Maddie Mastro, Ayumu Hirano lead halfpipe qualifying at U.S. Open
VAIL — The halfpipe snowboarding season began with riders debuting a variety of never-before-seen tricks, and it looks like it will end that way, as well.
Halfpipe semifinals at the Burton U.S. Open Snowboarding Championships took place in Golden Peak on Thursday, determining who will take part in the last major competition of the 2017-18 season when finals arrive on Saturday. In the men’s event, a field of 32 was narrowed down to 10 riders, while the top six women advanced from their field of 17.
In an unexpected twist, American Chloe Kim did not take the top qualifying spot, as fellow California snowboarder Maddie Mastro landed an impressive run to earn the coveted last-to-drop spot in Saturday’s final. Mastro’s run was marked by massive amplitude, particularly on her opening salvo — a huge frontside 900 with a stylish indy grab.
On the men’s side, Ayumu Hirano, a Japanese snowboarder with roots in the Ski & Snowboard Club Vail program, took the top spot. Hirano is the two-time reigning Olympic silver medalist.
Idaho snowboarder Chase Josey finished in second after landing the difficult switch double Michalchuk that has become one of his trademarks, along with the switch double crippler. In both tricks the rider takes off and lands in their unnatural stance — known as “switch” — and both tricks contain two inverted aerials, known as “doubles.”
Josey said he learned the switch doubles over the course of the last few seasons but really started dialing them in this year.
“I get a lot of support from my teammates,” Josey said. “Those switch doubles, ever since I’ve been learning them, Gabe (Ferguson) and Jake (Pates) and Ben (Ferguson) have been so hyped for me. I’ve really enjoyed pushing the progression in that direction.”
Ben Ferguson also ended his run with a switch Michalchuk on Thursday, qualifying for finals in sixth place.
FEARING THE DECK
Coming off a hectic season with four Olympic qualifiers followed by the games and now the Burton U.S. Open, Ferguson was relieved to make it to Saturday’s final.
“I was stressing,” Ferguson said. “I didn’t really do any of the stuff I wanted to do until today’s practice, then finally landed some in the last run of practice and put it down.”
Several riders struggled with the halfpipe on Thursday; while the sun was out and conditions were good, fans saw a few of the riders crash hard against the top deck of the halfpipe where spectators gather.
“The halfpipe is actually a little under vert, so you gotta pop or you’re landing on the deck,” Ferguson said.
Chase Blackwell, after landing one of the biggest tricks of the day on the rider’s left wall of the pipe, said he was a little freaked out by the under vert on the right side.
“I fell pretty hard on a front double in practice, I decked pretty bad,” he said.
Before Blackwell dropped in, he watched two riders hit the top deck in front of him.
“Same spot,” Blackwell said. “So I was pretty scared of it in my run.”
Blackwell, who is 19 years old and calls Summit County home, finished 28th on the day.
Another Summit County rider who caught the attention of the rest of the field was Brett Esser, who didn’t make finals but landed a switch-backside 900.
The trick is similar to Josey’s and Ferguson’s switch double Michalchuk because the rider starts and finishes in the unnatural stance, but in the switch backside 900, the rider also spins to the blind side known as “backside.” One other rider landed a switch backside 900 in his run on Thursday — third-place finisher Scotty James.
“It’s an awkward trick, fundamentally,” James said. “From an early age, you don’t really learn to ride switch backside that much, so that’s why nowadays it’s so different and technical.”
Esser said his switch backside 900 was an homage to fellow Summit County rider Zach Black, who participated in the Burton U.S. Open in its first year in Vail and spun switch backside in that event.
“We grew up together and did all the contest and traveled around, so now that he has moved on to bigger and better things, I’m just trying to keep his spirit alive,” Esser said of Black.
The supreme version of the switch backside spin was another new trick for the 2017-18 season. Scotty James landed a switch backside doublecork 1260 — a switch double McTwist — in many of the big events this season including the Dew Tour, X Games and the Olympics.
“Scotty really stepped it up with the switch back 12,” Esser said.
James said he spent six months trying to learn the trick.
“I started last season,” he said. “I’ve been putting a lot of time into them, so it feels good to get it done. Zach Black and Bret Esser were the pioneers of the switch back, and Elijah Teter and Danny Davis did switch methods.”
On the women’s side, fifth-place finisher Jiayu Liu was landing switch backsides with the stylish method grab, otherwise known as the switch method. Chloe Kim has also incorporated a switch method into her run years ago at the Burton U.S. Open.
“There’s been people in the history books who have gone switch backside, and I’m glad to join in on that,” James said on Thursday.
PATES: ‘WE’RE GONNA SEND’
The other obvious jump in progression this season occurred with the doublecork 1440. Hirano had two versions of that trick in his silver medal run at the Olympics, neither of which he needed to take the top spot in Thursday’s semifinals.
The only doublecork 1440 attempted on Thursday was by California snowboarder Toby Miller. He couldn’t quite pull it off and finished 19th.
Miller is a bit of a historian on the doublecork 1440.
“I-pod (Iouri Podladtchikov) invented it switch, landing regular. Shaun (White) then learned it regular, landing switch. Ayumu (Hirano) was the second person ever to do it regular landing switch, and then I was the third person to land it,” Miller said.
In semifinals, we did not see the doublecork 1440 from Hirano or the switch doublecork 1260 from James, leaving much to look forward to in Saturday’s finals.
Local residents can also look forward to watching Jake Pates, the 19-year-old Eagle resident who competed in the Olympics this year. Pates qualified for finals in seventh place, and also did so without the use of a never-been-done trick which he unveiled this year, the backside doublecork 1260 with a tail grab. Ordinarily, a snowboarder grabs between the bindings on that trick.
Pates said now that the Olympics is over, the pressure is off.
“Everybody still has energy though, so we’re gonna send super hard,” he said of Saturday’s finals.
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Had Hailey Swirbul decided against going to Europe, she would not have finished with a career-best result in Friday’s World Cup opener. Yes, there was a time, and not long ago, when the U.S. ski team member and Roaring Fork Valley native questioned her desire to put on a race bib.