February 5, 2008
They saved the best for last at the Visa Freestyle International.
Some 8,500 high-energy spectators ignored low-teens c-c-c-cold Saturday night and got to watch a sooo-weeet series of dual moguls runs as the Visa weekend concluded at Deer Valley Resort. When the dust (and snowflakes) settled, veteran Shelly Robertson, who’s in her ninth World Cup season, had her first World Cup triumph and Landon Gardner had his first podium.
From the U.S. Ski Team’s perspective, it was a pleasant end to some 36 hours of qualifications and competition. And a tasty payback for the determination and long hours of training by Robertson and Gardner.
But those two performances merely capped the weekend, which also included the North American debut of World Cup ski cross – the newest Olympic ski event when the Vancouver Winter Games open in 24 months. Ski cross, a.k.a., "motocross on skis" with four athletes competing head-to-head (and sometimes on their head) in one hellacious run through banked turns, flats, rollers and carnage-causing terrain. Sharp elbows can be as mandatory as great balance on skis and a fast start.
Deer Valley course crews drew high praise from everyone for their continual battle to keep the courses in the best shape despite the storms of the past week, including one which dropped 16 inches of snow for Friday’s tussles.
A look at the two nights and one mid-day program of thrills and spills on three different venues at Deer Valley, all of them ending in one spot where Champion, Solid Muldoon and White Owl trails converge above the Snow Park base lodge:
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Friday (SX qualis during the day, aerials at night and light snow during aerials qualifying) – The SX event featured all skiers racing down the 1,065-meter course on Solid Muldoon to establish their qualifying time; the top 32 men and top 16 women advanced to the finals heats. One quick surprise: Park City’s JJ Johnson and longtime SX star Zach Crist – two former U.S. Ski Team alpine racers – failed to make finals. Crist took a header in his run and never finished.
Among those moving forward, four-time alpine Olympian Casey Puckett and Daron Rahlves, a three-time Olympian and the most successful U.S. speed skier (nine downhill wins, three super-G victories and World Championships gold and silver medals); Rahlves also came to town as the winner of the recent X Games SX event.
At night, the snow had stopped and the in-run had glazed, so Cook, Jana Lindsey and Dylan Ferguson – the three Yanks to make finals – lowered their start point by about 10 feet to better control their approach to the kicker, i.e., launching pad. Cook was 11th in qualifying, but she stuck her full, double-full (three twists, two flips) final jump and held onto the lead until the last three skiers – winner Nina Li of China, ageless Aussie Jacqui Cooper – who used to train in the splash pool at Utah Olympic Park – and Shuang Cheng, another Chinese skier – pushed her off the podium.
But you couldn’t tell from her smile that Cook had missed the podium. "It’s always a work in progress. I’m always just working on the process, trying to make every jump better," she told reporters.
"I’m glad to be back in the mix. Last year was a pretty slow year. For me, it’s all about consistency right now – being in the gate every week, completing the tricks that are going to be competitive every week, and putting in 100 percent every week," Cook said. Lindsey finished ninth.
In the men’s competition, the top three skiers could have been covered with a lift ticket. Stanley Kravchuk of the Ukraine won with 226.85 points, followed by Russia’s Vladimir Lebedev at 223.21 and Swiss aerialist Renato Ulrich (222.23).
Ferguson (179.98) was equally pleased after experiencing his first finals, i.e., being one of the top 12 in qualifying. As he waited to take his jump, he said he was thinking, "Land this jump, land this jump, land this jump." The lanky 19-year-old from north of Boston didn’t connect, but he chose to focus on the positive rather than bumming because he missed his jump. After all, he had made his first finals. "This is a big step for me," he said.
Aerials Coach Matt Christensen was pleased with his three athletes who reached finals, disappointed in the men who blew an opportunity to do better. "The girls are pushing each other and that’s good," he said.
Saturday (ski cross finals at midday, dual moguls at night) – A first victory for Canadian Davey Barr with Puckett runner-up, ahead of Swiss Michael Schmid and Rahlves fourth after a poor start. The women’s contest went to Ophelie David of France, who retook the World Cup points lead from teammate Meryl Boulangeat, who went down in the final heat.
Barr said his only hope heading into the day was to be in the finals. When he got that far, he turned more crafty thankful, waited for someone to make a mistake and when Puckett and Schmid grazed each other, Barr skied past them for the victory.
"I had to be patient and see what was happening around me and make a move," Barr told a press conference.
Puckett, an ex-X Games SX champion who was second in a World Cup ski cross last month in France, said "Coming into today, I was thinking ‘Michael Schmid and [reigning world champ] Tomas Kraus – How am I going to take these guys out?’ I didn’t even take into consideration what Davey was going to do and he snuck up in there and took off."
The dual moguls event saw Robertson, who is skiing the best of her career, take down Austrian Margarita Marbler in the final heat. The 28-year-old, nine-year Ski Team veteran changed her top jump going into the semifinal heat, survived the run and then nailed the finale.
She and Moguls Head Coach Scott Rawles concocted the winning formula. "Shelly’s been chipping away for a long time and this is awesome," he said. "Her heli wasn’t working, so I suggested the double-twister-spread. She tried it first in the semifinal and had trouble with it, so I asked what she wanted to do, and she said, ‘I’m really going to execute it in the final’…and she did."
A beaming Robertson said, "I’ve been waiting for this for so long."
The International Ski Federation changed course rules this winter, mandating a longer moguls field in the middle of the run so the contest would be more about skiing the bumps than landing two gymnastic maneuvers. Robertson may have struggled in the air, but she dominated the land portion. "The course was amazing. I just loved the turns in the middle. They were so fun. They had a perfect rhythm," she said.
U.S. skiers behind Robertson in the finals included: Kayla Snyderman, Emiko Torito 11th and Heather McPhie 12th. "I just love duals," Snyderman said, "because you just go!"
Gardner, like Ferguson after the aerials competition, focused on the positive, not missing the win in his final heat with Canadian Vincent Marquis. Pat Deneen finished fourth, Jimmy Discoe was eighth, local favorite Nate Roberts ninth, Salt Lake City’s Jay Bowman-Kirigin 12th and Holt Haga 13th.
Gardner had kayoed Canadian Warren Tanner, Olympic moguls and current duals world champion Dale Begg-Smith, the Canadian who skis for Australia, and then third-ranked Alexandre Bilodeau in semis to reach the final heat.
"I know my skills and I know this course really well, so I knew I could really put it down and that’s what I did. I was fueled by a little bit of the crowd and the powder," he said.
"First podium, I’m really excited. I definitely wish I could have been a little bit higher on the podium but you know what, I’m just going to enjoy second place." Good thought – after all, there were 40-plus others who would have loved to make the championship round.