The air was thick with snow and tension at the final Grand Prix halfpipe event, held January 13 in Breckenridge, Colorado. Riders were stressed (Keir Dillon wrote the words “Don’t Choke” on the nose of his board) and everyone knew what was at stake–a chance at going to the Games. When all was said and done, our country was the proud new owner of a United States Olympics Halfpipe Team: Shannon Dunn, Kelly Clark, Tricia Byrnes, Danny Kass, Ross Powers, Tommy Czeschin, and JJ Thomas.
But if there’s one thing the International Olympic Committee has no control over, it’s the weather, and it was brutally cold, with at times nearly blizzard-like conditions. After a few runs in the deathly icy pipe, Todd Richards and JJ Thomas spoke up on behalf of a number of riders who wanted to postpone the contest until a better weather day. Everyone waited out a delay of two hours, and things got rolling around 1:00 PM.
After exhaustive calculations, the U.S. Team coaches allegedly determined that Gretchen Bleiler needed a second place today in order to beat Tricia Byrnes out of the third Olympic quota spot. For this reason, Tricia went all out with a McTwist attempt on both runs, trying to win it rather than playing it safe. Gretchen went the solid route with her run of back- to frontside fives. And while Byrnes fell on both runs and ended up in tenth place, Gretchen was just one spot away from the place she needed to get on the Olympic Team.
Having already secured her spot, Kelly Clark was riding with the confidence of someone who had nothing to lose. She dominated once again with big airs, a frontside five, and what’s become her patented large McTwist. Shannon Dunn, the first of the U.S. women to be confirmed on the Olympic halfpipe team, pulled a new trick out of her bag–adding a rodeo flip to her frontside seven. And Cara-Beth Burnside stepped it up as well by boosting alley-oops and spinning a backside 540.
The men’s competition saw some serious throw downs as eight-odd men wrangled for the three remaining Olympic spots. After a win at the first Grand Prix in Mammoth, Danny Kass took his sweet-ass time nailing down a place on the Team. But he did it today–the only rider to pull a1080, inverted and grabbed. The winning score from Danny’s first run held throughout the second run–until Shaun White, who boosted exceptionally flawless with a frontside nine and a McTwist. With Kass now in second place, the crowd came to a frenzied height during JJ Thomas’ second run. He was contending with Danny’s technical combo of inverted spins (including the 1080), as well as the clean charisma of Shaun White’s riding. But if JJ ever picked a moment to be on, it was this one–a monster McTwist off the first hit (nearly fifteen-foot airs down the pipe), and a frontside nine into a switch McTwist. This was the winning run, and the moment everyone realized that Thomas had a clear shot at going to Salt Lake.
His results earned him the final place on the men’s halfpipe team, but since the U.S. can only bring fourteen riders (combining both halfpipe and racing), the spot could still be given to the men’s racing team. A final decision on whether JJ will go to the Games will be made at the end of January.
Tommy Czeschin–normally as consistent as they come–took a hard fall his first run. He fought through a second run of back-to-back sevens and a 900 amidst crazy gusts of wind and with serious pain from a separated shoulder. Czeschin was rewarded with tenth place and a spot on the U.S. Olympic Team. Also in the running was Keir Dillon, who pulled together a strong first run–two inverted sevens and a nine–but railed out on his second run, missing a chance at the podium and an Olympic Team spot. Todd Richards fell on both runs, permanently jeopardizing his chances at the U.S. Team.
With so much riding on this contest, the uncooperative weather was truly unfortunate–it would have been great to have perfect conditions for the riders too really go off in. But everyone sucked it up, rode hard, and did what needed to be done. Despite the hockey-rink halfpipe and the wind spicing up peoples’ airs and rotations, the level of riding was higher than it’s ever been. And if it’s taken the prospect of Olympic glory to get there, then all the better.
ResultsMen1. JJ Thomas 2. Shaun White3. Danny Kass
Women1. Kelly Clark2. Cara-Beth Burnside3. Gretchen Bleiler