It’s been a turbulent season for the men’s U.S. Olympic halfpipe hopefuls. Last month the snowboard community had visions of another American sweep of the podium in Vancouver, as they did in 2002, or the one-two punch of gold and silver, like they did in 2006.
At the tip of the U.S. spear were riders including Shaun White, Kevin Pearce and Danny Davis, who represented a halfpipe dream team for the Americans. Now, with Pearce and Davis both suffering season-ending and career-threatening injuries in the past three weeks, the vision seems like it could be slipping away.
Pearce was the first hopeful to be tragically taken out of the running when he suffered a traumatic brain injury while training. He remains in a Utah hospital in serious condition.
This past Sunday, Davis’ dreams also were dashed when he was involved in an ATV accident in Utah. The damage to his back required surgery on his L3 vertebrae.
With two of America’s best riders down for the count, the U.S. team is now operating off of Plan B. Yet during practices this week in Park City, Utah, nobody is dwelling on the setbacks. Instead, riders are rallying, pressing forward with the same goal of dominating, only with different players in mind. Morale, surprisingly, is still high.
“What happened to Danny [Davis] and Kevin [Pearce] has been hard on the whole community,” says Olympic team contender J.J. Thomas. “I think that it has made us all be a little more thoughtful on and off the hill and it’s a reminder to appreciate your health. It’s important to remember that Danny and Kevin will comeback and be back at the top. They are both some of the worlds best and if they want they will be right back where they left off.”
The idea of a “Dream Team” may be gone, but results of the first three qualifying events indicate that there’s still a powerful squad in the works. Each hopeful’s top two finishes out of the five qualifiers count toward their ranking.
White, the 2006 Olympic gold medalist, has already secured his slot thanks to two qualifier victories. Louie Vito, the standout on last fall’s hit TV show “Dancing With the Stars,” has emerged as the No. 2 man heading into the final week of qualifiers. His consistency and technical aptitude have kept him sure-and-steady, but Vito’s performances lack the serious risk factor that some of his teammates are famous for.
Davis, for example, is best known for never compromising his radical approach. While not as consistent as Vito, he has wowed fans and judges, as he did two weeks ago when he defeated White via what’s widely considered the best run ever in halfpipe competition.
Vito stays within himself, utilizing only tricks he knows he has dialed and keeping his amplitude under control. Whether this is just a tactic Vito is using to secure his slot on the team or if this is the same riding we’ll see in Vancouver is anybody’s guess, but it’s this author’s inkling that Vito has a few surprises in store.
While Vito has climbed the ladder, the third and fourth slots on the men’s halfpipe team are now wide open to a handful of unassuming rider’s to put in their bid for the team.
The names already sitting in the No. 3 and 4 slots headed into this weekend’s final selection could be surprising: 2002 Salt Lake City bronze medalist, J.J. Thomas, and the virtually unheard of Zack Black from Breckenridge, Colo.
Thomas, now 28 years old, returned to the competitive scene this season with a new gusto for pipe riding. While he’s routinely honored for rounding out the first podium sweep in Salt Lake City, he’s considered the “old guy” in the pipe. Yet his years of experience are paying dividends in the qualifiers. Thomas’ ease with the contest scene and total show of confidence under pressure is what got him back up on top where, by the looks of it, he never should have left.
The biggest surprise, however, is 18-year-old Black. He’s the mysterious dark-horse who no one saw coming and no one knows much about, other than he prefers the same go-for-broke approach that put Davis and Pearce on everybody’s watch list. What we do know is that Black has been honing his act in the perfectly cut pipes that Breckenridge is known for.
Other American riders like Luke Mitrani, Scotty Lago and Greg Bretz still have a legitimate shot at a team spot and shouldn’t be counted out yet. If there’s one thing we’ve learned in this tumultuous race to Vancouver, things can change in the blink of an eye.
With so much uncertainty now on the halfpipe side of things, the final two qualifying events in Park City, Utah, this weekend promise to be the most exciting events in the series.
“It comes as no surprise to us that it’s coming down to the last two events to name the Olympic team,” says U.S. Snowboarding halfpipe head coach Mike Jankowski. “With the level of riding that’s been going on and the intensity that’s increasing, the competition is tight. It’s nice to see everyone from people who have been in the game a long time like J.J. [Thomas] and Kelly [Clark], as well as new guys like Zack [Black] and Louie [Vito], who are coming on strong.”
Both the men’s and the women’s U.S. halfpipe teams will be announced after the last event on Saturday, Jan. 23, at Park City Mountain Resort.