VAIL, Colorado - With one of the biggest halfpipes ever, there's no doubt that the best snowboarders in the world in town for the Burton U.S. Open this week are going to throw big runs in today's semifinals and Saturday's finals.
At roughly 600 feet long, with 22-foot-high walls and an 18-degree slope, riders are calling the Vail halfpipe build by Snow Park Technologies one of the best pipes they've ridden all year.
Kelly Clark, an Olympic gold medalist who has won more in the halfpipe than any other female snowboarder, said the pipe is both long and on a steep slope - just the way she likes it.
"If you have both of those components in the mix ... all of your tricks become bigger and faster - the steepness and pitch play a factor, as well as the length," Clark said.
Clark is still getting six hits - meaning she's able to do six tricks - on the longer pipe, but fellow Vermont native Hannah Teter said after Monday's practice that she thinks the pipe could be a seven-hitter.
The women are fired up about the halfpipe. The biggest names in women's snowboarding right now - Clark, Teter, Elena Hight and Arielle Gold - have an energy going into today's semi final that's hard to believe they could have after such a grueling competition schedule over the last two months.
Elena Hight, 23, is having a strong season and just got back from a week off. She went back to her hometown of South Lake Tahoe and recharged her batteries, she said.
"I feel like now is kind of the best time of the year for me - I'm warmed up, I've gotten time in halfpipe to really get some tricks going that I may not have had in the beginning of the season, so I feel good this week," Hight said.
Arielle Gold, a 16-year-old from Steamboat Springs, is also feeling good - the teenager is getting some well deserved recognition this year after some impressive finishes, including bronze at the Winter X Games behind Clark (gold) and Hight (silver), and a win at the Burton European Open earlier this month.
And at 16, this girl is focused, confident and mature beyond her years.
"Basically, what I was going for in that contest was just to put down a run that I was happy with, which is kind of my goal with every contest," Gold said about the Burton European Open. "When it works out like that and I end up getting on the podium, it's just unreal, and first place - I had no idea that was coming."
Gold has all of a sudden found herself in the spotlight this season, even though she's been competing for years. She's began competing in the Burton U.S. Open as a junior at just 9 years old, she said.
And this Vail halfpipe is a blast, she said. It doesn't hurt that it's in Colorado - her favorite place to ride.
"This halfpipe is so much fun. It's really good - I think it's probably the best pipe we've ridden all year," Gold said. "So far, it's making a pretty good impression on all of the people who weren't too excited about (the U.S. Open) moving here."
Gold said the girls will probably hit six and maybe seven tricks, but the guys should be getting five or six.
"I think us girls, we're pretty indifferent about the length of the pipe, but the guys have more further downhill lines than we do, so they get less hits than we do," Gold said. "A lot of guys will get around four hits (normally), and judges like to see five or six."
Other ladies to look out for include Kaitlyn Farrington and Ellery Hollingsworth. Oh the men's side, Shaun White is always a favorite, but look out for 14-year-old Japanese rider Ayumu Hirano, who got silver in the Winter X Games. Other big names like Louie Vito and Iouri "iPod" Podladtchikov are also expected to put up big scores.
Assistant Managing Editor Lauren Glendenning can be reached at 970-748-2983 or firstname.lastname@example.org.