words: Pat Bridges
photos: Ryan “Huggy” Hughes and Peter Morning
It has been said that simply qualifying for the Olympics is a much greater challenge than any rider will actually face at the Games themselves. The 2014 US Snowboarding Grand Prix Series, which serves to determine who will represent The United States in Sochi next month, has only added merit to this thesis
After a stellar start to America's five-stop Olympic qualifying process in Colorado in early December beginning with the Breckenridge Dew Tour followed by the Copper Grand Prix a week later, weather quickly became a challenge more formidable than any of the riders would face from their colleagues. With the announcement that Northstar California didn't have the necessary snow to produce a world-class competition pipe or slopestyle course, the Grand Prix organizers opted to reverse course and return the field to Breckenridge, Colorado. This decision proved fateful as the Grand Prix Series traded thin Tahoe cover for high winds and deep Summit County drifts, resulting in the Breckenridge Grand Prix being canceled midway through the contest. This left a gap in America's five-stop Olympic Qualifying protocol. With very few options left to maintain the integrity of the five-stop scenario, it was decided that Mammoth Mountain, California would host the last three of America's five Olympic Qualifiers within a short four-day window. With the need to accommodate both slopestyle and halfpipe, a dense schedule was created which relied upon multiple standalone finals being held on the same day. While this approach not only favored the well-conditioned athlete with two results on tap for both slopestyle on Thursday and halfpipe on Friday, it also opened the door for wildcards and underdogs to quickly rise up the ranks and become legitimate US Olympic Team contenders.
The change of conditions from last weekend in Breckenridge to what greeted Thursday's slopestyle finalists in Mammoth couldn't have been more drastic. The high winds and fresh pow of Colorado perfectly contrasted California's sunny skies and slushy slopes. Despite the lack of natural accumulation, Mammoth Mountain's Unbound Park Staff, mountain operations department, and special events crew produced a world-class slopestyle course that few could find fault with. The requisite triple string of jib islands that greeted competitors at the top of the course fed into a trio of formidable tabletops that were deceptively poppy, allowing for technical trickery galore.
Unlike the first two Grand Prix stops, these last three contests are only open to our fellow countrymen, meaning un-American riders like Canada's Mark McMorris, Norway's Stale Sandbech and Russia's Iouri Podlatchikov weren't welcome to compete. In practice, this xenophobic twist allowed for two quick contests to be held successively with roughly fifteen men and fifteen women making the start list for both of Thursday's slopestyles
While most of the results from the first of Thursday's two contests may seem routine there were definitely a handful of surprises which injected drama into what many believe is quickly becoming a mundane contest landscape. The first surprise of the day came with Milford, Michigan's Karly Shorr earning a second place finish in Women's Slopestyle 1. Karly clinched her place on the podium with a fluid style and tricks like switch backside 540's to join Stowe, Vermont's Ty Walker, who finished third. Despite an uncommon absence from the top spot at last month's Copper Grand Prix Slopestyle, South Lake Tahoe, California's Jamie Anderson easily settled the field achieving victory with dominant tricks like cab seven nosegrabs and frontside 360 rewinds. This result when combined with her Dew Tour Title in December guaranteed Jamie a trip to Sochi.
"I am so stoked," Anderson remarked between contests after learning of her secured spot in Sochi. "I just wanted to come here, ride and have fun. It is just fuckin' awesome out. It is bluebird and the park is good. All my friends are here and my dad came down today and surprised me. Good vibes!"
For the men's side of the morning schedule, Holderness, New Hampshire's Chas Guldemond chucked backside double rodeos and 1260's to step to the podium in third and Park City, Utah's Sage Kotsenberg Japan-corked his way into second. Perhaps the most surprising result of the entire day belonged to Anchorage, Alaska's Ryan Stassel, whose multi-degree flat spins proved that there is more to slopestyle than simply flipping. This uncommon approach allowed Stassel to take the victory in the opening slopestyle and in turn make a serious move towards an assured spot on the US Olympic Slopestyle Team.
For the latter slopestyle final the sun bore down and allowed speed and ruts to become an issue for some. Despite these evolving conditions and the wisdom that any riders who performed well in the morning's finals would be more likely to dominate in the latter showdown there were still several surprises. While Jamie Anderson once again took the win, only this time mixing it up with a switch backside five to backside five to cab seven combo, there were two new names to add to this years list of podium worthy performers. Both Snowmass, Colorado's Jordie Karlinski and Rigby, Idaho's Jessika Jenson took their 540 spins to the bank, achieving second and third place respectively and giving them both a chance of heading to Russia alongside Anderson and Walker in the event that the United States does in fact maintain enough spots to send four girls to the Olympics. With one more slopestyle result up for grabs on Saturday and a World Cup running concurrently in Stoneham, Quebec with a full field of internationals looking to take spots away from the US, there is still a lot left undetermined. In addition to these four ladies, Serena Shaw, Phoebe Novello and Karly Shore are all within one win on Saturday of moving into the top four overall based on their best two results from this five event qualifying series.
West Bloomfield, Michigan's Kyle Mack is a sixteen-year-old on the come up. Though barely old enough to even be eligible for the Olympics, today's third place finish in the second finals puts him alongside Mammoth Lake's own Brandon Davis in being one win away from being in a tie with Sage Kotsenberg for the fourth slopestyle team spot. Sage Kotsenberg two-peated the second place spot on the podium with a similar array of torqued tweaks and tip-grabbing twists, opening the door to none other than Shaun White to take the win. White's result came after a brutal scorpion in the morning. Still, the juggernaut that is Shaun White continued to accentuate his drive for a two-discipline takeover by stomping hardway 450's in the jib zone and sending switch backside 1080 doublecorks and cab 1260 doubles.
"It locks up my spot and I'm going to the Olympics so I'm happy," Shaun explained before the second awards ceremony. "This morning I took one of the worst crashes of my career. I was dazed and concussed. I went home and came back and put that run down so I'm really happy." When Shaun was asked about how today's events would affect him going into tomorrow's two halfpipe events, he was noticeably less enthusiastic. "I don't even know how I'm going to feel in the morning. Everything is a little achy. I was spitting up a little blood earlier. I may go get an x-ray."
As the sun set on Mammoth and the Unbound Park Staff diligently took to the tasks of insuring that tomorrow's halfpipe venue would be fitting for a field of this caliber, the ramifications of today's results began to be fully conjured. For many of those slopestyle riders with their sites set on Sochi the reality of ending the day out of team contention was starting to set in. For a handful of hopefuls like Brandon Davis, Kyle Mack, Jessika Jenson, Jordie Karlinski, Karly Shorr, Phoebe Novello and Serena Shaw there is still the potential that a win on Saturday could see them joining Shaun White, Chas Guldemond and Jamie Anderson as they represent the USA next month in the land once known as the USSR. In the event that one of these wildcards with enough points to remain in the hunt takes the win on Saturday in the fifth and final qualifying event, ties will invariably need to be broken and for an unfortunate few dreams of Olympic glory will have to be put on hold until 2018 in Korea.
Men’s Slopestyle Finals 1
First – Ryan Stassel
Second – Sage Kotsenburg
Third – Chas Guldemond
Women’s Slopestyle Finals 1
First – Jamie Anderson
Second – Karly Shorr
Third – Ty Walker
Men’s Slopestyle Finals 2
First – Shaun White
Second – Sage Kotsenburg
Third – Kyle Mack
Women’s Slopestyle Finals 2
First – Jamie Anderson
Second – Jordie Karlinski
Third – Jessika Jensen
Men's US Snowboard Slopestyle Team Standings