Ski halfpipe season off to high-flying start at Copper Grand Prix | SteamboatToday.com

Ski halfpipe season off to high-flying start at Copper Grand Prix

John LaConte
jlaconte@vaildaily.com

COPPER MOUNTAIN — Every time top-level athletes ski into the halfpipe, they risk injury or worse.

So for local athletes Taylor Seaton and Sammy Schuling, to ski away unscathed at the U.S. Grand Prix World Cup on Wednesday, Dec. 6, was a victory in and of itself.

Seventy-one athletes took to the Woodward superpipe on Copper Mountain with hopes of qualifying into Friday, Dec. 8's finals, and only 10 made it.

The reigning Olympic gold medalist David Wise put down the best run of the day with a score of 92.6. Wise's run contained three 720-degree spins and two 1260-degree spins, and was very similar to the run that won him gold at the 2014 Olympics.

Wise was among four Americans to make it to Friday's finals — Birk Irving, of Winter Park, qualified in third position, Torin Yater Wallace, of Aspen, qualified in fourth position and Aaron Blunck, of Crested Butte, qualified ninth.

On the women's side, former Ski & Snowboard Club Vail skier Annalisa Drew made finals along with four other Americans, and China's Kexin Zhang earned the highest score of 86.66.

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SUPERPIPE A SUCCESS

Blunck, who attended the Vail Ski & Snowboard Academy and graduated in 2014, said he was as impressed with the halfpipe itself as he was with the skiing he saw within its 22-foot walls.

"Copper Mountain did an unbelievable job getting this pipe open with how limited of snow they had," Blunck said.

While just getting the halfpipe built was quite an accomplishment, the fact that it wasn't open many days before the competition, however, meant athletes didn't get a lot of time to train in it. Blunck said that may have impacted the quality of the runs competitors put down on Wednesday.

"With only two days of training, it's pretty hard to get all of your tricks back. Most of us have been not skiing for like a whole month now, so it's pretty hard to get right back into it," he said.

The snowy conditions here on Wednesday didn't help, either.

"Unfortunately Mother Nature didn't really cooperate with us," Blunck said. "It's definitely a little slow out here, but everyone's doing their best.

Seaton said he wasn't as impacted by the weather as he was by the lack of training. He fell on both of his attempts and didn't qualify for finals.

"My skis were running fast so getting out of the pipe wasn't a problem," Seaton said. "I guess I just had to get that reminder of how difficult the run I'm trying to do actually is."

LOOKING INWARD

The run Seaton was attempting landed him on the podium in the final World Cup of the 2016-17 season. The tricky part of the run, says Seaton, is the "alley-oop" tricks, where a skier spins the opposite direction than is natural in the halfpipe. When Seaton landed his run in Tignes, France, in March, it was the first time four different front-facing 900-degree spins had been landed consecutively in a competition, where two natural 900s are followed by two alley-oop 900s. Seaton's score on that day, an 89.4, landed him in second place. Alex Ferreira, of Aspen, won that competition with a score of 93.2.

Ferreira also failed to make finals in Wednesday's competition. He said the conditions affected his skiing.

"It was a little cold and a little icy," Ferreira said. "But all the athletes did a great job."

Ferreira spent his formative years as a member of Ski & Snowboard Club Vail training with the club's freeski program director, Elana Chase. Now a member of the U.S. Pro Halfpipe Team, he still considers Chase his coach.

Ferreira landed his run — which included a 540, two 720s, two 900s and a 1260 — but his score of 74.8 wasn't enough to make finals. Chase said while some may have been disappointed with Ferreira's score, an athlete is best to look inward when assessing his or her performance in judged competitions.

"You have to believe that you are 99 percent in control of your skiing, and your success, and your score," Chase said. "If you believe that, then there's always something you could have done better. Otherwise, you'll drive yourself insane."

OLYMPIC PRESSURE

Over the years, Chase has worked with most of the top Americans in the sport of halfpipe skiing, including Wise, Wallace, Blunck and Ferreira. Currently, one of her up and coming students is Sammy Schuling, who is a senior at Vail Ski & Snowboard Academy.

Schuling scored a 61.4 with his run on Wednesday, which placed him 18th. The 17-year-old said above all else, he's happy he was able to ski away without further exacerbating an ankle injury he suffered while skateboarding in August.

"Just being able to put together a top-to-bottom run was pretty nice for me," Schuling said.

With the competition for the Olympics especially tight among U.S. Team members this year, Schuling said his goal for the season is simply to make finals at one of the upcoming Olympic qualifiers. The U.S. is likely to take four halfpipe skiers to the Olympics, and to make that team those skiers will need two podium finishes in Olympic qualifiers. Seaton and Wallace notched podium finishes at the first Olympic qualifier, which took place at Mammoth Mountain last season.

"There's so many good Americans right now," Schuling said. "It's so hard to have a competitive run because there's so many people who are so good. But there's gonna be a lot of people who, after this Olympics, will move on, so after this season I'm just hoping me and all my teammates will be able to shine and fill their shoes."

Ski halfpipe finals are scheduled for 11 a.m. on Friday.

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