words: Mary Walsh
photos: Ryan “Huggy” Hughes

The first Grand Prix of the 2013-14 season touched down at Copper Mountain in Colorado this past week, a fitting location as Copper was the first resort to provide its constituency with a superpipe this winter. Since the pristine-cut pipe opened the weekend after Thanksgiving, its walls have seen many of the best transition riders in the world preparing for the upcoming barrage of contests. Adding another level of competition for the Americans this weekend, the Copper Mountain Grand Prix is the second Olympic Qualifier for the US Snowboarding Team, following hot on the heels of last weekend’s Dew Tour at Breckenridge.

On Saturday night, December 21, 2013, also notably the Winter Solstice, the 22-foot walls of the Grand Prix pipe were lit up and flanked by an excited crowd. Sixteen men and eight women waited in the tent at the top of the pipe, ready to drop in for Halfpipe Finals. The best of two run format alternated between women and men and as the temperature dropped and light snow fell, the road to Sochi got just a little bit shorter.

The Men’s Finals included past US Olympic Team members Scotty Lago and Greg Bretz, but absent from the line up was Shaun White, who decided to forgo the halfpipe competition in order to prepare for Sunday’s Slopestyle Finals in attempt to receive the necessary points for that event’s Olympic qualification. The 2013 Grand Prix at Copper is the only Grand Prix that is also a World Cup event. There is a delicate balance of FIS sanctioned events in which Olympic hopefuls must compete and the World Cup throws an additional item into the requirements. In order to be eligible for an Olympic Team, riders must place within the top 36 (for men) and top 24 (for women) in at least one World Cup.

Men’s Finals started off without hesitation. Steamboat Springs, Colorado’s Taylor Gold dropped first and set the pace for the rest of the evening; there would be no safety runs at Copper. A run that included a big back five to frontside twelve and two doublecork tens kept Taylor in the top position from start to finish.

Crowd-favorite Danny Davis has returned to the Olympic qualifying process after injuries sidelined him four years ago and his focused, yet loose style was a welcome addition to Saturday night’s contest. Throwing perfect chicken wing McTwists on the first hit of both his runs, Danny got the crowd roaring. His first attempt also included two ten variations and ended on a sick switch straight air, but unfortunately he wasn’t able to land the trick. Fellow Frend, Scotty Lago also struggled uncharacteristically with landings on both his attempts. Louie Vito put down what was one of the most technical runs of the night, which included a double crippler and two double cork tens, but he scratched the landing of a twelve on his last hit and remained out of the top ten. Ayumu Hirano, whose ability to rocket into the sky above the pipe has made him a favorite, rode well, but finished out of the running as well.

Bend, Oregon’s Ben Ferguson is a newer face in this prestigious field, though no stranger in the snowboarding community. He rode like a halfpipe veteran in the finals with a run that included a crippler to backside 9, frontside seven, and a doublecork ten. Ferguson is blazing a path that could lead him straight to Sochi as he finished in third place.

As the competition came to a close, it looked like a US sweep of the top three with only two riders to go, Arthur Longo and Greg Bretz. Longo dropped in and linked a front and back nine and an alley-oop switch back five to put the pressure on by taking second and bumping the Mammoth-based Bretz into fourth. But, Bretz wasn’t about to let a shot at a two-weekend peat go easily and closed out the evening with back-to-back doublecork tens, back-to-back nines, and a frontside ten. He squeezed .75 points ahead of Ben Ferguson to earn second place and Longo took fourth.

The eight women competing in finals also shone brightly under the Copper night skies. Sophie Rodriguez from Grenoble, France landed a strong run early in Women’s Finals, stomping a back nine, back five, and cab seven, eventually finishing the contest in fourth place. Elena Hight boosted nines on the first hit of both of her runs and exhibited her characteristic controlled style, but wasn’t able to get the footing to claim a podium position.

The American women, like their male counterparts, dominated the contest. Arielle Gold has quickly solidified herself as a force to be reckoned with on the women’s circuit and once again tonight she delivered fodder deserving of this recognition. Gold came out hot on her first run, combining respectable amplitude with a line of tricks that included a frontside nine, backside five, frontside seven, and backside seven. She moved into first place and wouldn’t drop below the top three the rest of the contest, eventually settling in second.

Gretchen Bleiler’s second run, consisting of her signature crippler, backside five, two straight airs, and a frontside seven to cab seven sent the Aspen, Colorado local into third place.

Kelly Clark, who, after three Olympic appearances since 2002 still remains at the top of the field in the literal sense with her consistent, enormous overhead airs, and also with a bag of tricks that she throws with both ease and finesse, dropped last in the heat. Her first run sent her into the top spot with a huge straight air, backside five, frontside seven, cab seven, and a crippler. This is of course a position not unfamiliar to Clark and she remained there until the final run of the night, when she indulged in a victory lap that bested her first go. Including a clean frontside ten, Clark’s second attempt was rewarded with a 98 from the judges, a score nearing perfection. This clenched a second all-American podium at the 2013 Copper Grand Prix.

RESULTS:

Men’s Halfpipe Finals
First – Taylor Gold
Second  – Greg Bretz
Third – Ben Ferguson

Women’s Halfpipe Finals
First – Kelly Clark
Second – Arielle Gold
Third – Gretchen Bleiler

Men’s US Snowboarding Halfpipe Team Standings:
NAME                    Dew Tour       Copper           CURRENT TOTAL
Greg Bretz           1000               800                 1800
Taylor Gold         600                 1000               1600
Ben Ferguson     400                 600                 1000
Louie Vito            500                 400                 900
Benji Farrow       360                 500                 860
Danny Davis        450                 360                 810
Shaun White      800                 0                      800
Scotty Lago          320                 450                 770
Zack Black           290                 260                 550
Chase Josey         200                 320                 520

Women’s US Snowboarding Halfpipe Team Standings:
NAME                               Dew Tour       Copper           CURRENT TOTAL
Kelly Clark                     1000               1000               2000
Arielle Gold                    600                 800                 1400
Gretchen Bleiler             400                 600                 1000
Kaitlyn Farrington         450                 500                 950
Elena Hight                     400                 450                 850
Chloe Kim (not eligible) 800                 0                      800
Ellery Hollingsworth      360                 400                 760
Madeline Schaffrick       320                 400                 720
Hannah Teter                  260                 360                 620
Kelly Berger                    240                 290                 530
Summer Fenton            180                 260                 440