words: Mary Walsh
photos: Aaron Blatt and Bre Maris
captions: Pat Bridges
This winter has been a tough one for competitive pipe riders. While inclimate weather is always a possibility at any snowboard contest (it is outside after all), during both Dew Tour and X Games halfpipe finals received the brunt of Mother Nature's tempest, as dumping snow made walls sticky and flatbottoms slow and in Aspen, caused the unusual cancellation of an entire event after the first run. So, it was fitting and well-deserved that a group of the best pipe riders in the world collected at the top of a perfectly-cut SPT-built halfpipe on Saturday morning, the clouds quickly burned off, illuminating a perfect spring day with blue skies and bright sunshine. Pipe finals at the 34th Burton US Open Snowboarding Championship would get some of the best weather of the competitive season.
The ladies kicked things off on March 5th, the final day of the 2016 iteration of the US Open. Elena Hight, Kelly Clark, Xuetong Cai, Hannah Teter, Chloe Kim, and Arielle Gold adjusted bindings and settled in under the remains of the early morning's flat light, though this wouldn't deter any of these ladies during one of the most deft showcase of women's transition riding in recent memory. Elena Hight started things off with perfectly rotated back-to-back nines starting things off with a bang and ushering in a line up of nines that would be thrown down by the collection of women, something that is only recently beginning to become commonplace in competitions. Hannah Teter was boosting methods and Haakonflips all morning and Arielle Gold was also sending it high overhead, though she wasn't able to find the tricks that she wanted to make it onto the podium.
One of the most common ways to measure a competitor is by the size of their trophy collection. How many golds and silvers they possess. The number of NBDs they have stomped and podiums they have stood on. Mammoth local Kelly Clark has these things in spades. She has won every contest, multiple times and done so while remaining competitive over the past decade and then some. But on Saturday, Kelly, whose abilities and strengths on her snowboard are nothing short of impressive, showed another heavy hallmark of an incredible athlete. The week before arriving in Vail, Kelly had sustained a injury, and by the time finals rolled around, her movement and riding was so limited she couldn't throw her standard method into her run. But as a rider raised in Souther Vermont, the origin of the Open, and a long-time Burton team member, the Open is a contest that Kelly doesn't want to miss. With the approval of her doctors that she wouldn't further aggravate her injury, she dropped into the pipe, battled through any pain she was experiencing and put down a banner run that included a huge tuck knee on the first wall, back five, front ten, cab seven, and a crippler. She made the podium, third place, but even more impressive than her new medal is her fortitude as a snowboarder and her abilities when things are tough.
Xuetong Cai started out this season with on the podium at Dew Tour Breckenridge, impressing onlookers and judges alike with her lofty airtime and consistent and stylish tricks. Back in Colorado to bookmark her season, she dropped in on her second run and put down a big air to fake, cab seven, front nine, back five, front seven and a nice switch straight air. For her efforts she was awarded an 82.99 and earned second place.
There are few things that are becoming increasingly clear about Chloe Kim with each season that she spends on the competitive snowboard circuit. She has a penchant for vibrant hair colors, she loves shopping, and she is a ridiculously explosive snowboarder. On her first run of three in Vail, she dropped into absolutely massive back-to-back tens, soaring high above the deck, drifting far down the walls and becoming the first female rider to land the combination at the US Open. The crowd went wild, the judges appropriately scored her high with an 89.37, and from the moment she came to a stop in the corral at the bottom of the tube, she didn't look back, well on her way to her very first USO win.
By the time the men began to practice for their turn in the transition tube, the weather was perfect. Taku Hiraoka, Shaun White, Greg Bretz, Matt Ladley, Ben Ferguson, Danny Davis, Ayumu Nedefuji, Scotty James, Raibu Katayama, and Judd Henkes—who had qualified all the way to finals from Tuesday's Junior Jam—were on hand to throw down. The conditions were perfect for an all-out show on the dual-walled stage and over the course of three runs, the assembled spectators enjoying the warm, Colorado day, as well as the folks further away watching the contest via the webcast were treated to a prolific day of pipe riding, loaded with triple overhead airs, multi-corks and plenty of tweaked grabs.
From his first run, it was clear that Shaun White had arrived at the pipe with a mission in mind. After being MIA from pipe contests since winning Dew Tour in early December, and coming off a frustratingly poor performance in USO slope finals the day before, he was ready to shine where he does best. As he dropped in on his first run and sent a front double cork ten clear into the atmosphere, he would literally set the bar so high that no one would catch him the rest of the day. Shaun put down cab double ten, front five, back double cork twelve Japan and ended his first go with a 95.62, earning USO gold as the only male rider to crack into the 90s for the day.
Ben Ferguson was not far behind though. The Bend, Oregon local has had a good season, podiuming at X Games for the first time and in doing so, enhancing every halfpipe competition he enters with a heavy dose of style. On Saturday, Ben dropped in boosting his signature crippler Japan and continued down the pipe with a cab double cork ten, a front double crippler, a bak nine and a front double cork ten. His first run would be his best, scoring an 88.62.
Taku Hiraoka, the 2015 US Open halfpipe champion, dropped second to last on final run, the last person able to possibly unseat White. Typical for the Japanese savant, his run was nuts, including a back nine, front double cork ten double grab, cab double cork ten. On his last hit, things aligned for Taku to offer up a halfpipe first, a front 1440. Yet again, the assembled spectators went crazy, but it was not enough to overtake the frontrunner. Shaun White had earned a victory lap.
Congratulations to Shaun, Chloe and all the riders who dropped into the pipe today to close out the 2016 Burton US Open.