COPPER MOUNTAIN — Aaron Blunck was left stinging after his first run in the season’s second Olympic qualifier.
The local high school senior landed hard — too far down the wall of the halfpipe for a smooth transition — and was shaken up, physically and mentally.
“It hurts,” he said after the run, from the bottom of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association Grand Prix venue. “My legs hurt right now ... I didn’t really have the best training, so I’m just trying to work with it.”
The event, which took place under the lights at the Copper Mountain on Friday evening, was scored on a 100-point scale, with athletes getting two chances.
Blunck’s first run was a throw-away, so he had to land perfectly in his second attempt. His close friend Alex Ferreira landed a beautiful run in his first go and was leading the field for part of the competition. Blunck and Ferreira are teammates on Ski & Snowboard Club Vail’s freeski squad, led by coach Elana Chase.
Ferreira stomped a very difficult Double Michalchuk — a trick comprised of two 540-degree backflips — and said the run was the best of his life.
Blunck said the positive energy he was feeling from his friend’s run helped him regroup for his own.
“(Ferreira) was so stoked after that run,” said Blunck. “It helped me get fired up and just go for it.”
‘IMPRESSIVE FOR ANYBODY’
After landing the best sequence of his life in the first run, Ferreira was disappointed in the second, making a slight error on the landing of a 1260-degree rotation trick.
The opposite would prove true for the young skier Ferreira calls his “best friend in the world.”
If there were any doubts regarding Blunck’s status as the most skilled 17-year-old halfpipe skier on the planet, those doubts were silenced in the Vail Ski & Snowboard Academy student’s second run.
Blunck stormed Copper’s halfpipe with high energy and intensity, as is his style, and landed two 1080s and a 1260 to secure himself a score of 92. It proved to be the best run of the night.
When asked about such a young competitor landing such an impressive run, Gus Kenworthy, who shared the podium with Blunck and second-place Frenchman Kevin Rolland, said: “Not even impressive for a 17-year-old, impressive for anybody. It was an incredible run. Aaron skied super well, as he always does. I was so stoked at the top, watching him bump into first. He’s such a good kid, and he skied so well; it’s an honor to share the podium with him.”
The win makes Blunck the first U.S. athlete in the history of halfpipe skiing to qualify for the Olympics. The sport will make its Olympic debut in Sochi.
Blunck says he owes a great deal of his success to his coach, Elana Chase. Chase has been working hard with Blunck for several seasons; Friday’s Grand Prix victory was the best result of his career.
“If you love it and you work really hard, then good things will come,” said Chase. “And that’s what’s happening right now. You can’t think about the fact that you want to win the event, you just have to do all the hard work and put your run down.”
But now that’s he’s qualified, does that mean Blunck will be skiing in the Olympics?
Not necessarily, said the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association.
“After Friday’s victory and his second place at Dew Tour Breckenridge, Blunck has met the minimum Olympic qualification criteria of two top-three finishes, but with three more qualification events left, his Olympic spot is not yet secured,” the association wrote in a release.
With only four spots available on America’s ski halfpipe squad, a score-ranking scenario could come into play if more than four athletes make the two-podium requirement in the three remaining qualifiers. David Wise, of Reno, Nev., won the first qualifier of the season and Lyman Currier, of Boulder, was third to Blunck’s second. With Wise, Currier and Kenworthy all needing just one more podium to meet the requirement alongside Blunck, things could get competitive.
But does Blunck care?
“I’m not even thinking about Sochi; I just wanna go out and ski,” he said. “Hopefully, this will be one of many wins in the Grand Prix.”
U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association Grand Prix halfpipe competitions like the one underway this weekend at Copper will represent the remainder of the Olympic selection events for that discipline here in the U.S.
On Friday, it was announced that the next Grand Prix, originally scheduled to take place in the Lake Tahoe area, will be moved to Breckenridge.
“The (Grand Prix) was moved from Northstar California Resort to Breck because of its competition-ready venue already in place,” the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association wrote in a release. “Despite quality snow conditions at Northstar, the region was not getting sufficiently cold temperatures for snowmaking teams to ensure the huge production of snow required for building a competition halfpipe and slopestyle venue.”
For Colorado athletes like Kenworthy, Currier and Blunck, the news was welcomed.
“I’m stoked it’s back in Breckenridge,” Blunck said. “I’ve had good success in that pipe.”
The Breckenridge Grand Prix will take place the second weekend in January, with ski halfpipe finals scheduled for Sunday, Jan. 12.
Staff Writer John LaConte can be reached at 970-748-2988 or email@example.com