Words: Pat Bridges
Photos: Laura Austin
Thirty years ago a ragged band of fringe fun seekers congregated at a small ski area in central Vermont called Suicide Six to first decide who among them was the best at schussing the slopes sideways. At the end of the day a stoked and quite possibly stoned Doug Bouton was crowned the champion of the inaugural US Open. In the three decades since, the longest running event in the history of our sport has remained a fixture on the contest circuit and a coveted achievement despite being crowded on the calendar by made-for-TV spectacles like the X Games and Dew Tour, and of course, the Olympics. Pedigree is something the US Open has over these event come-latelys. Another is authenticity. Unlike these aforementioned showdowns the snowboarders at the US Open don't have to share slope space or airtime with skiers and that is how it should be. This fact alone reveals that Disney, Viacom, the IOC and all of these other entities simply see snowboarding as a commodity which can be co-opted to increase the bottom line. This has never been the case at the US Open where fostering progression and celebrating our heroes has always been the priority.
For twenty-eight of its thirty years The US Open has called Stratton, Vermont its home. The fact that this peak has played host to the event for so long is a testament to how pivotal this location was in accepting snowboarding during its adolescence. Yet as snowboarding has grown Stratton's commitment to this showdown has diminished. An apt analogy is a thirty-year-old person who still lives at their parent's house. Have they really grown up? An argument could be made that it could be pretty cool if the parents lived in a sick house. Well, Stratton isn't that sick house. Was it at one point? It was back when Stratton reinvested in venues and didn't exile the event to the remote Sun Bowl.
Editorializing aside, the riding at the 30th incarnation of the US Open still lived up to the hype thanks to no shortage of world-class talent on the startsheets. While the war of attrition that we saw in Friday's slopestyle continued into the Saturday halfpipe finals there was still plenty of insane trickery on tap in the u-tube. Perhaps the biggest pipe story of the day was the women's finals. With stylish 900s and double-overhead backside airs, 15-year-old pipe prodigy Arielle Gold made her presence known and were it not for untimely falls, surely could have found herself in podium position. Stratton Mountain School alumni Ellery Hollingsworth found herself in the hunt early on with runs which included boosted backside rodeos, cork frontside 720s and cab 900s! It seems strange to cover a women's pipe contest and report that Kelly Clark finished in any place other than first. It has been that long since the southern Vermont native has failed to find the top spot of the podium. This isn't to say that Kelly didn't still kill it. Clark's trademark amplitude was in abundance on tricks like her first hit frontside 900s and back-to-back 720s but her dominating 1080 proved elusive and her last hit Crippler which was fifteen feet out wasn't enough to best the field on this day. Since winning a silver medal at the 2012 Winter X Games, Elena Hight has been living up to the halfpipe promise that she first showed as a 900-spinning thirteen year old. Elena came to Stratton fresh from a recent first place finish at the Mammoth Grand Prix two weeks ago and maintained that momentum into the Open finals. After setting down a podium-worthy run early on, Elena dropped in for her second try and sent a stellar method with proper style on the first hit. From there she linked a frontside 7 Japan, Cab 7, frontside 900, backside 900 and alley-oop backside rodeo which she maintained for the duration of the women's contest allowing her the opportunity to savor a rare but undeniably deserved victory lap.
The men's halfpipe finals is always the main event at Stratton and with the sun shining and the pipe pristine the stage was set for another all-time Open showdown. In honor of the 30th anniversary, Burton invited a handful of recent halfpipe champions to Stratton with byes right to the finals. Among these victors was none other than 5-time US Open halfpipe champion Danny Kass. Despite speculation that this may have only been his third day in a pipe this season, Danny still dropped in to his signature Cab 3 roll in followed by back to back 900s. Danny's display was good enough to put him in third in the early running. Two-time Open champion Kazuhiro Kokubo used this opportunity to once again partake in a sideslipping tribute run in honor of the one year anniversary of the tsunami tragedy which struck his homeland. As I insinuated earlier, the Open halfpipe finals were rife with falls. Despite all of the competitors stomping insane tricks at some point only a handful were able to pull a full run. Among them was Matt Ladley who laid it all on the line on his first hit with enormous 1260s. Japan's Ryo Aono was another rider who was running strong, opting for flat spins instead of trendy double corks. Back-to-back 1080s are how Benji Farrow started his third place run followed by a 1260 and a backside 900. Despite unveiling a new trick, the nollie backside 900 flat spin and earning second place on the day Louie Vito maintained his spot right below Jeff Brushie on the list of the best pipe riders never to have won the Open. Say what you will about Shaun White's fashion or mainstream endeavors, all consternation is forgotten once he sends it, and rightfully so. Nothing can silence the haters like a twenty-some-odd foot high backside air. It has been said before, but it is certainly worth repeating: Shaun can turn it on like no other and he now has made back-to-back double corks seem stock. With another easily won victory at the US Open, Shaun White summited the Stratton pipe podium for his fourth time ensuring a return to the event next year as he surely has his eyes at Danny Kass's win record.
Words: Pat Bridges