cork 1260.
“That’s big for him,” said Wolle. “A huge new trick.”
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