Gretchen Bleiler takes 2nd at Copper Grand Prix |

Gretchen Bleiler takes 2nd at Copper Grand Prix

COPPER MOUNTAIN, Colo. – The first of five steps in forging what is expected to be a dominant United States Olympic halfpipe team concluded Saturday, and some key questions have already been answered.

Yes, “Dancing with the Stars” can be good for snowboarding. Yes, the new-fangled double-cork trick will separate top riders from the pack. And, yes, Shaun White and Kelly Clark are probably the two best halfpipe riders on the planet.

Mostly, though, the United States Snowboarding Grand Prix showed that half of the team’s slots appear to be filled.

White and Louie Vito, fresh from a turn as a contestant on “Dancing With the Stars,” a popular television show, took first and second, landing runs that created new standards for the rest of the world’s riders to chase. Each said afterward that he held back some tougher stunts, a warning to the rest of the field.

Among women, Clark and Gretchen Bleiler finished 1-2, and the old friends and former Olympic medalists look prepared to spend the rest of the winter elbowing each other off the top of more podiums.

“The best riders always shine on days like this,” said Mike Jankowski, the American halfpipe coach. “That’s why they’re the best.”

The contest was the first of five that will determine which riders, probably four men and four women, make the American halfpipe team for February’s Olympics in Vancouver. The next two events take place in early January at California’s Mammoth Mountain. The final two events will be held in Park City, Utah, on back-to-back days two weeks later. Riders will qualify for the team on the basis of their two best finishes.

In getting head starts to Vancouver, White, Vito, Clark and Bleiler left behind a scrambled mess.

On the men’s side, about 10 riders arrived this weekend with realistic hopes of making the Olympic team. Zack Black was not one of them. Yet Black, an 18-year-old from nearby Breckenridge, Colo., carried a technical, clean but corkless ride to third place. A member of U.S. Snowboarding’s rookie team, he simply wanted to make the 16-man finals, and left with a smile as wide as Interstate 70.

Asked if the result was a game changer, he laughed. “It’s a day maker,” he said.

The tougher trick will be duplicating the feat, especially as a slew of better-known riders head to January with newfound desperation. Danny Davis has been completing the season’s must-have trick, back-to-back double corks (consecutive twisting double back flips, essentially), and was widely considered one of the top four Americans entering the season. He was among many who could not stay on his feet Saturday, and he finished 13th. Kevin Pearce, one of the best in the world last year, did not qualify for the finals and watched from the bottom of the pipe.

He and everyone else saw the former Olympic medalist J. J. Thomas finish fifth and the up-and-comer Greg Bretz finish sixth. Those were nice results, but probably not the type to lead to Vancouver.

Riders were affected by light snow, flat light and bundled nerves, all of which combined to knock an inordinate number of riders off their feet. At one point in the men’s final, only 3 of 13 riders had reached the bottom of the pipe unscathed.

White, the red-maned icon with impeccable balance, admitted to being anxious as the event approached. The defending Olympic gold medalist, White is widely expected to win another, an all-or-nothing tension that has been building for a year or two.

“The thing I’m most proud of with my riding today was I didn’t let my head get in the way,” said White, who popped a pair of double corks on the first of his two runs to earn the winning score, 47.0. “Events like this, you see some of the greatest riders kind of freak out over something they know how to do.”

He says he plans to spend the holiday season mostly at home in California and will not compete again until the qualifying event at Mammoth Mountain.

Vito, too, admitted to some nerves. He fell on a tough trick at the end of an otherwise stellar first run, which opened with back-to-back double corks. That put pressure on him to record a top score on his second try. He did, scoring 45.6.

Vito’s fairly successful spin on “Dancing With the Stars” this fall gave him more than just extra recognition with the older fans.

“It really helped with my nerves, you know, because you’re doing something that you’re not confident with,” Vito said. “You have really not that much self-esteem dancing in front of 22 million viewers every week, and that live audience. When you get up to the top of the pipe, you’re like, O.K., I know how to do this, I know what I’m doing, I’ve done it some many times before. Why are you nervous? Oh, I’m not nervous. O.K., go.”

Clark, best known for her amplitude, or ability to soar, led the women’s field with a highly technical first run. It included a difficult frontside-900, earning a score of 44.5 that was good enough to win. She fell hard on her second run, giving herself a purple bruise under one eye.

“Everything for me this season is leading up to Vancouver, and every event I’m using as practice for that,” said Clark, adding, “This is a great starting point.”

Bleiler, using her silver medal at the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy, as her motivation for gold this time, fell on her first run, putting pressure on her second. Fifteen minutes of closed-eye meditation each morning and night, visualizing her snowboard runs, has helped her relax, however. She pulled out her “conservative run,” she said.

“There’s more to come,” Bleiler promised.

Of course there is. But for an Olympic halfpipe season, it was an intriguing start.

Copper Mountain, CO – Dec. 12, 2009

1. Shaun White, Carlsbad, CA, 47.00
2. Louie Vito, Sandy, UT, 45.60
3. Zack Black, Breckenridge, CO, 44.10
4. Fredrik Austbo, Norway, 41.20
5. JJ Thomas, Golden, CO, 41.10
6. Greg Bretz, Mammoth Lakes, CA, 40.00
7. Steve Fisher, Breckenridge, CO, 39.40
8. Tore-V Holvik, Norway, 34.80
9. Ryo Aono, Japan, 34.00
10. Jack Mitrani, Mammoth, CA, 28.80

1. Kelly Clark, Mt. Snow, VT, 44.50
2. Gretchen Bleiler, Aspen, CO, 42.60
3. Soko Yamaoka, Japan, 40.20
4. Quera Castellet, Spain, 30.50
5. Ellery Hollingsworth, Stratton, VT, 35.80
6. Madeline Schaffrick, Steamboat Springs, Co, 35.50
7. Holly Crawford, Australia, 24.00
8. Clair Bidez, Minturn, CO, 13.60

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Posted on: December 12, 2009
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