Crested Butte’s Blunck wins Copper Grand Prix; Sildaru women’s champ |

Crested Butte’s Blunck wins Copper Grand Prix; Sildaru women’s champ

Toyota U.S. Grand Prix at Copper Mountain Resort

Men’s freeski halfpipe podium

1. Aaron Blunck, USA 96.25

2. Miguel Porteous, NZ 93.75

3. David Wise, USA 90.50

Also... 8. Alex Ferreira, 61.00

Women’s freeski halfpipe podium

1. Kelly Sildaru, EST 93.00

2. Cassie Sharpe, CAN 90.50

3. Brita Sigourney, USA 88.00

COPPER MOUNTAIN — As Aaron Blunck chilled with teammates, family and friends at the corral at the bottom of the Copper Mountain Resort halfpipe on Friday, he expected a score in the 90s for his second of three runs. Maybe.

It was a new four-hit run for Blunck on the 550-foot-long Copper pipe that included a soaring right double-cork 1440 (two inversions, three-and-a-half rotations) with a tail grab that served as the exclamation point.

When a score of 96.25 flashed across the broadcast monitor at the Toyota U.S. Grand Prix, the assembled crowd let out a roar in unison at the surprise of Blunck’s massive score on a 100-point scale. It’s a mark that ultimately won him the first World Cup halfpipe event of the season.

Despite the statement victory to start this post-Olympic year, the talented Crested Butte big mountain skier said Friday “wasn’t really about the score.”

“I just wanted to go skiing and have fun,” Blunck said. “And that’s what I want to do all season. With fun comes good skiing.”

If there was anyone who had more fun on the Copper pipe on Friday than Blunck, it was the women’s halfpipe champion Kelly Sildaru of Estonia. What a bounce-back competition this was for the 16-year-old Sildaru, who missed all of last year’s Olympic process after she tore her ACL attempting a flare on a halfpipe last September.

Sildaru’s injury effectively removed one of the medal favorites for the 2018 Pyeongchang Games, at which Canadian star Cassie Sharpe won the halfpipe gold medal. But on Friday, it was Sildaru (93.00) who topped Sharpe (90.50) in what felt like a mano-a-mano showdown between the best women’s halfpipe freeskier of last season and the best one who had to watch the action from behind the snow fence.

To capture the victory, Sildaru strung together an expansive trick list that featured a left 900 with a tail grab, a right 900 with a mute grab, a left 540 with a mute grab, a left alley-oop 540 with a tail grab, a right alley-oop with a tail grab, a right 720 with a tail grab and a switch left 900 with a safety grab.

“She skied so clean,” said Steele Spence of Silverthorne, who judged both the men’s and women’s competitions. “And what her run has great is a lot of good variety, but very clean grabs. She grabs every trick, ends with the proper switch trick, multiple directions of spins. But getting those grabs every time and maintaining a consistent amplitude the whole run just checked off a lot of boxes on the criteria, for sure.”

Blunck’s Grand Prix championship run may have included three fewer hits than Sildaru’s, but it was rewarded as much — and then some — by Spence and the rest of the judges. To start the season, Blunck’s ability to execute four different kinds of tricks — switch (backward skiing) left, switch right, left and right — set him apart in the eyes of the judges, in general. And that concluding 1440 punctuated his performance.

“Starting off with a switch left (double-cork) 900, but linking back-to-back switch dubs right off the bat with that? Amazing,” Spence said of Blunck. “And ending with the dub 14(40), that’s a trick a handful of athletes can do, often times with (a) mute (grab). He did it with tail. You don’t see that very often.”

Blunk said he’s been working on the double-cork 1440 the past couple of seasons, but wasn’t able to implement it in his Olympic run last year due to several injury setbacks at various competitions.

That said, it’s certainly a new year for Blunck, as he begins the International Ski & Snowboard Federation World Cup season wearing the leader’s yellow bib alongside Sildaru. As for the versatile 16-year-old skiing virtuoso from Estonia, she has even bigger plans for 2018-19. After having to watch it all last year, she’s going to be in the thick of not only the top women’s freeski halfpipe action this season but, she hopes, slopestyle and big air, as well.

Following Friday’s competition at Copper Mountain, with U.S. third-place finisher Brita Sigourney (88.00) and Sildaru’s top rival Sharpe seated next to the smiling Estonian, Sildaru seemed like a force to be reckoned with — whether in halfpipe, slopestyle or big air.

“She’ll be winning them all, too,” Sharpe said.

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