Colorado’s top freeskiers and snowboarders had a busy December as they dominated contests that served as qualifiers for the Winter Olympics in Beijing in February.
The three events this month — Big Air at Steamboat, U.S. Grand Prix at Copper Mountain and the Dew Tour at Copper Mountain — were among the first steps to making the U.S. Freeski and U.S. Snowboard Olympic teams.
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Chances are once again good that Colorado will be well represented on the U.S. Olympic halfpipe ski team. Aspen’s freeskiing Olympian Alex Ferreira, 27, won the halfpipe events at both the U.S. Grand Prix and Dew Tour, essentially guaranteeing his spot to represent Team U.S.A. in Beijing. Crested Butte’s Aaron Blunck, 25, finished second at the Dew Tour behind Ferreira, and Winter Park’s Birk Irving, 22, finished fourth at both the U.S. Grand Prix and Dew Tour.
While the selections won’t be officially announced until after the U.S. Grand Prix event at Mammoth Mountain, California, in January, two wins in qualifying events seal the deal. U.S. Freeski plans to send the maximum of four athletes per event to Beijing, and Ferreira is currently sitting in the top spot.
“The last two results definitely helped my position,” Ferreira says. “I don’t want to get too excited until the ink’s dried, but I think I have a good shot of going and a good shot of doing well there. I’m excited for them to announce the team and, hopefully, to represent America in the Olympics and do my absolute best.”
Ferreira, who took silver in his first Olympic appearance in Pyeongchang in 2018, says seeing New Zealand’s Nico Porteous dominate the contest scene last season with new 1620-degree spins lit a fire under him. Ferreira landed 1620s in his runs to win at both the Dew Tour and the U.S. Grand Prix.
“I learned it this summer at Mount Hood and from there I trained it every single day, did my absolute best to perfect it – it’s a hard trick to do, with a lot of spinning – but I think the secret is just to work hard, put in the time and effort to gain that kinesthetic air awareness to learn it,” he says of training for the trick that requires him to rotate his body 4½ times. “I just went to the gym every day and I went to the trampoline every day and I visualized my runs every day. And I went to the sports psychologist and I went to physical therapy and I went to all the training camps and I stayed long at the training camps and I was, you know, just relentless. I guess I still am. I’m excited. I’m motivated. I’m hungrier than ever. And I just want to do my best.”
Ferreira, who grew up with the X Games Superpipe at Buttermilk essentially in his backyard, says he believes access to world-class venues helps explain why Colorado athletes now dominate the sport. Seven of the nine members of the Men’s U.S. Freeski Pro Halfpipe Team (and all five members of the men’s halfpipe rookie team) are from Colorado.
“I think the Colorado guys are so good because we’ve had access to so many different pipes, especially the ones in Aspen and at Copper Mountain and, in previous years, at Vail, Breckenridge and Snowmass,” Ferreira says. “With that kind of access comes great opportunity.”
Blunck is aiming to compete in his third Olympics. He finished seventh at both the Pyeongchang 2018 and Sochi 2014 games. He fell in the finals at the U.S. Grand Prix event on Dec. 10 but his second-place finish at the Dew Tour a week later – combined with a win at the Olympic-qualifying U.S. Grand Prix in March in Aspen – leaves him in the No. 2 spot on the Beijing-bound halfpipe team.
“It’s a gnarly cut, especially with how competitive our freeski team is. A lot of the other teams have like five guys and so it’s unfortunate that one guy’s gonna get cut,” Blunck says. “But for the U.S., there’s so many of us. So, just to make it into that top four is an accomplishment in its own, almost as challenging as winning an Olympic medal. Just to get there is tough.”
Irving, who vied to make the 2018 team as an 18-year-old, finished fourth at the Dew Tour even though he broke his boot on his first run. In both the Grand Prix and the Dew Tour, he ranked among the top three Americans.
“So I think I’m sitting pretty good for Beijing,” Irving says. “It was nice to get back in the pipe and to have two qualifiers in the same pipe I train in every year.”
Other Coloradans on the U.S. Freeski and Snowboard teams still looking to get their ticket punched for the trip to Beijing include Lyman Currier from Boulder, who was 19 when he competed in the 2018 Winter Olympics in Sochi; Avon’s Taylor Seaton; Breckenridge’s Jaxin Hoerter; and Cassidy Jarrell from Aspen. On the U.S. Freeski rookie team, Hunter Carey from Winter Park, Dylan Ladd from Lakewood, Sammy Schuiling from Steamboat and Tristan Feinberg from Aspen all could potentially secure a berth on the Olympic team.
Silverthorne’s Red Gerard, 21, the defending 2018 Pyeongchang men’s snowboard slopestyle gold medalist, won his second consecutive Dew Tour slopestyle title Dec. 18. Chris Corning, a 22-year-old from Silverthorne, who just missed a medal in the Olympic debut of big air in South Korea, finished second in the Dew Tour’s slopestyle contest.
“I’m actually speechless,” Gerard said after the win and after realizing it meant he’ll almost certainly be headed back to the Olympics to defend his gold medal from 2018. “I don’t think any of it’s really set in.”
Gerard, who finished second at the U.S. Grand Prix slopestyle event in Aspen in March and was the top-ranked American at the big air event in Steamboat, at 11th place, is now in the top spot for double duty on the men’s slopestyle and big air teams in Beijing. Gerard finishes 2021 ranked second in slopestyle, behind Norway’s Marcus Kleveland, on the World Snowboard Points List.
“I was so happy with how everyone rode, on the U.S. team and all my friends,” Gerard said. “You know, I say the U.S. team, but my friends are everywhere. Everyone was killing it.”
Corning, who finished fourth in big air and 17th in slopestyle at Pyeongchang 2018, his first Olympics, is currently ranked fourth on that points list, behind Kleveland, Gerard and California’s Dusty Henricksen. Now ranked third among Americans, he’ll also almost certainly be named to the team for Beijing.
“I take every contest day by day and try not to think about it being too big of a thing in my brain, but that Olympic pressure is definitely there,” Corning said. “You’ve got to take each contest one at a time to get there.”
Steamboat’s veteran Olympic snowboarder Taylor Gold, 28, stepped up in the Dew Tour halfpipe, finishing second behind Japan’s Yuto Totsuka. Many athletes and insiders, including Gold, predicted the Dew Tour would feature a Japanese podium sweep.
“Honestly, the Japanese dudes are so freaking good and any time I’m in the mix next to those guys is a blessing,” Gold said, shaking his head at the fact that three Japanese riders learned new triple cork 1440 spins in training camps before the start of the season. Japan’s Ayumu Hirano, who took silver in both the 2014 and 2018 Olympic halfpipes, landed the first triple cork ever in halfpipe competition at the Dew Tour.
“I feel super fortunate to be able to compete with those guys, with maybe a different approach,” says Gold, whose grabs and trick choices add layers of style to his runs.
In a contest full of triple cork 1440s, Gold said he was pleased to make the Dew Tour podium with a run featuring a McTwist Japan 540, frontside 1260 tailgrab flatspin, double Michalchuk 1080 with a flurry of complicated grabs, a switch chickenwing McTwist, and a Cab 1080 grabbed between the legs with his rear hand.
“Watching the progression in the last year, I kind of decided I wanted to take a bit of a different tack,” Gold said, of his decision to emphasize creative moves over big spins when he couldn’t compete with 1440s and new triple corks. “I’ve always admired guys that included style-y tricks in their runs, and I think it brings a different element, makes it look more fun, more approachable. And it’s also hard as hell. To change the rhythm throughout the run is also a challenge. So I’m appreciative that the judges rewarded that and recognize that it’s hard.”
Notably, Gold finished ahead of three-time Olympic gold snowboarding icon Shaun White at both the Dew Tour and the Grand Prix. Gold is now the top-ranked American vying for the four spots for Beijing. Coloradans Chase Blackwell of Longmont and Lucas Foster of Telluride are also among the men vying for spots to compete in men’s snowboard halfpipe in Beijing.
On the women’s side, Carbondale’s Hanna Faulhaber, 17, finished third in women’s freeski halfpipe at the Dew Tour and fifth at the U.S. Grand Prix at Copper Mountain. Her runs included a new 900 she learned in the pre-season training camps this fall.
“I’m definitely not guaranteed for Beijing, but my skiing these past two weeks didn’t hurt my chances,” Faulhaber said. “The whole qualification process is pretty confusing, so I’m just focusing on having fun and if I get to go to Beijing I’ll be thrilled, and if not it’s all good.”
Faulhaber graduated from the U.S. rookie team to the pro team this season and says she considers that step a tremendous achievement – Olympics or no.
“I’ve looked up to the girls who are on the pro team with me forever and to be able to be teammates and be up against them has been my dream since the beginning,” Faulhaber says. “It’s amazing that it’s all coming together.”
U.S. Freeski women’s halfpipe rookie team skiers Svea Irving, the sister of Birk Irving, and Oak Creek’s Riley Jacobs are also looking to climb the rankings next month before the official team announcement. 19-year-old Dew Tour rookie Danielle “Ellie” Weiler, from Highlands Ranch and now living in Silverthorne, finished sixth in women’s snowboard slopestyle.
“It’s my first Dew Tour and I got in as an alternate, so I’m really stoked to be here,” Weiler said. “Just feeding off of everybody’s energy has been amazing.”
Weiler’s a longshot for Beijing, on a U.S. Snowboard team that includes Olympic veterans Jamie Anderson, Hailey Langland, and Julia Marino. Then again, that No. 4 spot is within reach: Weiler is currently the fifth-ranked American on the World Snowboard Points List.