Olympic chase getting exciting in ski halfpipe for Team USA
December 18, 2017
After three of five Olympic qualifiers, six U.S. halfpipe skiers have now notched one podium, yet none have found a second. Two podium finishes is the minimum criteria for making the team.
The race is as interesting as it is exciting, mainly for the number of different scenarios that can play out. The favorites are David Wise, Torin Yater-Wallace and Alex Ferreira, who have all had wins at Olympic qualifiers.
But those athletes could still get edged out by the other three athletes who have found second and third place finishes at Olympic qualifiers — Aaron Blunck, Gus Kenworthy and Avon local Taylor Seaton.
For Seaton, Kenworthy and Blunck, the best hope for Pyongchang is to grab another podium finish at one of the final two qualifiers, coming up in January. In the instance that they should get that podium at the next event, then even if another American leads all other Americans at the final qualifier, but does not make the podium himself, the Olympic spots would defer to the athletes who have two podiums.
With two qualifiers left, we may well see four Americans notch podiums and clinch their Olympic berths. However, the Americans have been competing against the best athletes in the world from several other nations at these events, therefor it's just as likely that less than four Americans make the podium, as well. In this case coaches will defer to a scoring system, where Seaton currently finds himself in sixth. But the margins are thin — only 40 points currently separates sixth and second. The two best finishes at any two Olympic qualifiers determines your score, Seaton has a score of 92 after finishing third in one qualifier and eighth in another.
The scoring system can get confusing — if it defers to points when four athletes meet the minimum two-podium requirement, yet it still defers to points if less than four athletes notch two podiums, why have the podium requirement at all?
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The answer is one which we could see play out. Torin Yater-Wallace, for example, currently leads with 150 points after finishing first for 100 points and fourth for 50 points. If Kenworthy, who has a second place finish of 80 points already to his credit, obtains a third place finish for 60 points, then he will have less points than Wallace, yet will have objectively qualified and will be guaranteed a spot ahead of Wallace despite trailing him by 10 points in the points race. Seaton could lose the points race by as much as 30 points and still clench an Olympic berth.
Competing against the field we've been seeing at Olympic qualifiers, Seaton's recent podiums have come as a bit of a surprise to him and others, who see a sport focused on a trick called the double cork, which Seaton avoids in his run. The double off-axis flip can be seen in some winning runs being performed three or four times in a single run.
Instead of the double cork, Seaton has been on a mission to showcase a variety of different spins in his latest runs, in an effort to bring something fresh to the competition.
"If you think about a spin trick in the halfpipe, there's eight different ways you can spin — left and right facing forward, and left and right facing backwards, off each wall," Seaton explains. "They have eight different looks, or variations.
"What I'm trying to do with my run right now is show good overall skiing by doing six of the eight spin variations in one run. My opinion is it's better for the sport to have halfpipe skiers showing fans the skill of variation as well as all the other skills."
Seaton's new signature run is a reflection of his concern for the sport of halfpipe skiing in the larger picture. He wants it to be relatable.
"I do a lot of different spins because spins are such a recognizable part of skiing to so many skiers," Seaton says. "If you're an intermediate level skier, and you want to hit a jump and try a 360 spin, you're going to have to decide if you're going to spin right or spin left. Seeing all those options and decisions showcased every different way in a halfpipe run, for me anyways, was always a fun thing to see as a fan of the sport."
'SUCH A FUN RUN'
The run starts switch, Seaton speeds down the halfpipe facing backward spins right (counter clockwise) off the left wall of the halfpipe, 900 degrees landing switch. Next up, on the right wall, he spins left 720 degrees, landing forward. He then performs every variation of the 900-degree spin facing forward, going right off the left wall, left off the right wall, left off the left wall, and right off the right wall. In between the two 900s, if there's room, he'll add a seventh trick, a 540 with a different, more inverted look called a flat spin.
Seaton debuted the run at the Mammoth Grand Prix in February, the first Olympic qualifier, where it scored a 90 and finished third on the day.
Later that season, in the final World Cup of the year, it scored an 89.4 and landed him in second place.
In Breckenridge this weekend, the same run scored a 79.33 and placed Seaton in eighth, but he was nevertheless excited to have landed it and admitted he didn't execute it as cleanly as he could have.
"It was a little wobbly," he said. But it always feels so great to put down that run, it's such a fun run … I always imagined one day I would be able to do this run, so to be at this point in my career where I'm actually in a position to show it to the world is super exciting."
TIME IS NOW
Before the 2016-17 season, Seaton was a regular in the top 10 with runs that contained double-cork 1260s. At the 2016 X Games, he soared more than 21 feet out of the pipe on a right-spinning variation of the double cork 1260, and at the 2015 Dew Tour, he ended his qualifying run with a left-spinning version of the trick. But the runs never notched him higher than a sixth place finish, and after not getting an invite to the 2017 X Games, Seaton was fed up.
"I was angry, I was mad at the world and the sport of halfpipe skiing, and I was even thinking about giving in," he said. "I was at that point where I really didn't care what anyone thought, I knew I had an invite to the next Grand Prix and I was gonna completely throw out my old run and just have fun doing something I've been wanting to do."
"I also knew that back-to-back alley-oop 900s had never been landed in a competition before, and in my anger I guess I was also mad about that in a funny way," Seaton said. "How had we come to this point in the sport where every dub is being done multiple times in a run, yet no one has ever put together all four 900s?"
When the judges saw all four variations of the forward-facing 900 landed in a competition the week after X Games in Mammoth, they rewarded it with the top score of the heat, which would go on to score Seaton third overall after finals were canceled.
Now nearly a year later, Seaton is thinking he may have to once again come up with something fresh now that the competition for the Olympics is so close.
"I honestly think if I wouldn't have done the 9s, it would have never been done," Seaton said. "I've been thinking about that and the fact that I scored best when I was in a place where I didn't care anymore. I'm feeling pretty motivated now and I'm trying to find that same fire, going through my notes on the sport over the years, journals from competitions, old video clips — runs from guys I've looked up to, things that made an impression on me when I was younger — I'm going through it all and I'm going to try and make one more stamp on halfpipe skiing and what I think is important to its future."
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