Inside the Olympics: An Olympic medal may be just three rotations away for Arielle Gold
February 12, 2018
This story was a part of the "What makes them great" feature in the Steamboat Today's Inside the Olympics: 2018 Winter Olympics preview special section.
One of the final women’s snowboard halfpipe competitions before the 2018 Winter Olympics offered two lessons that anyone watching the sport develop in the last four years already knew.
First, the 1080 — three full spins on one hit on the halfpipe — is a major key to winning an event in this era.
Competing at Mammoth Mountain Resort, California, in the final U.S. Snowboard Grand Prix event of the season, the top two finishers, Kelly Clark and Chloe Kim, each used 1080s to reach the top of the scoreboard.
The second lesson: even though it’s likely going to be required to win the gold medal at the Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, the 1080 is still a difficult, nasty trick that, even for those who’ve done them for years, offers no guarantees.
Of the eight 1080s attempted, only two were landed.
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Those are all reasons why Steamboat Springs snowboarder Arielle Gold locked her focus on the trick early this winter.
The 1080 is what can make Gold great.
Gold learned a 900 spin in 2012 and that propelled her to a new level in the sport–to X Games podiums and the 2014 Winter Olympics.
She’s tinkered with her run in the years since but never improved upon her signature 900 by adding the extra half a rotation needed to make it a full 1080. She set out this winter to finally accomplish that.
There are two ways to get the extra half a rotation. A rider can go higher, getting more amplitude and thus more time to spin.
That’s what sets Kim’s riding apart so much. She soars above the pipe unlike anyone else on the women’s circuit, and she’s the best in the world at the 1080, so good, in fact, she’ll throw them back to back in big events.
The other option is to spin faster.
Gold aims to do a bit of both.
Maximizing the first bit–her time in the air–is all about the takeoff when she actually does the jumping as she’s riding up the side of the halfpipe. (Yes, halfpipe riders don’t just soar up out of the pipe, they physically jump as they’re rocketing upwards.)
“The hardest part is never the trick. It’s the takeoff, being patient enough to wait until you hit the full vertical of the halfpipe,” Gold said. “The hardest is not going too early.”
Going too early can lead to a number of problems besides a lack of airtime. It can throw off a rider’s arc and have them coming back down on the deck or at the very top of the lip of the pipe, earlier than they want. Land a little lower in the pipe and that’s more room to spin.
Landing too low is, of course, a problem all of its own. It’s a fine calculation. It’s difficult.
“There are all these little subtleties in pipe riding,” said Taylor Gold, Arielle’s older brother, an Olympic halfpipe rider himself. “If you’re not careful and address each one, you put yourself at risk. She’s definitely decked on that trick plenty of times, but she’s learned that timing, and with that, came consistency with the 9, which really is a prerequisite for the 10.”
In addition to taking better advantage of the air, Arielle Gold is hoping to make better use of it when she’s in that air by spinning faster.
One of the key components of her 900 that always stood out to judges was her grab, a mute grab, where she’ll reach down and grab the frontside of her board as she’s spinning.
It’s better for her score, but the movement slows down her rotation, so she's been reaching for a tail grab instead, something that spins a little quicker.
Those aren’t the only factors.
Another significant obstacle is that the rider has to land switch, or backwards, from how she’d typically land.
“So the confidence on the landing is not as much as when you land a regular trick,” said Queralt Castellet, a Spanish rider and among the small sorority of riders to have landed a 1080 in competition.
She used it to win a U.S. Snowboard Grand Prix event earlier this season, besting riders like Kim, Clark and Gold with the 1080.
“You need quite a bit of height to do it, so you have to go full speed into it,” she said. “You need a lot of commitment for it. It’s just a very technical trick.”
There's one final factor, too.
The snowboard halfpipe judging community is small, and its members grow familiar with an athlete’s progression and his or her quiver of tricks. Adding a new one can be richly rewarded.
“The thing Arielle has going for her is all the positive momentum right now having just learned the 1080,” Taylor Gold said. “If she can continue the same trajectory, she could be right in there.
“I think she could win.”