Olympics loom as 1st qualifier begins | SteamboatToday.com

Olympics loom as 1st qualifier begins

Baden advances to slopestyle finals

— The Opening Ceremonies won't begin for more than a year, but the 2018 Winter Olympic clock started ticking for at least one Steamboat Springs athlete Wednesday at Mammoth Mountain Resort in California.

The last U.S. Grand Prix event of the year, taking place this week at Mammoth Mountain, is also, for several disciplines, the first qualifying event leading up to the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea. Freeskiing slopestylers and halfpipers and snowboard slopestylers begin the qualifying process this week, and for Steamboat Springs snowboarder Nik Baden, that meant more pressure than usual Wednesday in his slopestyle qualifying run.

He managed to quell the nerves and got through easily, advancing to the final round, scheduled for Friday.

"I'm pretty psyched," he said Thursday. "The course is kind of tough here, a different set up than normal, and the conditions have been difficult. I'm adapting pretty well."

Baden's best run scored in at 76.00. He was fifth in his heat and easily one of the eight riders from that heat to advance to finals.

Baden insists the Olympics aren't what drives him, that they're not what's pushed him to the top of his sport and onto the U.S. team.

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There are plenty of aspects of being a professional snowboarder he loves, and even competitions he's thrilled to compete at that have nothing to do with qualifying for the looming Winter Olympics.

Just because he doesn't consider it a required life goal to make it doesn't mean he wouldn't love the trip, however.

Riders will compete in five qualifying events ahead of the 2018 Olympics. The top American in each event will receive 1,000 points, the second 800, third 600 and so on. The top three athletes in the points standings will make the slopestyle team and also be able to compete in big air, making its first Olympic appearance.

Four of the five events will take place early next winter and be wrapped up by mid-January, 2018. This week's results certainly won't destroy anyone's efforts to make the Olympics, but a strong showing will be a huge first step.

"There is a lot of pressure, but it depends on how you handle it," Baden said. "For me, the Olympics aren't the one competition that is a make or break event for me. At the same time, I want to give it my all to get on the team."

Baden figures he should be right in the mix with a strong and deep, but not quite elite, U.S. contingent.

Park City, Utah, rider Sage Kotsenburg, the defending Olympic gold medalist, has yet to commit to chasing a spot on the 2018 team. Baden wasn't invited to the X Games this year for 2017's highest profile slopestyle competition, but of the four Americans who did make the 12-rider finals there, none finished higher than seventh.

On Wednesday, Baden, 19 years old, had the fourth-best score among Americans, behind 16-year old Silverthorne rider Red Gerard, the top qualifer, Breckenridge's Eric Willett and Mammoth Mountain rider Judd Henkes.

Other U.S. team riders such as Eric Beauchemin, Chris Corning, Brandon Davis, Chas Guldemond, Kyle Mack and Ryan Stassel will also certainly be in the mix.

"There's no a bigger field now, but you see people both trying new things, or things that are new for them, which is really cool, and you see people who will end up doing the same thing, because it won them the last competition," Baden said. "With the Olympics on the line, it can take away from originality, because people want to make the team. There's a lot riding on whether or not they can make the team."

The course layout in Mammoth has helped shake up some of that stagnation. It features rare quarter pipe sections and smaller jumps that force riders to mix up their typical competition runs.

"I had some trouble on the rails, but I'm trying to utilize the quarter pipe features they made, so I've been having fun," Baden said.

"Fun" is an important element for him. It's definitely there, he said. So is his plan to make the Olympic team.

"I like to think my chances are pretty good right now," he said. "There are a lot of super good Americans, and a lot of them are younger than me doing tricks that are insane, but I'm feeling really strong. I've been riding well, so hopefully, those chances are pretty good."

Arielle Gold moves on

Steamboat Springs halfpipe snowboarder Arielle Gold also advanced Wednesday through the qualification round into the six-rider women's finals.

Gold posted a score of 84.50, good for sixth, the last spot in the finals. That proved to be a turnaround from X Games in Aspen less than a week earlier, when Gold and most of the rest of the field struggled to put down runs.

Gold's score of 84.50 would have put her on the X Games podium in third, and within 0.50 points of second. Wednesday, it was just enough to qualify. Gold didn't land either of her runs at X Games but landed both at Mammoth Mountain. Her first score was 83.25, which she bettered slightly on her second run.

Kelly Clark had the top qualifying score at 92.25. Chloe Kim was second at 91.00, Hannah Teter third at 90.25, Japan's Haruna Matsumoto fourth at 85.50 and China's Jiayu Liu fifth at 85.00.

X Games champ Elena Hight fell on both of her runs and finished 27th.

The men's halfpipe qualifier was set for Thursday but was postponed a day as nasty weather moved into the area.

To reach Joel Reichenberger, call 970-871-4253, email jreichenberger@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @JReich9