Teenagers top slopestyle semifinals at Burton US Open on Wednesday in Vail
VAIL — While female snowboarders enjoyed a sun-lit slopestyle course on Wednesday, the first day of the Burton US Open Snowboard Championships, the skies quickly turned on the men, creating flat-light conditions.
Many of the top men struggled on the hard-to-see landings, leaving some familiar names — and past champions — out of the finals.
With four-time US Open champion Mark McMorris landing a clean run and yet failing to make finals, some covering the event suggested a changing of the guard might be underway in men’s slopestyle. As further evidence of the claim, the top qualifier for Friday’s finals will also be the youngest competitor in Friday’s finals. Dusty Henricksen, 17, also won the Youth Olympic Games earlier this season, a competition that allows only athletes 18 and younger.
“I’m in a dream right now,” Henricksen said after earning the top qualifying spot on Wednesday. “This is definitely a dream come true.”
Other teenagers to make finals on the men’s side include 18-year-old Judd Henkes, 18-year-old Hiroaki Kunitake and 19-year-old Red Gerard.
Gerard, who won the event last year, qualified ninth out of the 10 total male athletes to advance to Friday’s final. He said he was just happy to not be 10th, as that person has to take on the course first Friday. Gerard found himself in 10th before his final run Wednesday but managed to move up one spot by landing an unnatural, or switch, backside 1440, spinning blind in the most challenging of the four directions one can spin while negotiating both the takeoff and the landing in the switch stance.
“I was very fired up,” Gerard said of the trick. “That was the first one I’ve done that felt really good. I’m really hyped on landing that.”
Gasser qualifies second
On the women’s side, defending champion Zoi Sadowski-Synnott locked in her final drop position for Friday’s finals by topping the semifinals.
Anna Gasser, the 2017 champion, qualified in second position on the very first run of the competition.
“Dropping first is pretty nerve-wracking,” Gasser said. “So I was really nervous to drop in; I’m happy I put it down.”
Hailey Langland, who qualified in third, had a much different experience than Gasser. She was one of the final competitors to earn her qualifying spot in Friday’s finals. Langland said landing solidly off the last rail before heading into the jumps was the linchpin of her run.
“As soon as I knew I had that good, I knew the rest of the run was going to be right there,” she said.
What started as a 16-person field had been narrowed down to 13 women before the competition even started. Among those in the original 16 was 2018 Olympian Julia Marino, who pulled out after a few practice runs on Wednesday. Marino broke her wrist earlier this season and is still taking it easy.
“I’m just not really feeling too ready, yet, for this course,” Marino said Wednesday. “It’s just a little much for me.”
Wednesday’s semifinal event qualified six riders for Friday’s finals.
Abbreviated training, tough course
The slopestyle competitors said this year they received less training time than they would have preferred.
“The last few days it was a little challenging because of the weather,” Langland said. “But this is the best I’ve ever seen this US Open course: It’s completely new to everyone.”
The new course format provided quite a challenge, with two mandatory “side hits,” or quarterpipe-style transition features onto a straight landing.
“It’s bringing all those elements from the pipe,” Langland said. “It feels like doing a first hit in the pipe to a second hit. I think bringing that over into slope is really important, because we don’t ride pipe very often throughout the season, and it just separates everyone who can ride a little bit of halfpipe.”
Marino, 19, said that with both sides of the halfpipe-style walls being mandatory, the challenge to learn the course was daunting.
“Personally, I think I need to work a little bit more on transition features,” she said. “I could definitely use some work on that.”
The finals are scheduled to begin at 11 a.m. Friday at Golden Peak. Spectators can watch for free in person from the bottom of the venue or view the competition live at BurtonUSOpen.com.
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Puckett was a five-time Olympian and World Cup skier