BRECKENRIDGE – U.S. Snowboarding freestyle head coach Bud Keene understands how different his role becomes in an Olympic year: Whereas most of the time he focuses strictly on the national team’s riders, this year he must look out for all of America’s top guns.”One of the beauties of our qualification system in the U.S. – which is actually unique throughout the world – is that whether you’re on the team or not, when we go to have our Olympic qualifiers, everyone’s invited, everyone’s in,” Keene said. “It’s important to keep it that way because it’s truer to the roots of snowboarding – plus, it assures that we’re going to have the best U.S. riders, period, at the Olympics. And we don’t care who those people are – we just want the best.”Each rider’s two best results on the Chevy Trucks U.S. Snowboard Grand Prix tour, which kicks off with two superpipe events at Breckenridge this week and includes three subsequent pipe competitions later in the season, at Mount Bachelor (Ore.) and Mountain Creek Resort (N.J.), will determine who will fill the four spots on the Olympic team.Going into this week’s events, Keene said he had told all potential U.S. Olympians the same, regardless of their national team affiliation (or lack thereof). But that doesn’t mean he hasn’t considered which ones he’s more likely to coach in Turin, Italy, site of the 2006 Olympics.Asked to list which riders he pegs as the favorites on both the men’s and women’s sides, Keene ducked away from a crowd of athletes and got serious.Addressing the men first, Keene said, “There’s no doubt Shaun White is riding really, really, really well. Unbelievably well. That would probably be the safest prediction about one person that will make the team.”Danny [Kass] is also riding incredibly well. I think most people probably expect those two guys to do well in the [qualifying] process.”Neither Kass nor White is a member of the U.S. team, though Kass did win the silver medal at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City.”After that,” Keene continued, “there are so many.”The coach noted Breckenridge’s Steve Fisher is a “front-runner” to win a spot, and named Andy Finch, Keir Dillon and defending gold medalist Ross Powers as contenders.”All of these guys on any given day can end up one on top of the other,” Keene said, reiterating, “I’d say that Shaun and Danny, most people expect them to win a spot on the team, but the other two spots, there are probably six or eight guys who can potentially do it.”On the women’s side, Keene said, “It’s a little bit easier to predict, I think – although not necessarily.”He said the favorites, in his eyes, are Gretchen Bleiler, Hannah Teter and defending gold medalist Kelly Clark.”The expectation is that the three of them will make the team,” he said. “And the other spot will be battled out for with Elena [Hight], Trish [Byrnes] and Lindsey [Jacobellis].”Jacobellis, also an Olympic medal favorite in boardercross, was last year’s overall Grand Prix pipe champ, winning two of the three contests. She finished 11th at Breckenridge before topping the podium at Mount Bachelor and Mountain Creek.As for what it will take to land on the Olympic roster, Keene said it’s hard to say.”For sure, if you win two contests, you’re going,” he said. “If you get a first and a second, you’re probably going. And then if there’s any ties we’ll go to the third result and so on.”
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In the 50-mile race, three-time Olympian and Aspen bred Simi Hamilton bombed down Fanny Hill to capture the overall men’s title. Hamilton, who retired from professional cross-country skiing earlier this year, completed the race in a time of 4 hours, 17 minutes, 19 seconds. Nicole Tittensor, from Axtell, Utah, was the first woman to finish the 50-mile race.