American skiers land top podium spots
U.S. halfpipe skiers showed they have a flair for the dramatic on Friday afternoon at the U.S. Grand Prix finals at Park City Mountain Resort.
During the women’s finals, Maddie Bowman trailed Japan’s Ayana Onozuka by two points (88.80 to 86.80) with only one run remaining. By qualifying first, Bowman had the final run of the day for all skiers and she made the most of it.
Needing an impressive run to wow the judges, Bowman broke out a switch 900, a trick she landed to win X Games last week. The trick, which had never been landed by a woman in a competition before Bowman did it in Aspen, was part of a run that earned a score of 89.80 from the judges, vaulting Bowman to the top step of the podium.
"It’s a new trick," Bowman said. "I feel pretty comfortable with the switch 9, but I did a switch 7 in my first run just to play it safe and see how it scored out. I decided once I had one under my feet to do the switch 9. It was nice to come out and lay down a run I’m super happy with."
Onozuka held on for second place and France’s Marie Martinod finished third.
On the men’s side, the ante was upped early by France’s Benoit Valentin, who came out on his first run and earned a score of 92.00. It seemed like a score that would hold up for a while, but no one told that to American Aaron Blunck.
The 19-year-old dropped into the halfpipe immediately after Valentin and landed a spectacular run, earning a score of 94.20. That score held up for the rest of the competition, giving Blunck the gold medal.
"I honestly didn’t expect to do that well on my first run," Blunck said. "I thought to myself, ‘Just get this one down. You can always improve on it.’ I ended up landing the best run of my life on the first run. I wasn’t able to put any more down, but I’m overall super stoked."
Blunck said that he could immediately tell how well Valentin did on his first run based on the Park City crowd’s reaction.
"Benoit went right before me and I actually didn’t see any of his run, but I heard everybody screaming and I heard his score come in," he said. "I thought to myself, ‘You’ve got this. You can beat that for sure. Here we go.’ Dropping in, I started to feel it."
The end of the Grand Prix also marked the end of an exhausting few weeks for the freeskiiers, who had a Grand Prix in Mammoth, California, two weekends ago, the X Games in Aspen, Colorado, last weekend and the Park City Grand Prix this weekend. Bowman said she was glad the competition level didn’t drop due to exhaustion.
"I think everyone was pretty tuckered out after the X Games," she said. "It’s a lot of runs in a short week, but we came out here and everyone threw down super well. It was awesome to see all the ladies throwing down. It was a great day."
Blunck said he was greatly affected by the long stretch of competitions.
"Coming here, I was just exhausted," he said. "At the beginning of the week, I was starting to get really run down and sick and I wasn’t even really sure about how I wanted to go about this. I ended up coming out on qualifiers day not feeling that good, but ended up qualifying [for finals]. Today, I woke up and felt good and just wanted to come out and land some good runs."
With Friday’s victory, Blunck also claimed the title of U.S. National Champion, as did Bowman. Blunck said he’s thrilled with how his career has progressed since he qualified for the 2014 Winter Olympics two years ago in Park City.
"The year of the Olympics, I felt like that was the best year of my career and I could never top that again," he said. "Coming out here, it feels good to know that I’ve put in the work and the work is finally paying off."
For Bowman, the 2014 Olympic gold medalist, skiing well in Park City is always a thrill.
"It’s super awesome to come back here," she said. "I go to school down in Salt Lake City, so it kind of feels like home. All my friends are out here, so it made for a great event. I love it."
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The Wildcats have now lost four of their last six matches.