U.S. Halfpipe Grand Prix: Three locals make snowboard finals
COPPER MOUNTAIN – Under a banner of clouds – and the plethora of signs from the six different sponsors – the snowboarders took back the pipe at the U.S. Halfpipe Grand Prix Thursday.A day after the first-ever freeski runs in the event’s history, male and female riders duked it out in qualifying heats on a windy, chilly day at Copper Mountain.And even in the frigid conditions, the nerves left some riders sweating out the results.Breckenridge’s J.J. Thomas hadn’t landed a run all day – not in practice and not on his first trip down the pipe in the first heat – leaving the veteran rider with one chance to advance. It was land or go home.”I’ve been there before and I feel better when I have the pressure on,” he said. “I get excited knowing I’m going to land.”And he did – land, that is. Then, after waiting out the remaining riders in his heat, Thomas snagged the sixth and final automatic-qualifying spot out of the day’s first session.”Today wasn’t my day, so I’m happy to get through when I’m having a bad day,” he said.Thomas was one of three Summit County riders to move on to Saturday’s 16-rider final. Childhood friends Brett Esser and Zack Black both finished high in their respective heats, albeit in a much different way.Esser stomped two 1080s in his first run of the day, on his way to an impressive 26.2 and a third-place finish in Heat 1.Black, meanwhile, had an uncharacteristic fall on his first run, leaving the U.S. Snowboarding Team member in a precarious position similar to Thomas.”I got a little nervous. I don’t normally fall my first run,” he said.Also making the 20-year-old Summit High grad sweat was the fact his technical array of tricks often gets overlooked by judges. “I was nervous with how the judges were going to score me, because I do things a little differently than everyone else,” he said. “I didn’t know it was going to pay off or if it was going to make me wish I did something else.”Well, Black landed a tricky run that included the day’s only switch, backside 900 and bumped up to fourth place in the second heat.Black has made the finals at the Grand Prix the past two season, landing on his first major podium last season.Esser, currently a senior at Summit High, will be in the final for the first time in his career.”I’m super stoked. It’s my first year (making it), so it should be fun,” Esser said. “I was two spots out of finals last year. It feels great to come back and be a little more on top this year.”Black hopes to thrown down a switch, backside 1080 in the finals (he’s the only rider who’s ever done one in competition), but says everyone should watch out for his buddy to snag a surprise high finish.”He’s been killing it in practice,” Black said of Esser. “I’d expect big things from him (Saturday).”
Even though the field was missing one particular big name (Shaun White), the star power was still certainly there on the men’s side.Olympians Louie Vito, Scotty Lago and Greg Bretz all advanced through the qualifying heats, as did Luke Mitrani, Broc Waring and Tore Holvik.Although, each had a bit of a different ride.Bretz and Vito cruised on two smooth runs, finishing near the top of their respective heats and easily advancing. Mitrani won the second heat, and Waring did the same in the first.”It’s just putting down a run you’re confident in and that you can land,” Vito said of making it through qualifiers. “You’re not going to do everything you got, but it has to be good enough to advance.”Lago didn’t have as easy of a time. Coming off a week in Beijing, where he competed in White’s Air & Style event, Lago didn’t have much time to prepare for this comp. Actually, make that no time at all.”I’m just kind of preparing as I compete,” he said. “It’s such a good pipe. With a pipe like this, you’re riding comes right back.”Although, it took him a couple runs. Lago slipped out on an early hit his first time down the pipe, but came back to stomp his second run. He wound up fourth in the heat.”I know I can do that run a million times. I did it all last year,” he said. “I just had to put everything aside and just ride.”As for the finals, Lago foresees a high-flying showdown.”I think it’s going to be a close one between me, Louie, Luke Mitrani and Greg Bretz. Those are kind of the heavy hitters here, but anything can happen,” he said. “I’d love to win, but I have to see if I can get my cab-10 back. I haven’t done it since the Olympics.
Kelly Clark is no stranger to success in the halfpipe, having won a title in virtually every single snowboarding competition.So, it was no surprise the former Olympic gold medalist dominated a fairly watered-down qualifying field Wednesday, scoring a 27.9 on her first run and easily advancing to the finals.U.S. Snowboarding Team members Kaitlyn Farrington and Ellery Hollingsworth were second and third, respectively.The event was without three of the world’s top female riders – Vancouver gold-medalist Torah Bright and Americans Gretchen Bleiler and Hannah Teter. U.S. Olympian Elena Hight didn’t compete, either.The finals, though, will still include Spain’s Queralt Castellet, Japan’s Soko Yamaoka and Aussie Holly Crawford, who all advanced from the 40-rider semifinal.Saturday’s finals start at 11:30 a.m. on the Main Vein Superpipe.
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