VAIL — In a semi final filled with surprises, Yiwei Zhang, of China, impressed judges with a 1260-degree spin in the halfpipe Thursday to top the field at the Burton U.S. Open.
On the women’s side, this past year’s winner Kelly Clark landed her signature 1080 to reassert her dominance in Vail. Along the way, Olympic gold medalist Kaitlyn Farrington found herself unable to put a run together, joining several Olympians who won’t be making an appearance in finals.
“I got in the night before last, so I wasn’t expecting too much of myself,” Farrington said. “But I’m just looking forward to watching the contest from the bottom and not being too stressed out at the top.”
Farrington said she was excited to see 13-year-old Southern California snowboarder Chloe Kim pass through the semis.
“She such a strong rider, she’s so good and she’s really fun to watch because she just really goes for it,” Farrington said.
Kim, who would have qualified for the Olympics but is too young, said there were higher expectations on her to finish her schoolwork than to make finals. She’s currently in eighth grade at California Pacific Charter Schools.
“I feel more pressure at home doing homework than snowboarding in the halfpipe,” she said. “Because I have to finish by the end of the day, and I only have like three hours to do it. Now that is stress, right there.”
Two of the three athletes in the field from the 2014 men’s U.S. Olympic halfpipe team didn’t make finals, as well, with Greg Bretz finishing 15th and Danny Davis finishing 18th.
Going into the semi final, Davis said he wasn’t necessarily feeling 100 percent.
“I’m a little beat up for this contest, I hurt my back a little bit and I’m kind of running on empty,” Davis said. “I traveled so much. I was at the Olympics for a while, was only home for a day, and then I went to Washington, went to Jackson Hole and then came here.”
While 2010 Olympian Louie Vito came through with a solid second run to make finals, 20-year-old Taylor Gold was the only 2014 Olympian from the U.S. to qualify, finishing second. Gold surprised the crowd in his second run with a switch Michalchuk, a difficult trick that was not being performed by any of the other athletes in the field. Gold said since his first run went well enough to ensure his qualification to finals, he thought he’d use the second run as an in-competition opportunity to attempt the trick, which he learned here in Vail earlier this week.
“I’d like to do it in the final,” he said. “If I can get to a certain run, I’d like to get to use it.”
Attempting tricks switch — from a rider’s non-dominant stance — has become a popular source of progression in recent halfpipe competitions, with Danny Davis’ 15-foot switch method helping him to win the X Games this season, and Gold’s switch Michalchuk creating a buzz behind the scenes on Thursday.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone do a switch Michalchuk,” said Farrington, who missed Gold’s run but heard the news afterward. “Those guys have been riding so well all year. I feel like this year for men’s halfpipe has been some of the heaviest competition that I’ve ever seen.”
Spencer Shaw, of the U.S., landed the biggest trick of the day with a frontside 1440, but failed to put a clean run together and missed the finals.
For local fans, Eagle resident Jake Pates gave the hometown crowd something to get excited about by making finals with authority, stringing together back-to-back 1080s to claim the fifth qualifying spot.
Halfpipe finals are scheduled for Saturday at 11:30 a.m. for the women, 2 p.m. for the men.