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Vail’s Thomas Walsh wins giant slalom silver medal at Paralympic Games

Vail’s Thomas Walsh reacts after winning the silver medal in the men's giant slalom standing at Yanqing National Alpine Skiing Centre in Beijing on March 10.
Yomiuri Shimbun/AP photo

In his second Paralympic Games, Vail’s Thomas Walsh claimed Team USA’s first para Alpine medal in the giant slalom standing event Thursday at the 2022 Winter Paralympics in Beijing.

“I think a lot of the stars aligned for today to be possible,” Walsh told GreatRange’s Mike Pesarchick after the event. “I know I’ve always been able to do it, but this is the first time that I woke up confident knowing I could do it.”

Wearing lucky bib no. 13 and running first out of the gates, the 27-year-old cancer survivor posted the top time in the first of two runs. The intense Beijing sun altered the snow conditions by the time he clocked a fifth-best 57.84-second final run.

“I knew it wasn’t going to be the fastest run as the snow conditions were a little rough. I kind of shook my head, but I got to the bottom and tried to pipe the last three turns,” he told TeamUSA.org reporter Stuart Lieberman of his second attempt.

His total time of 1:55.44 was just 0.04 seconds behind Finland’s Santeri Kiiveri’s gold-medal winning performance.

“Maybe I should have had another sip of water to get a little more weight for those four hundredths, but I did it and made it down,” Walsh said.

Owner of two world championship bronze medals, the Vail resident had never reached the podium in his five previous Paralympic races. Three days ago, he placed fourth in the super combined, his highest finish until Thursday.

“I am so happy for silver, 0.04 (seconds) behind, that’s a race and I’m hungry for more. I know all I can do is give it all I have every single run and if I do that, I have a chance to to be up there (on the podium),” he told Pesarchick.

The monumental accomplishment did little to alter the young athlete’s perspective on his journey.

“At the end of the day it’s just a piece of metal,” he told TeamUSA.org.

“It’s about the experiences and the friendships and memories that I’ve made in my career as a skier, as well as for all the coaches and ski instructors, and most importantly, my mom. Being at the Paralympics is a huge deal and I’m really happy to get this medal to say I did it, but this doesn’t change what I do and why I do it.”

Walsh’s final event at the Paralympics is a slalom on Sunday. The Paralympics are being streamed on Peacock and NBC. A full schedule of events is available on NBCOlympics.com.

 

Vail’s Thomas Walsh places fourth and 15th in first two events at Beijing Paralympics

Vail’s Thomas Walsh competes in the men’s super combined standing para Alpine skiing event on Monday, March 7, at the 2022 Winter Paralympic Games in Beijing.
Joe Kusumoto/USOPC

The curse of the wooden spoon (fourth place for those not up to snuff on their Olympic lingo) continued for Vail athletes in Beijing as the Paralympics reaches the halfway point this week. River Radamus placed fourth twice at the Games in February and now another Vail athlete, para Alpine skier Thomas Walsh has duplicated the feat, placing fourth in the men’s super combined standing para Alpine event on Monday at the 2022 Winter Paralympic Games in China.

“Four years ago in combined in (PyeongChang), Korea, I straddled the first gate of the slalom section,” Walsh told Jen Allred of Team USA.org. “Today, I came in fourth. A few years in between, but steps in the right direction.”

Walsh’s combined time of 1:54.88 was just 0.11 seconds behind third-place finisher Adam Hall of New Zealand. Santeri Kilveri of Finland won the silver while Arthur Bauchet took the gold, finishing out in front by over four seconds with a combined time of 1:50.26.

“Super combined has always been one of my favorite disciplines and I am happy with today’s result,” the two-time paralympian wrote on social media after the race.

Walsh was eighth after the super-G, but found speed in the slalom to finish in fourth.

“While I could be disappointed with being so close to the podium, given my recent circumstances dealing with COVID, no training, and JUST arriving to a time zone on the opposite side of the globe, I am going to take today as a personal win,” he continued.

“Now it is time for some much needed rest and I know I’ll bring this momentum into the technical events of GS and SL.”

After struggling to produce a negative COVID test as Team USA’s pre-Games training camp got underway in Sun Valley in February, an event he missed, Walsh arrived in Beijing just a day before his first event, the super-G standing on Sunday. The two-time para skiing World Championship medalist and slalom crystal globe winner placed 15th.

Walsh competes as an Lw4 classification. On May 29, 2009, he was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare type of cancerous tumor that grows in the bones or soft tissue surrounding them. He spent the next 14 months fighting for his life, undergoing chemotherapy and having some pelvic bones and wedges of his lungs removed. The late Jeff Shiffrin was one of his anaesthetists.

“He was a very pivotal part in my treatment and ability to survive,” Walsh said to Team USA of Mikaela Shiffrin’s father. “He was in the surgical room during probably my biggest operation. He really took extra time to make sure that I was OK, and getting the care and treatment that I needed.”

When he passed away unexpectedly in February of 2020, Walsh was there to support Mikaela, a close friend who had been there for him during his low points. The friendship between the two Vail skiing superstars has continued.

“We’re both on the road in separate places, in different time zones, in different countries and continents,” Walsh told Team USA. “But, because I love skiing, and I know she loves skiing, we’re always watching each other’s results and supporting each other and sending each other positive messages.”

Para Alpine skiing events will resume on Thursday. The Paralympics are being streamed on Peacock and NBC. A full schedule of events is available on NBCOlympics.com.

World Cup Notes: Shiffrin reflects on Beijing and trio of locals named to World Junior Alpine team

Mikaela Shiffrin leaves the finish area after racing in a semifinal of the mixed team parallel skiing event at the 2022 Winter Olympics.
Luca Bruno/AP photo

Mikaela Shiffrin spoke with CNN’s Coy Wire this week about her tumultuous Beijing Olympics. The current World Cup leader skied out of three of her five events, failing to medal at a Games she entered as NBC’s poster child and favorite to unseat Julia Mancuso as the most decorated female American Alpine skier of all-time.

“The pinnacle of the last four years of work is over now and it did not really go that well for me,” Shiffrin told Wire. “However, you can fail and not be a failure. You can lose and actually be a loser because you lost, but still also be a winner.“

She continued, “It’s not so scary to fail, especially because I failed because I was trying so hard — maybe too hard. And maybe after 12 years in a ski career, I should have known how hard to push and not go over that limit, but I pushed harder because I wanted it and that’s not really an excuse.”

Of Shiffrin’s 15 career DNF’s — most of which occured in her first two seasons on the World Cup (2012-2013), three came in Beijing. The three-time overall World Cup champion was asked what she was thinking while slumped on the slalom slope after her disqualification five gates in, an enduring image from these Olympics.

“It’s maybe not as insightful as you might hope,” she told the CNN reporter.

“I was feeling cold and I sat down on the snow and I was immediately like: ‘That was a bad, bad idea because now my bum is also cold and wet’ — and I felt really trapped in there.“

Shiffrin has said in the past that she feels most connected to her late father Jeff when she is on the slopes. In speaking to Wire, she expressed an understandable yearning for his presence during those hard times in China. “In the tough moments, I just want to see him again, and I just want to know what he would say. And we can’t get that.”

Shiffrin’s name did not appear in the training results for this weekend’s downhill event in Crans Montana, Switzerland, a less than shocking observation after her grueling Olympic schedule. However, just 17 points ahead of Petra Vlhova, the 2021 overall World Cup champion, the Edwards resident still has a lot to fight for in the season’s final month.

A fourth overall title would tie her with Lindsey Vonn for the most by an American skier. The great Austrian Annemarie Moser-Proll has the most of any skier (six). Even though she appeared to be questioning why she continues to return to skiing in an Instagram post prior to Beijing’s team parallel, Shiffrin’s thoughts now seem directed at getting back to the top.

“It’s actually a lot of the things I fear the most about myself,” she says. “That I have lost my touch in the sport, that I should give it up … they’re the worst things you think about yourself, yet somebody else just finds a way to push those buttons,“ she said to CNN.

“I realize that and I am a loser, but I’ve also been a winner, and I think I can win again.”

FIS World Cup Alpine Ski remaining events

Women

Feb. 24-27: Crans Montana, Switzerland (DH)

Mar. 5-6: Lenzerheide, Switzerland (SG, GS)

Mar. 11-12: Are, Sweden (GS, SL)

Mar. 14-20: Courchevel/Meribel, France (DH, SL, GS, SG, TP)

Men

Feb. 26-27: Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany (SL)

Mar. 2-6: Kvitfjell, Norway (DH, SG)

Mar. 9: Flachau, Austria (SL)

Mar. 12-13: Kranjska Gora, Slovenia (2xGS)

Mar. 14-20: Courchevel/Meribel, France (DH, SL, GS, SG, TP)

  • Allie Resnick, Nicola Rountree-Williams and Ava Sunshine Jemison were the three athletes with local connections named to the 12-member 2022 FIS Alpine Junior World Ski Championships team. Resnick lists Vail as her hometown and grew up training and competing for Ski and Snowboard Club Vail, while Rountree-Williams and Sunshine both list Edwards as their hometown. The championships run from March 1-9 in Panorama, Canada.

“We have named a great group of promising young athletes for this year’s World Junior Championships team,” U.S. Alpine Ski Team Alpine Development Director Chip Knight told Ski Racing Media.

“After winning two medals at last year’s COVID-shortened event in Bulgaria and returning five members from that 2021 team, we are excited to continue building for the future. Everyone on this year’s team has had standout results at the Europa Cup and NorAm levels so far this season, so we are looking forward to competing for podiums and top-10s against the world’s best junior athletes.”

  • Kai Owens and Tess Johnson will have to wait a while before they get back to competing, as the Tazawako, Japan, and Kuzbass, Russia, World Cups were canceled prior to the Olympics. Tazawako’s dual moguls and moguls event originally scheduled for Feb. 26-27 were called off due to “COVID-19 regulations in place in Japan,” according to FIS. Kuzbass (Mar. 5-6) was canceled before the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine, with FIS citing “unforseen circumstances with the organising committee,” which made it “not possible” to stage the competitions. Chiesa in Valmalenco (Italy) was set to host a moguls competition Jan. 23, an event that, according to the most recent FIS calendar, appears to have been rescheduled for Mar. 12. The final World Cup moguls and dual moguls are set for Mar. 18-19 in Megeve, France. Presently, Johnson is fourth and Owens is sixth in the overall moguls points list, which is led by Jakara Anthony of Australia.
  • World Cup snowboardcross cancellations will also prevent SSCV athletes Meghan Tierney and Faye Gulini from a rare chance to compete in North America. The Mont St. Anne, Canada, races scheduled for Feb. 25-27 were axed from the calendar as well. The World Cup season concludes in Reiteralm, Austria (March 10-12) and Veysonnaz, Switzerland (March 20).
  • The Olympics might be a bit closer to home in eight years. Salt Lake City 2002 president and chief executive Mitt Romney threw his weight behind the bid at an event celebrating the 20th anniversary of those Games. “Whether we get them in 2030, or 2034, or 2038, that’s something which the international politics will determine, because there are a lot of nations that would like Olympic Winter Games,” the now U.S. Senator said, according to Inside the Games. Fraser Bullock, the current bid committee president, is hoping for 2030, but said they may be forced to “weight the dynamics” of the bid since Los Angeles is expected to host the summer Games in 2028.

 

Mikaela Shiffrin and River Radamus place fourth in final Olympic Alpine event

Mikaela Shiffrin (right) of the USA defeats Rebeka Jancova of Slovakia in the first round of the mixed team parallel.
Michael Kappeler/AP Images

While the casual sports fan might assume the Olympics always represent who sits atop a sport, those involved know how fickle the quadrennial event can be when it comes to producing expected results.

“It’s not easy to win, ever,” Mikaela Shiffrin stated in a promotional video on the Olympics website prior to the Games.

The prescient words from the three-time World Cup overall champion have proven painful over the last two-and-a-half weeks. On Sunday, however, one more chance was given to the 26-year-old to win. Her fellow Edwards-based teammate, River Radamus, did everything in his power to get the local pair on the podium, but in the end, there was no pot of gold at the end of the Rainbow course at the Yanquin Alpine Skiing Center.

After 25 mph wind gusts blasting the frigid slopes in Beijing forced Saturday’s event to be moved to Sunday, Shiffrin was given an extra day before her sixth and final event of the Games, joining Slovakian Petra Vlhova as the only athletes to have contested every Alpine event at a single Olympics.

Shiffrin was hoping to tie Julia Mancuso for the most total Olympic medals by a female American Alpine skier. Radamus, whose fourth place in the giant slalom stands as the best individual Vail snowsport athlete performance in Beijing, was also hungry to step up one place and earn his first career Olympic medal. Both joined the powerhouse U.S. squad of Paula Moltzan, Tommy Ford, Luke Winters and A.J. Hurt.

The mixed team event, new in 2018, involves teams of two men and two women going head-to-head in a knockout format. Individuals race down identical runs, with winners earning a point for their team. After all four athletes have competed, any ties for advancing to the next round are broken by total aggregate time.

Switzerland took the title in the Pyeongchang debut, with Austria in silver and Norway bronze.

The Americans were flawless in the first round, winning 3-1 over the Vlhova-less Slovakians (the slalom gold medalist departed the Games early because of injury). Starting with Shiffrin, who used a great start to immediately gap Rebeka Jancova and cruise to a 0.64 second victory, the U.S. followed with a Radamus win and a Paula Moltzan 1.45-second drubbing to go up 3-0 before Ford narrowly lost.

In the quarterfinal, Moltzan led off, running in the blue course, which ran safer and faster all day. The Minnesota-native, who grew up skiing on Buck Hill, just like Lindsey Vonn, did her job, defeating the decorated Federica Brignone by 0.56 seconds.

River Radamus skied flawlessly in the mixed team parallel event on Sunday in Beijing.
Alessandro Trovati/AP photo

Luca de Aliprandini, the best Italian skier, went off the course against Tommy Ford, earning the Americans a surprising second point. Up 2-0, Shiffrin, on the slower red course, lost to Marta Bassino by just 0.02 seconds, putting the pressure on Radamus. The Vail skier delivered, defeating Alex Vinatzer by 0.76 seconds.

In one semifinal, Norway, fresh off an upset of France, battled Austria, eventually falling to the Alpine powerhouse on time.

In the other, Shiffrin opened against Lena Duerr of Germany. On the red course, the American barreled out of the gate, taking an early lead, but Duerr gained separation on the seemingly advantageous bottom drop specific to the blue course, winning by 0.10 seconds. Radamus evened things up, winning his heat by 0.76 seconds despite a slight fumble out of the gate, embracing Shiffrin at the bottom.

Paula Moltzan leads Petra Hromcova of Slovakia during the mixed team parallel skiing event at the 2022 Winter Olympics on Sunday.
Luca Bruno/AP photo

Both Moltzan and Germany’s Emma Eicher fell in their dual, but Eicher made it farther down the course, earning the point and a 2-to-1 lead. After Tommy Ford lost in the fourth run, hopes for a medal hinged on a win against Norway in the bronze medal competition.

Moltzan bounced back right away, defeating Maria Therese Tviberg to give the U.S. a 1-0 lead. Norway’s Fabian Wilkens Solheim defeated Tommy Ford by 0.94 seconds to tie things up as Shiffrin waited to go, the pressure on once again. Skiing aggressively, Shiffrin couldn’t overcome the red course curse, putting the Americans down 2-1.

In their final chance, Norway’s Timon Haugan fell before the final gate. To his left and in the lead anyway, Radamus did everything he possibly could, skiing aggressively to finish in 24.04. With the tiebreak coming down to the team with the faster female time, owned by Norway’s Thea Louise Stjernesund, it was Norway winding up with the bronze.

“It’s heavy. Those are the sort of moments you work your whole life for,” Radamus said about his final run to NBC.

“Falling short like that stings, but I thought I really focused well and attacked as hard as I could.”

“I get that people will say we came up short, but to have this depth on our team, competing in a European-dominated sport, all of us, with these guys skiing so strongly,” Shiffrin said, pausing to address Radamus directly on the broadcast.

“River, we’re watching you at the bottom there. The fact that you were skiing so strongly and even gave us hope — that’s the biggest win you could ever give us.”

“My teammates are what carried me through these Olympics,” she stated.

In the final, Austria defeated Germany on time to claim their first gold in the event.

Aspen’s Ferreira wins Olympic bronze in halfpipe skiing

United States's Alex Ferreira reacts during the men's halfpipe finals at the 2022 Winter Olympics, Saturday, Feb. 19, 2022, in Zhangjiakou, China.
Gregory Bull/AP

Aspen’s Alex Ferreira held on to win Winter Olympic bronze on Saturday — Friday night in Colorado — in the men’s halfpipe skiing final in Zhangjiakou. It is the second Olympic medal in two appearances for the 27-year-old Ferreira, who also won silver in Pyeongchang four years ago.

“Very tough conditions today,” Ferreira said on the NBC Olympic television broadcast during the podium ceremony. “I worked my absolute cheeks off. I gave it my 100%, every single thing that I had I put into those runs, so I’m just so grateful to be standing on the podium.”

New Zealand’s Nico Porteous won Olympic gold behind his back-to-back 1620 combo — he won bronze in 2018 — while Nevada’s David Wise won silver, ending his two-year reign as the Olympic champion.

From left silver medal winner United States' David Wise, gold medal winner New Zealand's Nico Porteous and bronze medal winner United States's Alex Ferreira celebrate during the venue award ceremony for the men's halfpipe at the 2022 Winter Olympics, Saturday, Feb. 19, 2022, in Zhangjiakou, China.
Lee Jin-man/AP

Canada’s Noah Bowman was fourth, followed by Winter Park’s Birk Irving, France’s Kevin Rolland and Crested Butte’s Aaron Blunck.

Ferreira scored 86.75 on his first run behind four different double corks, a score that held on for third place in gusty conditions in the halfpipe about 100 miles from Beijing. Ferreira upped the difficulty in his second and third runs, pairing a double cork 1620 with a double cork 1440, but missed grabs didn’t sit well with the judges, scoring 83.75 and 67.75 to close out.

“I just work hard. I’m a workhorse,” Ferreira said of the effort it took to get back on the podium. “Every day, all day, I’m just there. I’m at the trampoline, I’m at the water ramps, I’m at the gym, and the people who know me closest, they know. I’m a workhorse.”

All three podium runs were landed in the first round. Porteous, only 20, wasted no time putting down his 1620 combo — something he did for the first time at X Games Aspen in 2021 — for a 93 that held on through the three-round final. Wise scored 90.75 on his technically precise first run, which held down the top spot until Porteous went two skiers later.

Ferreira admitted after the contest that the wind certainly made skiing more difficult and limited the runs the athletes could put down.

“Everybody in the field had planned out much more difficult runs,” he said, “but when we have this kind of wind and these kind of conditions, you just have to do the best you can possibly do and came out there and I did my best.”

Telluride-raised Gus Kenworthy, competing for his mother’s homeland of Great Britain, finished eighth. He crashed on his first two runs but scored 71.25 on his third run, which was likely the last of his career. The 30-year-old Kenworthy, who won slopestyle silver back at the 2014 Games, said he will retire after the Olympics.

acolbert@aspentimes.com

Gulini’s Games: The four-time Olympian talks about an Olympics unlike any other

From left to right: Faye Gulini, Tess Critchlow from Canada, Belle Brockhoff from Australia and Charlotte Bankes from Great Britain in action in the Olympic snowboardcross quarterfinals.
Angelika Warmuth/AP photo

The peaceful, metronomic crunch of snow underneath an ascending splitboard provided an appropriate bass line for the melody of musings from the voice on the other end of the phone.

“We got a few inches overnight, so we figured we’d stretch our legs,” U.S. snowboardcross athlete Faye Gulini shared. As her splitboard shuffled, the former Ski and Snowboard Club Vail athlete divulged — in between tired breaths — her reflections on a Games filled with both jubilation and disappointment, harmony and dissonance.

Her fourth Olympics was not like any of the other three.

Dissonance

“I hate to sound depressing, but this was definitely my worst Olympic experience yet,” Gulini openly stated.

“The stuff going on with our team was pretty detrimental during the Olympics. Getting the appropriate coaching that we needed — we were kind of limited. So, it was difficult.”

Two days before her event, the New York Times reported on the alleged sexual misconduct by longtime U.S. snowboard coach Peter Foley.

In a series of recent Instagram posts, former U.S. snowboardcross athlete Callan Chythlook-Sifsof, whom Gulini considered a close friend, alleged Foley and another member of the team, Hagen Kearney, acted inappropriately and also made sexually and racially inappropriate remarks to her and another female snowboarder in the past.

Foley, who was in China, denied any wrongdoing, but Safesport restrictions put on the coach prevented him from doing his job, face-to-face with athletes, before the biggest races of their careers.

“On top of that, there’s now this investigation, so we’re kind of thrown in as athletes to talk to the lawyers and kind of pick sides or defend one or the other,” Gulini said.

Gulini doesn’t believe any of the accusations are true.

“And I think the timing of it was all too convenient,” she stated. “If there was these issues and they were going on a decade ago, they should have been addressed a decade ago, not two days before the Olympic Games.”

Added to that was the novel isolation permeating the Games. Gulini noted the lack of freedom to support, interact, or simply acquaint herself with other members of Team USA. Daily testing and the constant COVID-dependent decision making all had a cumulative effect.

“It was more challenging than past Olympics have been for me,” she admitted, noting on Instagram that she struggled to sleep during the Games.

Disappointment and jubilation

With a well-established reputation as a technical boarder, the relatively flat 1310-meter Genting Snow Park course, with just 155 meters of drop, didn’t provide many opportunities for Gulini to utilize her strengths to separate from the field.

Faye Gulini competes during the women's snowboardcross finals at the 2022 Winter Olympics.
Aaron Favila/AP photo

“I’m probably one of the smallest, so I knew this would be a really challenging course for me,” she said. “I knew I would have to be smarter than anyone because that was kind of my only tool.”

With World Cup leader and defending world champion Charlotte Bankes on one side and no. 4 ranked Belle Brockhoff on the other, Gulini’s group had the aura of a final. Still, the 29-year-old felt emboldened, knowing she had beaten both athletes in the past.

She jumped to an early lead, but Bankes was gaining by the second turn. She passed the American at the third. “All things I had anticipated happening, so I jumped in her draft,” Gulini detailed. She tucked behind the British champion through the middle section sitting second as the penultimate turn, where goofy-footed snowboarders would be forced wide on their heel side edge, loomed.

“Both Charlotte and I are goofy-footed, so I figured she was battling the same challenges,” Gulini dissected.

Gulini went outside, setting herself up for an inside route on the final bend. Bankes, hearing the American, forced her even further out. The defensive move killed both athletes’ speed. Devoid of exit momentum, Brockhoff and Canada’s Tess Critchlow easily snuck by.

Lacking real estate, Gulini desperately maneuvered behind the leaders. Critchlow bobbled in front, forcing another direction change near the bottom, “and that was it,” lamented Gulini of her 13th place finish.

In a discipline where performance is often condition and course dependent, Gulini won’t strain for outcome justification on behalf of a public tuning into the niche sport every four years.

“If you let that weigh on you and define you, it’s not going to get you anywhere,” she said.

She was ecstatic about the individual standing on top of the 2022 podium, though.

“It was really cool to watch Lindsey get the gold,” she said about the 36-year-old, five-time Olympian who committed her infamous Torino crime before Gulini had even tried boardercross.

“I’ve seen her battle for this for five Olympics. I always said in my early years, she’s gonna get a gold, and I think I got a little bit less optimistic about that over the last five years or so. To see her put it all together and have that success and kind of that ‘stick it to the man’ moment, was pretty cool.”

Harmony

While Gulini will probably not play another game of Phase 10 (a nightly ritual with at the Beijing boardercross house), or have instant oatmeal, Kodiak cakes, or backpacker meals — daily breakfast staples at the U.S. athlete resource center — the real question is whether or not she hungers for a return to the Olympics in 2026.

“I don’t know when I plan to retire, but I know that I won’t make it another Olympic cycle,” she said, the sound of her splitboard still steadily shuffling along. Over the last decade, she earned her master’s degree in accounting, but hasn’t been enamored by her part-time tax work.

“I feel like I haven’t had enough time or freedom to explore many avenues,” she said of other potential interests.

The Olympic experience has her pondering elite coaching.

“I’d like to be that person that can kind of make or break an athlete. Someone who can make that difference between making it either sport versus career.”

Gulini’s words perched above the background noise of her climbing back to her Summit Park home. The sun was setting on the day — and possibly a career.

 

Basalt’s Faulhaber finishes sixth in first Winter Olympic halfpipe skiing final

Family, coaches, friends and ski buddies of Basalt freeskier Hanna Faulhaber gather in the Limelight Hotel to cheer her on in Snowmass Base Village on Thursday night. The group exploded in cheers as Faulhaber finished her second run of the evening during her Olympic debut.
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

Hanna Faulhaber said she “just cracked” during training ahead of finals. The wind was making it difficult to get any speed through the halfpipe and the pressure of the Winter Olympics was starting to set in for the teenager from Basalt.

Nothing a pre-game joyride can’t fix. And the minor meltdown looked all but history by the time she officially dropped in for her first run Friday in China.

“The biggest mental battle that I’ve probably ever faced. I was crying all throughout practice, just really trying to find myself and find why I’m doing the sport and trying to have fun again and just took some time to myself and did a few fun laps,” Faulhaber told reporters after the finals. “I put quite a bit of pressure on myself going in and just to be able to put something down in finals, it made me so happy and made me have fun again.”

Faulhaber eventually finished sixth in her first Winter Olympic appearance on Friday — or Thursday night in Colorado — behind a pair of strong runs, but could not keep up with China’s Eileen Gu, who cruised to women’s halfpipe skiing gold in Zhangjiakou, which is just over 100 miles from Beijing.

Faulhaber, the 17-year-old who grew up skiing with the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club and made her X Games debut only last month, briefly held down the top spot early in the first round behind an opening-run score of 85.25, which would prove to be her best result. She landed a solid, albeit almost identical, second run for 84.50 but fell midway through a promising third run that ended her podium hopes.

The fourth of the 12 finalists to drop in, Faulhaber held the lead until Canada’s Cassie Sharpe, the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics gold medalist, scored 89 to take the lead as the seventh skier to drop. The top skiers, including Sharpe, had multiple 1080s in their runs, a trick Faulhaber doesn’t yet have in her arsenal.

Faulhaber did bring her soon-to-be trademarked amplitude, getting over 13 feet above the lip of the halfpipe despite the windy conditions, and successfully landed a 900, which is still relatively new to her, on her final hit of her first two runs. She also attempted the highly technical switch 720, a trick she hopes to make a regular part of her run in the future.

“We were able to lay down two good runs and also gave that switch 7 a shot,” Faulhaber said. “Really stoked to have given that a shot. Don’t think I would have been that happy if I didn’t leave everything out on the table. Just overall happy with how I skied.”

Basalt’s Hanna Faulhaber competes during the women's halfpipe skiing finals at the 2022 Winter Olympics on Friday, Feb. 18, 2022, in Zhangjiakou, China. She finished sixth.
Francisco Seco/AP

Gu’s win was historic for action-sports athletes, as it gave her three medals in the same Winter Olympics, the first freeskier, male or female, to ever do so. The American-born star, who is only 18, also won gold in big air earlier in the month and took silver in slopestyle behind Switzerland’s Mathilde Gremaud.

“She’s really pushing the sport to a new level,” said Great Britain’s Zoe Atkin, who finished ninth, of Gu. “It’s really great to see and it’s so inspiring. It makes me want to be a better skier myself. I think she’s amazing for the sport.”

Sharpe, who had slight improvements on each run to finish with a best-run score of 90.75, won silver. Only a year ago, she severely hurt her knee, which put her entire Olympic season in doubt.

“It feels surreal at this point,” Sharpe said. “I can’t even put it into words. I’ve been through hell and back the last year, so I’m just so grateful that all the pieces that I’ve worked so hard on came together today.”

Her fellow countrywoman, Rachael Karker, won Olympic bronze with 87.75, scored on her first run. This was Karker’s first time competing at the Games.

Kelly Sildaru was just off the podium in fourth place; she leaves her first Olympics with a bronze from slopestyle. The just-turned 20-year-old from Estonia won X Games Aspen halfpipe gold only last month, a contest that did not include Gu, Sharpe or Karker. Faulhaber won bronze that day in her X Games debut.

Basalt’s Hanna Faulhaber competes in the freestyle skiing women's halfpipe final run during the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games at Genting Snow Park H & S Stadium in Zhangjiakou, China.
Pavel Bednyakov/Sputnik via AP

Gu, who led Olympic qualifying, was the last to drop in and closed out the contest with an easy victory lap, not likely the last she’ll have of her career. She scored 93.25 on her first run, more than enough to win the contest then and there, before upping it to 95.25 on her second run.

“I feel at peace. I feel grateful. I feel proud,” Gu said. “Skiing is all about fun and individuality and being able to express yourself and find that flow, and for myself I really find that in halfpipe. Being able to feel the rhythm of the walls, and being able to put unique grabs, to try different axis, spin different directions — it’s really fun and it’s the essence of the sport.”

Faulhaber was the top finisher among the Americans, much as she was when she finished fourth at the world championships last March in Aspen. Brita Sigourney finished 10th with 70.75 and her fellow Californian teammate Carly Margulies was 11th with 61.

The fourth member of the U.S. Olympic women’s halfpipe ski team, Devin Logan, did not make finals.

Faulhaber was already looking toward her second trip to the Olympics — the 2026 Winter Games will be held in northern Italy — and the steps she needs to take between now and then to get there and compete for a podium spot.

“Going into the next one I’m just going to obviously train my hardest,” she said. “Probably prepare a little better with getting new tricks in because I did a few things a little last minute, and just not trying to change up too many things at once. But, yeah, I feel good.”

The men’s halfpipe skiing finals, featuring Aspen’s Alex Ferreira, is 6:30 p.m. Friday night, Colorado time.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Athletes with Vail ties set to go big in Saturday’s Olympic ski halfpipe final

United States's Aaron Blunck competes during the men's halfpipe qualification at the 2022 Winter Olympics, Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022, in Zhangjiakou, China.
Gregory Bull/AP

Aaron Blunck was repeatedly described as hailing from Vail during the Olympic ski halfpipe coverage on Thursday, and while Blunck is not, in fact, from Vail, the high school program at Vail Ski & Snowboard Academy will proudly take credit for his development.

Blunck grew up in Crested Butte, but when he reached high school age, his parents had to make a difficult decision.

“We felt like we were giving him away,” said Michael Blunck, Aaron’s father, in a 2014 interview with the Vail Daily, during Aaron’s senior year. “It was one of the hardest decisions my wife and I have had to make.”

But the decision allowed Aaron Blunck to flourish, and in 2014, while he was still attending high school in Minturn, Blunck made the Olympics for the first time, finishing seventh.

“You want to let your kids live their dreams, and (Vail Ski & Snowboard Academy) gave us that opportunity,” Michael Blunck said.

In 2016 Blunck unveiled his signature switch double down the pipe – taking off and landing blind with two inverts in between – winning a World Cup event in Park City with the run that was similar to that which led the Olympic field on Thursday.

Blunck’s coach and roommate while he was in Vail, Elana Chase, has also coached many other athletes in the field at the Olympics. Chase was a halfpipe coach at Ski & Snowboard Club Vail during much of the 2010s.

2018 Silver medal winner Alex Ferreira, of the United States, is carried by his coach, Elana Chase, after the men's halfpipe final at Phoenix Snow Park at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018.
AP Photo/Lee Jin-man

Alex Ferreira, of Aspen, describes Chase to be like a second mother to him while he’s competing. Ferreira says he wouldn’t be where he is today without Chase.

And where he is, currently, is Chase’s new home turf, as she left the U.S. halfpipe scene to coach Chinese athletes a couple of years ago. Chase had several athletes under her current tutelage in Thursday’s halfpipe event.

Ferreira, Blunck and another athlete who once called Chase coach, David Wise, all made finals with ease on Thursday, along with Birk Irving, of Winter Park.

In an interview with the Vail Daily before the Olympics, Ferreira said the sport has seen much progression in recent years, with athletes regularly spinning 1440 and 1620-degree rotations.

“But you gotta go big to make those tricks look good,” Ferreira said. “And that’s what I’m hoping to do if I get there.”

Men’s ski halfpipe finals are scheduled for Saturday in China. Local coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. MST on Friday.

Freeskier Eileen Gu talks about goal at Winter Olympics and beyond: ‘Glad you asked’

China's Eileen Gu talks to reporters after the women's halfpipe qualification at the 2022 Winter Olympics on Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022, in Zhangjiakou, China.
Francisco Seco/AP

ZHANGJIAKOU, China — Another Olympic gold medal is hers for the taking. Eileen Gu has bigger goals than that.

The 18-year-old freeskiing star, as easy to spot on magazine covers as on the ski slopes, spelled it all out during a candid Q&A after she breezed through her qualifying round Thursday on the halfpipe.

In the final, Gu will try to add to the gold (big air) and silver (slopestyle) medals she has already won at the Beijing Games. She hasn’t lost a contest all season in the halfpipe.

If she comes through, wins the gold and becomes the first action-sports athlete to win three medals at the same Olympics, she’s well aware it won’t dampen the speculation, or silence the critics who wonder why an American-born teenager would choose to ski for China on her sport’s biggest stage.

“I’m glad you asked,” she said to the first of a series of questions thrown at her about her nationality, her mission and her future as she held court in the interview area.

“People sometimes don’t know what to do with other people when they’re not fitting in a box,” said the skier, whose mother emigrated to the United States some three decades ago. “They say, ‘Is she Chinese? Is she American? Is she a model? Is she a student? Why is she trying to change the world when she’s only 18?’”

Gu is also a great piano player, a damn good skier, a marketing executive’s dream — by The Associated Press’ unofficial count, she has at least 23 sponsors — and someone unafraid to speak her mind.

She can keep things light — chatting about what she’s having for lunch (dumpling one day, pork bun the next), what she writes about in her daily journals (After her slopestyle silver: “I am fresh. I am not tired.”) and how she brought her beloved truffle oil to China.

She is far too quick with a story, or a quip, to be cast as — the way some of her critics suggest — a coached-up, pre-scripted purveyor of rote talking points programmed specifically for this moment.

“I’m not trying to solve political problems right now,” she said, offering pushback to those who suggest skiing for China somehow implies her unquestioning approval of the country’s government and its policies. “And I’m aware that I’m not able to do everything I want to do in this exact moment.”

She learned to ski in the United States and trained with the American team for years. When it came to figuring out which uniform to wear for the Beijing Games, she thought about it and felt she’d have a greater impact if she could bring action sports to a wider audience in a country with no history on snow.

“My biggest goal is for some girl to be sitting at home watching freeskiing for the first time and thinking, ‘Maybe that could be me some day,’” Gu said. “Maybe she sees someone who looks like her doing it and thinks, ‘Hey, I can do that, too.’”

There are between 9 million and 12 million skiers in the United States, depending on whose statistics you use — and a fraction of those hit terrain parks, the likes of which Gu has been lighting up most of her life, and at the Olympics. China, with quadruple the population, was sitting at 10.8 million skiers last winter, according to a “White Book” published by the Chinese Economic Publishing House.

But Gu told a story last year of heading to trampoline camps during her annual visits to China when she was younger.

“Back then, I would meet essentially the entire Chinese ski community at once,” she said.

It planted a seed: She would love to see this sport grow in her mother’s home country. That the mission stands to make her rich and turn her into a multinational superstar seems like more of a byproduct, by her telling, than the ultimate goal.

“I’m doing what I can, and that’s what matters,” Gu said. “If people don’t agree with that, then I encourage them to do what they can and make the world a better place in whatever ways they want to. But don’t criticize me.”

Most of this criticism comes from the internet with some shade thrown in by conservative media in the U.S. Fox News’ Tucker Carlson: “It’s ungrateful for her to turn her back on the country that not just raised her, but turned her into a world-class skier.”

While, indeed, the U.S. ski team provides funding for young up-and-comers such as Gu, at no time did it foot all the bills. Sponsorships and the Gu family’s own funds also helped pay the way. If there’s any animus among the U.S. team for what some view as her abandonment of the people who brought her through the ranks, it’s not openly visible on the mountain.

“The Olympics put more attention on the nationalistic aspect of our sport,” American skier Brita Sigourney said. “That never used to be a thing.”

Often forgotten amid all the hand-wringing about Gu’s nationality is that the action sports — snowboarding and freeskiing — have traditionally cared the least about what flag goes on whose uniform.

“You go into the dining area with the teams, and you always see the snowboarders from different countries mingling,” snowboarding executive Donna Burton Carpenter said in an interview earlier this winter. “That always felt more like the Olympic spirit than having these nationalistic teams.”

Gu said she feels that vibe every day. The country she skis for is an important thing, of course. But not the only thing.

“I’ve never had any kind of hate, never had any kind of negativity from any of my friends, from anyone in the industry, or from anyone I know in person,” Gu said. “It’s just people who don’t know me. So, in that sense, I feel like the U.S. has made me who I am. China has made me who I am, and I’m infinitely grateful to both.”

Fletcher the fastest in the world as US Nordic combined men take sixth in team event

Taylor Fletcher leads a pack of skiers in the men’s normal hill Nordic combined cross-country ski race at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. In the 2022 Olympics team event on Thursday, Feb. 17, Fletcher had the fastest time of any competitor in the 4x5 relay.
Joel Reichenberger/Steamboat Pilot & Today archive

Going into the cross country portion of the Olympic large hill team event, the United States Nordic combined men were in seventh. Four fast performances from the Americans helped them to take sixth of 10 teams on Thursday, Feb. 17, from the Zhangjiakou National Cross-Country Skiing Centre.

Taylor Fletcher, the veteran on the team, stood on the start line first for the American men. The 31-year-old Steamboat Springs-born skier is not only the fastest on the team, but one of the fastest in the world.

He took off one minute and 58 seconds behind the leader from Austria, and 22 seconds behind the Czech Republic. After one lap, or 2.5 kilometers, Fletcher came across the line in sixth, just in front of the Czech competitor. One lap later, Fletcher entered the exchange zone neck-and-neck with fifth-place France. He touched the back of Ben Loomis, stopping his split time at 12:16. That was the fastest first leg of the relay and ended up being the fastest anyone skied their leg all evening in the 4×5 relay.

Fletcher, who expects Beijing 2022 to be his final Olympics and has had his best results at a Winter Games, took 24th in the normal hill and 23rd in the large hill. Fletcher won’t likely retire right away, but doesn’t see himself still competing in four years.

“I think it’ll be a big change,” said teammate Jasper Good, who also hails from Steamboat Springs. “Every single one of us on the team has only ever known our team with him, so it’ll be a big change, but it’s really cool to see him have one of his best seasons in a while. He’s been having a blast, it looks like.”

Loomis, who had the best jump of the Americans, stayed alongside France for his whole time on the cross-country course and passed off to Good.

The France skier started building a small advantage on Good through their first lap on the course. The two-time Olympian came into the exchange zone in seventh, not far behind France and Finland, and barely ahead of the Czech Republic.

Jared Shumate hit the course next. He flew past Finland and fought to hold off the Czech Republic on the anchor leg of the relay.

Shumate has had an incredible couple of weeks in Beijing, earning a pair of top-20 finishes in the individual events and has proven to be one of the speediest skiers.

Shumate was only a hair ahead of the Czech Republic skier going into the finish, where France finished fifth just seven seconds ahead of the United States.

Sixth place matches how the United States performed in the team event eight years ago in Sochi. Fletcher is the only one still competing from that team.

“I think it was a pretty solid day for our team overall,” Good said. “I think sixth place is certainly better than any team results we’ve had at a championship since I’ve been on the team. It was one of our goals to get top six, so that’s exciting. We were in the fight for fifth, which is cool, and I think we all put down pretty solid days, which is good to see for the team.”

Closing the gap to fourth would have been near miraculous. The top four teams, Austria, Germany, Japan and Norway, were together through most of the race and had about a minute advantage on the rest of the racers. Austria started with a lead, but ended up in fourth, while Norway won gold and was joined by Germany and Japan on the podium.

That concludes the Nordic combined Olympic events, so Fletcher, Good and the whole team will return to Park City, Utah, to spend some time in the states before returning to Europe to conclude the World Cup season.