Gerard second in Grand Prix to lead US in first Olympic team slopestyle qualifier
Reigning Olympic gold medalist Red Gerard is that much closer to getting the chance to defend his title.
The Summit County rider was the top American finisher Saturday in the men’s snowboard slopestyle final at the U.S. Grand Prix and World Cup at Buttermilk Ski Area in Aspen, which served as the first official U.S. team qualifier ahead of the 2022 Winter Games in China.
“Trying to not get my head that far ahead,” Gerard said. “Just take it contest by contest and look at the bright sides and all that. It is cool, though.”
Gerard, 20, hasn’t exactly racked up that many podiums since winning slopestyle gold at the 2018 Olympics, but he looks like a surefire contender going forward as the selection process ramps up. He finished one off the slopestyle podium last week at the world championships in Aspen, but his Grand Prix podium puts him in the driver’s seat for the 2022 U.S. Olympic team, which has a heavy emphasis on making podiums in the four or five qualifiers leading up to the Games.
“With everything that’s been going on this season, just to get a few contests in is unreal and the weather we had, the two days of this contest, was really pretty insane,” Gerard said. “It’s really fun when we get to do a contest and we don’t have to deal with snow and all these different variables. It was really fun. To get a podium and an early start going into next season is really cool.”
While the wind did play a small factor in Saturday’s contest, the weather was otherwise ideal, just as it was during Friday’s qualifier. Gerard scored 82.16 on the first of his three runs in finals — the only legit score he posted — to finish second behind Marcus Kleveland. The Norwegian scored 87.58 on his first run, enough to hold off Gerard and Canada’s Mark McMorris, who finished third with 81.90 scored on his first run.
“The qualification process is easily the most stressed out part. You have 60 riders cut down to six in each heat, and once you make finals it’s a little bit of a stress reliever,” Gerard said. “Marcus Kleveland has officially blown my mind with how good he is at snowboarding. And Mark McMorris is a very close second in my mind being blown. To share a podium with those two is unreal.”
The 21-year-old Kleveland has arguably established himself as the world’s best this winter, winning the Grand Prix barely a week after also winning the world championship in slopestyle. He’s also a four-time X Games medalist, including his win in January’s epic big air contest at Buttermilk. He was only fifth in slopestyle at X Games this year, an event he won in both 2017 and 2018 before sitting out 2019 with injury.
“It feels nice,” Kleveland said. “It’s been a pleasure being back in Aspen. I always feel like Aspen is one of the best places to ride. Couldn’t be more happy to be going back to Europe with three medals. Just a good vibe, for sure.”
Finishing fourth on Saturday was Canada’s Max Parrot, who scored 81.18 on his first run. Parrot won silver and McMorris bronze behind Gerard’s slopestyle gold at the 2018 Winter Olympics, while Kleveland finished sixth that year.
Just off the podium Saturday in fifth was California’s breakout star in Dusty Henricksen (79.80), who has certainly put himself into contention for the U.S. Olympic team. Finland’s Rene Rinnekangas was sixth (78.08), Canada’s Liam Brearley was seventh (77.98) and Russia’s Vlad Khadarin was eighth (70.28).
In ninth was California’s Judd Henkes (64.80), putting him third among the Americans. The 19-year-old took quite the tumble on the final jump of his final run and took out a few feet of side netting at the bottom of the course, but was able to walk away relatively unscathed.
Rounding out Saturday’s finishers were Japan’s Hiroaki Kunitake (10th, 52.06) and Switzerland’s Moritz Thoenen (11th, 47.81). Norway’s Markus Olimstad was the 12th qualifier but did not start the final.
“It feels great. The wind was definitely playing a factor, but luckily the light was amazing and the course-shapers did a great job of keeping the lips in good conditions,” McMorris said. “Lucky enough my first run held up and I was able to stand on the podium. Feeling lucky and grateful.”
The World Cup snowboard slopestyle season still has one contest to go, next week’s event in Silvaplana, Switzerland. Kleveland committed to competing, but Gerard said Saturday he wasn’t sure if he’d go or not. The Swiss contest is not a direct Olympic qualifier for the U.S. team.
Broadcaster Jim Williams of KSPN and KNFO is leaving the valley after eight years of serving as the voice of Aspen, Basalt and Roaring Fork high school’s sports.