Bleiler, Clark lead qualifying field at Copper | AspenTimes.com

Bleiler, Clark lead qualifying field at Copper

Bryce Evans
Summit County correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado

Mark Fox/Summit DailyGretchen Bleiler of Aspen, a member of the U.S. Snowboarding Team, was the top women's qualifier in the opening round of the U.S. Snowboarding Grand Prix at Copper Mountain Thursday. The event continues Friday with men's qualifying.

COPPER MOUNTAIN, Colo. – Normally, nerves are something heavily associated with the first competition of the season, especially when Olympic qualifying points are on the line.

For Copper rider Clair Bidez, who missed all but one event last season due to injury, it would seem safe to assume that her stomach would be churning a bit before her first run in the U.S. Snowboarding Grand Prix qualifying heat Thursday.

But, then again, it’s never safe to assume anything.

“I thought there would be (nerves), but I was pretty mellow today,” said the former Team Summit rider. “The pipe was so good and it was actually really nice out, good weather, and it felt like it was just a bunch of friends out there riding.”

That mentality may have been why Bidez, who was injured in last year’s Grand Prix finals at Copper, carved up a stellar first run to claim one of the eight spots in Saturday’s halfpipe finals.

“I got injured in the finals last year, and it would be great to redeem myself at the same event,” said Bidez, who’s now a member of the U.S. Snowboarding Team.

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Of the seven other spots in the finals, there weren’t too many surprises with Olympians Gretchen Bleiler of Aspen and Kelly Clark leading the way.

The real shocker of the day was who didn’t advance out of the heats. Australian Torah Bright, considered to be one of the best female riders in the world, was unable to lay down a clean run in either attempt and wound up being eliminated by just a couple points.

Also to be missing on Saturday is U.S. Olympian Hannah Teter, who withdrew from the competition at the last minute.

But there was still plenty of good riding between the two women’s heats.

In order to automatically qualify for the finals, a rider had to finish in the top three of their respective heat. The other two spots were given to the two remaining highest scores.

Neither Clark nor Bleiler had to wait long to find out if they were moving on.

As the last rider in the first heat, Clark laid down a run with huge amplitude, often getting six or seven feet out of the pipe. She earned a score of 45.7 for the run, which was easily tops in the first heat.

“The whole thing about qualifying is just making sure to make it to the finals,” Clark said. “You’re not putting as much risk in the run as you would in the finals.”

Bleiler, though, didn’t appear to be holding much back. Competing in the second heat, she set the tone for the rest of the women by hitting her signature trick, the crippler, on her first hit. The rest of the way down, Bleiler soared out of the pipe, landing each hit smoothly.

“That was my first qualifying run, so I was holding back in terms of the tricks I’m capable of doing but not holding back in terms of amplitude,” Bleiler said. “This year, I really want to push it on amplitude and make sure that everything’s big on both walls.”

She wound up with the highest score of the day at 47.1, yet Bleiler said she has more in store for Saturday.

“I’ve been working on some different tricks this summer,” she said. “So it’s just putting it all together with amplitude and style and grabbing it all the way around and having it be really smooth and perfect.”

The fourth-highest qualifier for Saturday was Steamboat Springs’ teenager Madeline Schaffrick. Only 15 years old, Schaffrick looks poised to repeat, if not better, her remarkable fourth-place finish from a year ago.

“It’s incredible, it’s great,” she said of making the finals in back-to-back years at Copper. “I’m very excited.”

Also moving on to the finals were Queralt Castellet of Spain, Holly Crawford of Australia, American Ellery Hollingsworth and Soko Yamaoka of Japan.

All the riders, from Bleiler to Bidez, are hoping for big things on Saturday. Bleiler said, with Copper being the first of five official Olympic team qualifying events, a win in the finals would go a long way.

“It’s always so important to start the season on a high note,” she said. “It’s important to me to ride my best this week.”

The Grand Prix continues Friday as the world’s best male riders will duke it out in the men’s qualifying heats starting at 9 a.m.

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