Aspen’s Bleiler second in opening Grand Prix |

Aspen’s Bleiler second in opening Grand Prix

Bryce Evans
Summit County correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado

COPPER MOUNTAIN, Colo. – Kelly Clark said she has her sights on the bigger picture. After winning the season-opening U.S. Snowboarding Grand Prix at Copper Mountain on Saturday, the former Olympic gold medalist was already looking ahead.

“Everything for me this season is leading up to Vancouver, and everything before it, I’m using as practice for it,” Clark said.

Regardless, the Vermont rider certainly put on a good show for those lining the sides of the Copper superpipe for the women’s finals.

On her first run, Clark started by launching a huge frontside straight air that led to a backside 540, a frontside 900 and front and cab 720s. It added up to a score of 44.5 from the judges and the top spot on the podium.

“I was really happy with my first run,” she said. “I’m just pushing myself to do my most technically difficult run, right now, so that it becomes a lot easier for me, like second nature. … This is a good starting point.”

And it amounted to a fairly easy win for the veteran rider, as most women had trouble landing clean runs in Saturday’s finals.

Aspen’s Gretchen Bleiler, after falling on the second hit of her first run, was the last rider to have a chance to top Clark. She connected a solid series of hits, including her signature crippler, but ultimately finished second with a 42.5. Bleiler was the silver medalist in women’s pipe at the Turin Olympics,

Despite being one of the most experienced riders in the field, Bleiler said the nerves of the competition simply got to her.

“You’d think after doing this for 10 years, it’d get easier,” she said. “But for me, the nerves never get easier. I just need to learn how to deal with them better. I’m just building off this.”

The added pressure seemed to be the theme of the week for the world’s top riders, as Copper’s Grand Prix marked the first official Olympic qualifying event for the U.S. Only four American women will wind up going to Vancouver, and the five Grand Prix stops are the determining factor.

Even though there were a few international women who made their mark at Copper – Japan’s Soko Yamaoka was third and Quera Castellet of Spain was fourth – the main focus was on how the top Americans fared.

Vermont’s Ellery Hollingsworth finished fifth overall and third among U.S. riders, and Steamboat Springs 15-year-old Madeline Schaffrick was next.

For Schaffrick, the idea of representing the U.S. in Vancouver is too much to think about right now, but she said she’ll reevaluate her expectations for the year after such a strong start to the season.

“I might have a little higher expectations, because I know that I can do this well,” she said. “But I’m not going to lose the fun of it.”

And Schaffrick doesn’t think the pressure of the final four competitions will get to her.

“It’s going to be incredible,” she said. “It just means that these upcoming Grand Prix will be so much more fun.”

Struggling a bit on the day was Copper’s Clair Bidez. After missing the majority of last season because of an injury sustained at Copper a year ago, Bidez finished eighth.

From here, most of the women will compete in this week’s Dew Tour stop at Breckenridge. The next chance to earn Olympic qualifying points will be Jan. 4-10 at Mammoth Mountain, Calif., where there will be two pipe contests.

Clark is already eyeing her next chance to secure her spot.

“I feel stronger and more motivated than ever, and, at this point in the season, I feel like I’m riding as well as I ever have,” she said. “It was a great result [Saturday], but I’ve got four more qualifiers. … This was what I was looking to do, and it’s a great start for me.”

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