BRECKENRIDGE — Vail freeskier Broby Leeds said it seemed like the competitors were more stressed at the annual Dew Tour competition this year.
“Yeah, it is an Olympic qualifier, but you just gotta have fun,” Leeds said from the halfpipe on Friday.
And perhaps this understanding is what allowed Leeds, who missed finals at this event this past season, to perform well enough to make it to the second day of competition this time around.
The top 16 in the field on Friday made it to Saturday’s men’s finals, a showdown stacked with Vail Valley competitors. Including Leeds, Vail Valley native Taylor Seaton made the cut, along with Ski & Snowboard Club Vail athletes Alex Ferreira and Aaron Blunck.
In the end, American David Wise came away victorious in the first-ever U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association Olympic selection event. A couple crashes in training narrowed the field — the top qualifier, Torin Yater-Wallace, hurt his ankle and fellow American Simon Dumont landed hard on his back, smacking his head against the snow. Both men are expected to return for the next qualifier.
In second place, Blunck was top among the local competitors.
With the U.S. Ski Team likely bringing four halfpipe skiers to the Olympics, Blunck’s performance at this event of the season was a big step toward Sochi.
“My goal is to make it to the Olympics,” Blunck said.
ROAD TO SOCHI
As the run-up to Sochi is now officially under way, halfpipe skiers eager to represent their country as Olympians are now feeling a different kind of pressure than their sport has ever been seen before.
Ski & Snowboard Club Vail skier Annalisa Drew, a top competitor in women’s halfpipe, found this to be especially true on Friday.
Drew qualified fourth for finals, but didn’t land either of her runs and found herself in eighth after the competition had wrapped up.
Her coach, Elana Chase, said it was a learning experience.
“I don’t think there could be any less pressure on the women’s pipe girls right now, because there’s six of them that are really good in the U.S. and there’s only a maximum of four spots, and we’re really only semi-guaranteed three spots,” she said. “So, it’s a rough racket.”
After the first event, Drew is ranked fifth. Chase said with four qualifiers remaining, there’s still plenty of time for Drew to make it up, but this first event is a great indicator for all her athletes — which include Wise, Blunck and Ferreira — on how things are being judged in the run-up to the Olympics.
“There can be trends in the judging ... and I really try to calculate for that in my mind,” Chase said. “If I see trends, I try to figure out what that trend means. It could be something you should do, shouldn’t do, sometimes there’s some coincidences that continue to happen during a competition event, and sometimes if the girls go first or the guys go first, you can see a trend that can help the other gender or the next event.”
JUDGED ON STYLE
Avon resident Taylor Seaton is a veteran of ski halfpipe at just 23 years old and he echoed Chase’s statement.
“You never really know until your run’s over,” Seaton said as the halfpipe qualifiers were kicking off. “The Dew Tour’s the first comp of the season, it’s really big as an Olympic qualifier. If you stomp your run, you see what the judges think, then you kind of have a good idea of what they’re looking for for the year.”
Seaton’s style is outside the mainstream. He’s known for his grabs and spins — holding his ski just a little longer than necessary, and spinning 900s in both directions on both sides of the pipe.
“I’m just trying to drop some flavor in a very flavorful industry,” he says.
Some judges really favor his flavor — he’s a podium regular at the Freeski Open of New Zealand and won it in 2011, beating out Noah Bowman, who qualified eighth on Friday.
But in recent years Seaton, who finished ninth, has had to adapt that flavor, picking up the double cork 1260 or “dub 12,” a trick you must have in your arsenal if you’re going to compete in finals.
Vail Ski & Snowboard Academy senior Aaron Blunck landed the first dub 12 of qualifiers on Friday, sending a message to the rest of the field.
“Aaron was the first guy to really lay down a solid run in qualifiers,” said Mike Riddle, who hit the podium at the Dew Tour stop this past season. “He’s one of the young, up-and-comer whippersnapper guys nipping on my heals, so definitely when he lands a good run it inspires me to try to beat him.”
Riddle, a Canadian, said Blunck’s generation is pushing the sport, and in that way halfpipe skiing’s admission into the Olympics will keep the momentum moving forward.
“Kids dream about going to the Olympics,” he said. “I’ve always dreamed about going, so for me it’s a dream come true.”
Still a kid himself at just 17 years old, Blunck was ecstatic he performed as well as he did, qualifying third in a difficult field and taking second in finals. He said watching his friend Alex Ferreira stomp his run in qualifiers motivated him to perform even better in the second round than he had in the first.
“Alex came out and just laid one down,” Blunck said. “He motivated me a ton to just get up there and crush it. I’m so pumped right now.”
Ferreira said the vibe at this year’s Dew Tour was intense.
“They usually don’t have qualifiers at night,” he said. “You have to make sure you got your lenses right, you gotta make sure the wax is fast, but I’m pretty sure every Grand Prix final this year is going to be under the lights, too, so we’re gonna get used to it.”
The three-event Grand Prix will complete the Olympic selection process, with the first Grand Prix set to take place again in Summit County — this time at Copper Mountain — next weekend. Grand Prix events at Northstar in California and a pair of qualifiers in Park City will take place during the second and third weeks of January.