Photos by Nate Abbott. Click above to view full screen and captions.
It’s been a long time coming for freeskiing to make its halfpipe debut at the Olympic Winter Games. Years of lobbying ultimately led to an announcement, on April 6, 2011, that the pipe event would be added to the Olympic roster. World Cups and other AFP sanctioned contests drew big attention from there on out, as the points race suddenly had tremendous meaning. Questions ran rampant: “Is freeskiing’s inclusion in the Olympics good for the sport?” More recently, a tour of Olympic qualifying competitions took place on U.S. soil; in a six week stretch, beginning in December, skiers competed in five contests between Breckenridge and Copper, CO, and Park City, UT. The times were trying, indeed. Then, Olympic teams were announced. And finally, we arrived in Sochi.
Slopestyle stole the show early on, and meanwhile the halfpipe clan waited. And we waited. When the day eventually came—following two straight weeks of sun and springlike conditions—it was cold and rainy. Through the morning and early afternoon, we waited. Then, practice. Next, a qualifier. Twenty eight were cut to 12. The finals were upon us. The finals came and went. And now, hours after the big show came to a close, it’s strange to think the podium spots were finally clinched. But it happened. It’s history. Freeskiing just inked another massive stamp on the 2014 Games.
In third tonight, Frenchman Kevin Rolland. In second, Canadian Mike Riddle. And taking the gold was none other than Reno, Nevada’s own David Wise.
Riddle, Wise, Rolland. Photo by Nate Abbott.
As mentioned previously, it was a rather dismal day here at Rosa Khutor. It was wet. Very, very wet. From the get go, there were concerns about the condition of the halfpipe. And the pipe suffered, without question. Nevertheless, the show went on. Between the practice, qualifier and final, we saw full fledged rain, snow, heavy fog, and the occasional clear patch, too. Quite the mix.
In a quick recap of the events:
The United States’ own Aaron Blunck was the first to drop in for a qualifying run; the start order is determined by random draw. While dropping first is never desirable, as judges tend to score the first run low, Blunck became the first-ever skier to complete a judged halfpipe run at the Games.
Blunck, after taking both of his runs, sat in 12th position with a score of 72.00. The bubble spot. He watched as 27 other skiers dropped in, many of them capable of bumping him from finals. Yet, Blunck survived. Just barely.
Torin Yater-Wallace went down on his first run, on his first hit. Come run number two, the Aspen, CO native put together an outstanding performance, but wasn’t quite able to hang on to his final stunt: a right 10. He was ever so close—riding away switch, tucked low to the ground, hanging on, hanging on… he finally touched his butt to the ground. A tough break for skiing’s wild child. For a long time to come, folks will continue to ask, “What if?”
Among many other ups and downs in the qualifier, Lyman Currier decked out on his first run, on his first hit: a switch left 7. On his second go-round, Currier landed backseat on a double cork 12, suffering an apparent knee injury. And thus, two of the U.S. hopefuls were out of the running.
Advancing to the final, in order of score: Justin Dorey, David Wise, Benoit Valentin, Kevin Rolland, Jossi Wells, Mike Riddle, Noah Bowman, Lyndon Sheehan, AJ Kemppainen, Beau-James Wells, Thomas Krief and bubble boy Aaron Blunck.
The snow continued to come down, with periods of fog and rain intermixed. Despite the unpleasant weather, an impressive crowd showed up at the HAM center (halfpipe, aerials, moguls) to soak in freeskiing’s Olympic debut. There was no shortage of umbrellas and ponchos.
Blunck finished in the seventh place spot. Following the contest, he recalled the anxious feeling of sitting on the bubble during the qualifier; that sound bite is here.
In sixth, Beau-James Wells. Following in the footsteps of his older brothers, Byron (who was forced to withdraw from Olympic competition on account of injury) and Jossi, Beau-James skis with style and grace.
Canadian Noah Bowman finished fifth. In speaking with him following the contest, he expressed frustration at having not stepped up to a more technical run.
Jossi Wells, who sat in the third place spot for an extended period, was finally bumped from the podium by Riddle, late in the game. The Kiwi was disappointed to have missed out on the medals, but he kindly recounted his experience at the Games for us; the sound bite is available here.
Dorey, the top qualifier heading into finals, was unable to put a run to his feet. A class act, though, Dorey said of his fellow teammate, Riddle, “I’m proud of that guy. He deserves it. He’s been working harder than I’ve ever seen him work, and skiing better than I’ve ever seen him ski.”
Speaking of Riddle, that brings us to top three. We’ll start, though, with Mr. David Wise:
After recently securing back-to-back-to-back gold in the superpipe at X Games Aspen, in addition to bagging a slew of first place finishes over course of the past few years, Wise was arguably the stand-out favorite to top the podium here in Sochi. He delivered, bringing the gold home for the Red, White and Blue.
Wise’s winning run—his first of two runs in the final—consisted of a right 9, left dub 12, right 7, switch 7 and a right dub 12 to close. Not quite up to par in regards to his standards for a top-notch run, but given the conditions tonight, Wise was thrilled to have overcome adversity.
“I’m still trying to believe this whole, crazy thing,” he said following the contest. “Conditions tonight weren’t optimal, but we had a good field of riders and I’m really stoked to see how everyone came out and threw down. It’s always rough when the conditions aren’t perfect, and you don’t get to do the run you were hoping to do. I’ve had a Sochi run on my mind for a long time that I really wanted to throw down tonight, but you’ll just have to wait until next year to see that one… But to fight through the conditions, I’m really proud of freeskiing tonight.”
Of course, the central issue: the pipe was slow on account of the wet snow. The new snowfall also hampered the event organizers’ abilities to maintain a clean, clear pipe. An army of slippers would take to the U-ditch every handful of runs, which certainly helped, but the going was tough and the athletes were forced to adapt.
“Conditions didn’t allow me to do the best run I wanted to do,” said Wise, “but to do both double cork 12s given the speed issues, it was a huge accomplishment. This was my ‘C run.’ I was changing my tricks from moment to moment during practice as the conditions were always changing. Being adaptable was a big advantage.”
Earlier in the season, we saw Wise regularly open his run with the challenging switch right 9, linked with a switch double. Tonight: not in the cards. Wise also told us following the event that he had a few new tricks in his bag. For now, they stay put. “I had to do the best I could given the conditions,” he explained.
The added pressure of being a frontrunner to win gold weighed on Wise, as well.
“I’ve been watching a lot of favorites lose in this Olympics, so being part of the whole Olympic experience and seeing how much pressure it can be, regardless of conditions or how you’re feeling that day, it’s sobering, to say the least.”
But Wise has demonstrated superior consistency and confidence through the years, and almost always manages to put his run down, no matter the stress. For any athlete, it’s an admirable trait. Tonight, the thrill of competing, overcoming the challenges set before him, and earning a win, left the man in awe.
“I just feel honored to be a part of this sport, to stand atop the podium is amazing. One thing I’ve always said about the Olympics, is that it’s sort of the culmination of your whole life. You don’t go out there and just represent yourself, you know? You represent everyone who believed in you along the way. For me, teachers, trainers, coaches, sponsors, everybody who thought you had a chance of doing great at something, they’re all sort of in the halfpipe with you. So, to have some of those people in my life that have been majorly influential, my family in particular, here in Sochi cheering me on, it’s amazing.”
Wise also said, “I’ve been skiing since I was three years old, it really sort of defines who I am, it’s something I truly love. Contest skiing is just a way of getting our sport in front of the masses, so, here on the world stage in the Olympics, representing this sport that I think is so cool, so fun and so exciting… I just hope that we’ve inspired some of the younger generation to get into it.”
Click to listen: Wise addresses a media scrum, post win.
Tonight’s silver medalist, Riddle, also spoke to the field’s ability to tackle the less than optimal conditions.
“Given the circumstances, I think we did a pretty good job of putting on a good show and hopefully everyone enjoyed it,” Riddle said. “I’m just really excited to see what happens with the sport in the future, and where it goes, with everything from X Games to World Cup events, to the 2018 Olympics.”
Riddle’s run consisted of a left side double cork 12, right side double cork 12, left 9, alley-oop flat 3 and a switch 7, to close. While we’d typically see a switch 9 out of Riddle, linked to another hit, he put more emphasis on traveling down the pipe tonight, with each air, to keep his speed up. ‘Twas a tactical game this evening.
Not to be discounted: this was the first time that we’ve seen Riddle link the back-to-back double cork 12s. He admitted later, he was planning to incorporate a switch double into his run, but with two minutes left in the afternoon’s training session, he opted to mix things up, stomping the right double cork 12, thereby gaining the confidence to change up his contest run.
“I had more in the arsenal that I wanted to bring out, but conditions made it impossible,” he said. “Snow, rain, back to snow, it was tough to maintain speed. But finals came around and a bunch of guys put down great runs. I managed to put together some trick combinations I haven’t done before. Not many people knew I had the [back-to-back double corks].”
The ability to alter a run in response to the current setting is one that sets the greats apart. The 27-year-old veteran, Riddle, explained, “I’m one of the older ones, knowing what to do when the weather is bad, and when to hold back and when to send it is an advantage in the conditions like this.”
One reporter asked Riddle if he felt too old.
“Looking at other sports, many athletes hit their prime in the late 20s and early 30s, and I think the only reason that hasn’t happened in our sport yet is because it hasn’t been around long enough. As long as I stay healthy, I have a couple of good years left in me, hopefully I’ll even be around for the next Olympics.”
And speaking to the gravity of his performance, Riddle explained: “[This day] has been a long time coming. We’ve had to jump through a lot of hoops to get here, and to have it come to fruition, to be at the Games and bring home a medal for Canada, it’s unbelievable, it hasn’t sunk in yet. I’m totally overwhelmed by the experience. I’m having so much fun right now.”
In regards to those hoops, and the hard work that has elevated the sport of freeskiing to this level, we’d be remiss not to mention Sarah Burke. While young Dara Howell spoke to Burke’s influence after topping the women’s slopestyle contest earlier this week, it was now Riddle’s turn to honor the late, great ambassador.
“These are Sarah’s Olympics, for sure,” Riddle said. “She pushed so hard for our sport to be here and without her, neither pipe nor slope would be where they are today. She’s on my mind and in my heart this whole time, I’ve been thinking about her a lot. I’m so stoked to bring a medal home for Canada, and I know she’d be proud, but it’s tough not to have her here. I miss her.”
Riddle, en route to silver. Photo by Nate Abbott.
Third place finisher Kevin Rolland brought a run that went as follows: double 10, switch right 7, double cork 12, alley-oop flat 3, switch 7. The Frenchman has maintained a fierce competitive nature over the past few years, and his efforts were rewarded tonight.
“The conditions tonight were really tough, so it was not easy for me because I’m not a good rider when it’s slow,” said Kevin in a press conference, post final. “I finished on the podium though, it feels so great, even though, for sure, my goal was to win.”
But it was Wise’s night.
We spoke with Ben Verge, one of the halfpipe coaches with the U.S. Freeskiing team, who broke down Wise’s will to win.
“Tonight was an especially hard fought gold medal,” said Verge. “Conditions were tough, it definitely showed David’s ability and how hard he’s worked and how hard he’s willing to work to win that gold.”
Verge continued, “David is methodical and calculated. David had a goal. He’s always had a goal, and he really loves [this], competition and skiing in general—it’s something he really enjoys. David has a work ethic that is above and beyond, and his talent is above and beyond. All those things together play a part in his winning a gold medal tonight.”
Verge also spoke to the disappointment of seeing the younger Americans, the so called “teenage triple threat,” miss out on the podium, or at the very least, a better result.
“[Yater-Wallace] is absolutely one of the best skiers in the world,” he explained. “He’s worked so hard, and he’s had the cards stacked against him this year… He was hurt early on, and he’s been off skis for almost two months before the Olympics. He gave it is all tonight, but the dice rolled against him. It’s a bummer. But he’s so young, he’s got more Olympics ahead of him. His combination of drive and unique style, he’s a skier that’s great for freeskiing. Everybody loves the way Torin skis. We’re looking forward to working with him in the years to come.”
Verge said of Currier, “He’s also young, and showed tremendous improvement this year. We’re so proud of all that he accomplished this season. He’s one of my favorite pipe skiers, I love the way he skis.”
In regards to Blunck, Verge told us, “He’s the toughest, most unbelievably driven, coolest kid. He kind of hurt himself a few days ago. His shins are out of control right now, he can barely walk. He’s a clutch skier, capable of a lot of things, and at just 17, we expect huge things from him.”
Speaking to the trio as whole, Verge explained, “This young group of guys will help to shape the future of halfpipe skiing.”
Which brings us to our last point: how fitting that the United States, Canada and France should all be represented on this podium? These three nations have long been regarded as the powerhouses of halfpipe skiing. With access to outstanding halfpipe venues, coaching, and grassroots programs, we’ve seen young skiers representing these three countries grow to become the biggest, baddest names in the sport. Names like Dumont, Hall, Johnson, Thovex, they helped to pave the way for the likes of Wise, Riddle, Rolland. And today, a new generation is working to stake its claim.
Relative youngsters like Yater-Wallace, Currier and Blunck represent only a piece of the crop; the crop of just one nation. We can only hope that freeskiing’s Olympic debut will spur others to strive for similar success; to commit time and energy into growing ski programs for the youth.
Above, we quoted Wise as saying, “I just hope that we’ve inspired some of the younger generation to get into it.”
In the finish corral, following the contest, Riddle told a group of reporters, “I remember well watching [Olympic heroes] like Jean-Luc Brassard and Jonny Moseley. It’d be awesome, and weird, if kids look up to me [the same way].”
Weird, only because Riddle is so humble. Awesome, because it’s freeskiing’s new reality.
2014 Olympic Winter Games, men’s halfpipe results:
1. David Wise (USA) 92.00
2. Mike Riddle (CAN) 90.60
3. Kevin Rolland (FRA) 88.60
4. Jossi Wells (NZL) 85.60
5. Noah Bowman (CAN) 82.60
6. Beau-James Wells (NZL) 80.00
7. Aaron Blunck (USA) 79.40
8. AJ Kemppainen (FIN) 78.20
9. Lyndon Sheehan (NZL) 72.60
10. Benoit Valentin (FRA) 61.00
11. Thomas Krief (FRA) 28.60
12. Justin Dorey (CAN) 24.00
Stay tuned for coverage of the women’s halfpipe final, taking place Thursday, February 20.
Enjoy more Olympic coverage; visit freeskier.com/olympics.