VAIL - Veteran rider Kelly Clark and 16-year-old Arielle Gold continued this season's halfpipe domination Thursday morning during the Burton U.S. Open women's halfpipe semifinals in Vail.
After the first run, Gold was on top and Clark was sitting in second. They flip-flopped places after their second runs for the overall finish, advancing with ease to Saturday's final.
The day started out frigid cold, with temperatures around zero when the ladies hit the pipe at 8 a.m. for some practice runs. Clark said the weather definitely made it hard to get her body warmed up, but she was happy the sun came out in time for competition.
Gold said the positive side of the colder temperatures is that it keeps the pipe firm and prevents it from getting beaten up. Gold put down a frontside 900, backside 540, frontside 720, cab 720 and a frontside 540 to put her in first place after the first run. She didn't improve her first score - 80.3 - on her second run, but that was fine.
"I feel really good - I think it's going to be an awesome contest," Gold said.
While Clark and Gold put down strong runs as expected, there were two big surprises that came out of the women's race: Aspen rider Gretchen Bleiler, in just her second competition since suffering serious injuries in a training accident last summer, put down solid runs and made it into the final, while Elena Hight, who has been really strong this season, failed to qualify for Saturday's final.
Bleiler improved upon her first run and threw tricks including an inverted frontside 540, cab 720 and frontside 720 stale during her second run. When she finished, she was sitting in sixth place - the dreaded "bubble" seat, since only the top six women qualify for finals and there was one remaining rider - Hight - who Bleiler thought might knock her out.
"I had one of the best runs I've had all season in practice today, so that's a huge step forward," Bleiler said. "That run that I just had, I felt good about it, but it's not my best. That run in practice was my best - it was bigger, and cleaner, it was on - it was everything I needed to do."
Bleiler had reconstructive surgery on her eye socket after her accident last year. There was a period of time when she was worried her vision would never be right again, so putting down clean runs at the Burton U.S. Open is major progress.
"I feel really good about it - good steps forward," Bleiler said. "I'm on the bubble right now, and Elena (Hight) didn't have the best run her first run, so we'll see what happens."
Every other rider was already in the top six, so Hight was the only rider Bleiler had to worry about. Hight dropped in and started her run with a big method air. She threw some big tricks like a back 900, ally-oop backside rodeo, frontside 540 and a cab 720, which she sat down on slightly during her landing.
It wasn't enough - Hight finished her second run in eighth place, securing Bleiler's spot in the final.
Other riders throwing strong runs Thursday included Queralt Castellet, of Spain, finishing third, followed by American Kaitlyn Farrington in fourth, and Hannah , who finished fifth.
The ladies have been loving this Vail pipe all week, and a little sunshine on competition day was the icing on the cake.
"The pipe is really, really good. The shape is excellent, the conditions of the snow can't be better," Castellet said. "The weather is good, too, so it always helps. Everyone's having so much fun in this pipe - I think I'm not the only one who finds it really good."
With a sunny day behind them, and hopefully another one on Saturday, the women are now focused on what they need to win the title.
When asked about what the ladies will need to throw, Teter said it'll need to be big.
"That's the question," Teter said. "I think you're going to need a (1080), for sure, to take it."
The ladies will be on the pipe tomorrow morning practicing for Saturday. Teter told the crowd to come on out and watch tomorrow.
Assistant Managing Editor Lauren Glendenning can be reached at 970-748-2983 or email@example.com.