The 2018 US Open: Takeaways From The First Halfpipe Finals In The Aftermath Of PyeongChang
words: Pat Bridges
For 36 years the Burton US Open has consistently set the standards by which all other top-tier snowboarding showdowns are judged. Yet, once every 4 years since 1998, The US Open has benefited from being the postscript to the storylines and drama that invariably emerges from the Olympics. Not only does The Open provide an intimate stage for returning heroes to be celebrated by "our kind" on our own terms, but it also takes on the mantel of righting the course of our sport after it has been processed and commoditized for mass consumption.
The 2018 US Open Halfpipe Finals took place in Vail, CO on Saturday, March 10th and the PyeongChang Olympics were omnipresent. Some riders like seven-time US Open champion Kelly Clark, were looking to redeem themselves after leaving South Korea empty handed, while others, including America's newest sweetheart, 17-year old Chloe Kim, were using The Open to provide further affirmation that the future is now when it comes to women's halfpipe riding.
A dusting of snow and flat light proved a challenging combo with few girls landing their best runs after the field of six had each dropped in twice. The third run proved to be the charm for most of the field. Unfortunately Kelly Clark wouldn't add to her trophy room on this day as Chloe Kim would be joined by her 18-year-old contemporary, Maddie Mastro, in the top two spots followed by Japan's Haruna Matsumoto.
To the chagrin of avid fans of televised snowboarding, Shaun White was absent from the 2018 US Open Men’s halfpipe field despite actually being present in Vail. Speculation as to why Shaun chose to forgo dropping in at Open was rampant with some reasoning that he had earned a respite from the stress of the circuit while others opined that risking a defeat so soon after achieving his third Olympic gold medal might tarnish the sheen on his newly earned hardware. Nonetheless a majority of the PyeongChang men’s halfpipe finalists were onsite and ready to throw down in a bid to win the most storied title in the world of transition riding.
One-upmanship has marked the 2018 halfpipe season with the limits of progression being pushed from contest to contest, if not from one run to the next. Finding the means to beat Shaun White has for the most part fueled this trajectory. The inadvertent consequence of this motivation is that the stage has been set for nearly a dozen usurpers to vie to see who has what it takes to fill the inevitable void as White edges into the twilight of his esteemed career. Perhaps the most positive aspect of this years competition narrative is how individuality has experienced a renaissance when it comes to style and trick selection. Just as Terje and Danny Kass did decades before, a few years back Danny Davis proved that a rider can abstain from the cookie-cutter contest regimen and be rewarded for taking his own path to the top of the podium. Currently we are seeing the depth of Danny's influence as a new generation of finalists have developed their own strategies and flair.
From Chase Josey's switch acrobatics, to Ben Ferguson’s modern take on timeless tricks to Scotty James' blending of technicality and amplitude, linear evolution and robotic routines no longer bear the same fruits that they once did. Then there is the European vanguard being led by Pat Burgener and Jan Scherrer who have wedged their way into the conversation as underrated wildcards. Lastly, there is a seemingly endless well of Japanese contenders capable of coming out of nowhere to upset any podium prediction. The charisma of Kazuhiro Kokubo, agro contortions of Ryo Aono and fearless approach of Rio Tahara provides the fundamental dna ubiquoutous within this Japanese contingent.
All of the above mentioned attributes and more were on tap at the 2018 US Open. Variable conditions and inconsistent pipe walls plagued virtually every male rider at some point during the three run final. Finishing just outside the podium by .4 points was Ben Ferguson who raised the bar by which all other airs to fakie and switch mctwists will be measured.
Australia's Scotty James may share a coach with Ben but on this day he wouldn't be sharing the podium. On his first run Scotty paired back to back double cork 12s concluding his first run with a switch bs 12 which is arguably the most difficult and technical halfpipe trick ever thrown in US Open competition. Japan's Raibu Katayama took second place with a run that was if nothing else the cleanest of the day. Raibu soared higher than most and linked respectably technical tricks, but it was his flawless execution that set him apart from his peers.
Alas, there can only be one 2018 US Open Halfpipe Champion and Japan's Ayumu Hirano ended his bid to be the best halfpipe rider to never win a US Open by pushing the boundaries of his casual finesse with triple overhead indies, two double cork 12s, and a double cork 14! As much as an emphasis is placed upon what happens above the lip, much of Ayumu's edge comes from how high he lands on the wall and his effortless glide across the flatbottom. The economy of movement he employs allows for more amplitude and in turn better trick execution. Congratulations and then some to Ayumu, Raibu and Scotty.
Just as the Shaun White era may be coming to an end, he has motivated the new guard to take halfpipe riding to greater heights and in turn reinvigorated the discipline with an excitement and energy that the tour had been needing for nearly a decade. Not to discount the players who filled out the podiums of the recent past, but optimism has returned to the halfpipe realm and I predict 2018 will be looked back upon as the start of a bonafied halfpipe revival.