COPPER MOUNTAIN, Colorado - Ski and Snowboard Club Vail's Aaron Blunck said he was peaking at the right moment on Friday, and the judges agreed.
Blunck, 16, was the top American in the ski halfpipe competition at the U.S. Grand Prix at Copper Mountain on Friday, an International Ski Federation World Cup event which holds large significance in the sport's overall picture.-
"Everyone's out here and it's such a big final, so I'm super stoked," Blunck said after the event. "I couldn't have asked for a better final."
Now that ski halfpipe is an Olympic sport, the Grand Prix is one of several events in which skiers can take the first steps to qualifying for the Olympics. To be-eligible-to compete in Sochi in 2014, a skier must first obtain a top-30 finish at an FIS-level event. But also on the line in FIS events like Friday's Grand Prix is the very number of ski halfpipe athletes that the U.S. will bring to Sochi. A total of 26 athletes from all freestyle skiing disciplines - ski halfpipe, ski cross, moguls and-aerials-- will go, but how that breaks down will depend on the depth of each squad. If U.S. ski halfpipers make a name for themselves this season with a large number of athletes finishing high in the standings, then they'll secure themselves four spots on that team. If not, there's a chance the U.S. will only take two.-
"These guys are trying to win spots on their home countries' teams for Olympics spots," judge Andrew Wickes said after the event. "But if you're hosting the World Cup you get a couple more athletes than visiting countries, so the U.S. was allowed 24 athletes for each event, and they definitely used it."
The U.S. had five athletes in the top 12, with Blunck and teammate David Wise rounding out the podium behind Canadian Mike Riddle. Ski Club Vail's Alex Ferreira was sixth, with Simon Dumont in seventh and Gus Kenworthy 11th.-
"Super challenging conditions today," Riddle said after the event. "A lot of guys screwed up, so I'm really happy to come out on top."
Riddle's run started with a double cork 1260 - the top trick going right now - followed by 900s in both directions, a flat 360 and a switch 900.-
"That's kinda the run I've been running all season so far this season," he said. "But I'm looking to step it up for X."-
First things first
Blunck and Ferreira, who both train with Elana Chase at SSCV, had a unique distinction among the other athletes in the finals at the Grand Prix. They both had not yet, as of Friday, been invited to the superpipe competition at the X Games, coming up at the end of this month.-
While the X Games is a private event and not sanctioned by the FIS, its freeski superpipe is widely recognized as the highest level of competition in the sport. Of the 12 athletes in the finals, Blunck, Ferreira and Joffrey Pollet Villard of France, who finished fourth, were still hoping for invites. With only two spots left for X, that more immediate competition was far more forward in the athletes' thoughts than the 2014 Olympics.-
"You definitely want to do good at the World Cups, and this was a huge contest for us, so I'm happy," Ferreria said of his and Blunck's performance. "But it's also good that we did good in this event because X Games is coming around the corner, hopefully we get spots."
And Ferreira, Blunck and Villard aren't the only ones vying for spots at the X Games. Local X Games veteran Taylor Seaton didn't make finals at the Grand Prix, and despite the fact he has received invites to half a dozen X Games in the past, his invite is for this year is far from a lock. He ended up 14th at the Grand Prix after attempting his first ever double cork in competition, a slight miscue had him opening up too early and not completing the trick.-
"I stomped my first run, but I didn't really put the two together," he said. "On the second run-I got real close to the right dub cork 12, but ended up in the back seat a little and kinda fell."
Seaton says that through his experience, he has learned an invite to X Games is more about your years in the sport than your current status.-
"I didn't get into X Games with the first comp I won," said Seaton, who won the 2010 and 2011 halfpipe competitions at the NZ Open and took eithth at this year's Dew Tour. "I had to prove myself with multiple podiums before I got invited."
Tucker Perkins of the U.S. team, who has an invite to this year's X Games, watched the Grand Prix from the sidelines Friday. He said that while this year's Grand Prix competition is important, it's next year he's more interested in.-
"I'm looking at the big picture," he said. "I could have rushed to come back for this event, but I just need one top 30 for this year."
Perkins is currently recovering from ACL surgery he received in Vail last March at The Steadman Clinic, by Dr. Richard Steadman himself.-
"I just got back in the halfpipe last week," he said. "So for me, I think the timing is perfect ... Hopefully X Games will be the first one back."
Assuming Perkins has a healthy recovery, his name is among those at the top of the list for the U.S. ski halfpipe athletes likely to be competing in Sochi, along with David Wise, who finished third at Friday's Grand Prix.
Wise says the Ski Club Vail athletes competing for those Olympic spots have a key advantage over some of the other hopefuls - the tutelage of coach Elana Chase.-
"There's few coaches who can watch a trick and tell you one simple thing that is wrong with it," said Wise on Friday. "That on-hill wherewithall that she has is-unparalleled."
Chase said she was pleased with her athletes' performances on Friday.
"As a coach you're always thinking the next few corners down the road, but today was all about myopic focus on today," she said. "We had the strategy that it's today or nothing."
On the women's side, another athlete of Chase's, Ski Club Vail halfpiper Annalisa Drew, finished seventh, third among U.S. competitors.-
"Training with Elana's been awesome," she said. "The program is amazing."