The Open Snowboarding Championship has been held in Laax for more than a decade, but it’s rarely – if ever – attracted a line-up as star-studded and impressive as the roster of riders who dropped-in over the weekend. With valuable qualification points on offer, and many of the serious Beijing medal contenders still needing to lock down their Olympic spots, this last contest before the Games was one for the ages.
Heavy hitters in the halfpipe
The men’s halfpipe final promised the tantalizing prospect Shaun White renewing his rivalry with Ayumu Hirano, the diminutive Japanese rider who’d taken silver behind him in Pyeongchang four years ago, and Scotty James of Australia, who’d taken bronze. It would be the first time the three had met in competition since the last Games and, as dusk fell on Laax and the floodlights came on, the largest in-person crowd Snow has ever seen at a halfpipe contest gathered to watch them do battle.
The bar had already been set high when Shaun White dropped, needing to beat the other two Americans in the field, Josh Bowman and Lucas Foster, to secure his spot on the US Team. His smooth-as-you-like back to back 1260 combo put him in first place - until Ayumu Hirano went one better.
His incredibly technical first run, featuring back-to-back 1440 double corks, was enough to claim the win in the end, after Scotty James fell on both runs, secured his Olympic spot, decided to take it easy on round two. But it was what Ayumu chose to do on his second run that really raised eyebrows.
Dropping in for a victory lap, he boosted a huge frontside triple cork out of the pipe on his first hit, which he only just failed to land cleanly. He wasn’t the only rider to try the trick, which has never been landed in a complete contest run before. His Japanese teammate Ruka Hirano (no relation) made two attempts in his two runs, again, narrowly failing each time.
Local rider Jan Scherrer rounded out the podium, bumping Shaun down into third, and giving the huge crowd something to cheer about. Despite Shaun riding within himself, the final offered a glimpse of the kind of fireworks we might see in China if a fully fired-up White, Scotty James and the two Hiranos all go for broke.
“I was happy with my first run,” Ayumu said afterwards, “so I relaxed and went for the triple.” Here’s hoping he can put it down next time.
The women’s halfpipe, run in tandem with the men’s events, saw Chloe Kim cement her dominance. No-one really comes close to the American rider in terms of amplitude or technicality, although Japan’s Ono Mitsuki might have shaken things up a bit had she landed her second run. Meanwhile Queralt Castellet, the Catalan rider who’s been a longtime fixture on the competitive circuit, earned third. Based in Laax, she’s also stepped up her riding of late, and looks to be peaking at just the right time.
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Earlier in the day, the men’s slopestyle contest had been dominated by the story of three Americans - Brock Crouch, Sean Fitzsimmons and Jake Canter - all competing for the fourth and final spot on the US slopestyle team. With everything to play for and nothing to lose, all three went for it - Brock Crouch’s first run out him in the top spot, before he was pipped at the post by both Fitzsimmons, who won, and Canter, who got third.
The strength of the field that they beat, which included the well-known Norwegians Stale Sandbech in second place and Markus Kleveland, who fell on both runs and finished 12th, shows the incredible strength in depth of the US team.
In the women’s event, the UK’s only Olympic snowboarder going to these games, Katie Ormerod, unfortunately didn’t make the final. Having already secured her spot and nervous of risking an injury like the one which ruled her out of the last Olympics, she rode within herself on run one, and unfortunately fell on a cab 9, a trick she usually has on lock, on her second.
Still, Katie was all smiles as she lapped one of Laax’s multiple snow parks with her coach the next day. “I’m excited about China,” she told us. “Especially the Big Air. The one they built there for the test event was really good - wider than the scaffold ones you sometimes get, with space so you can turn into your spins.” She was, however not looking forward to the cold - temperatures at Zhangjiakou, where the Olympic slopestyle event will be held, regularly reach minus 20 in winter.
It wasn’t just Katie who wasn’t riding in the women’s slopestyle final in Laax. With her place on the US Team already already sewn up, the woman widely seen as the favourite in Beijing, two-time gold medalist Jamie Anderson, also gave the contest a miss. But that did nothing to diminish the standard or riding or the drama, as several of the most talented young pretenders to her thrown showed off their biggest and best tricks.
Tess Coady of Australia and Anna Gasser of Austria, the Big Air gold medalist in Pyeongchang, took the gloves off with double cork 1080s, with the Aussie narrowly beating the Austrian after a close call from the judges. Annika Morgan of Germany, the super smooth German rider, finished third. But there were also impressive performances from Reira Iwabuchi of Japan, two-time Olympic medalist Enni Rukajarvi, and Cool Wakushima of New Zealand.
Just 19 year old, Wakushima not only has the best name in snowboarding, she also brings a super smooth style to her tricks - floating her spins round with ease, as if trying to prove that nominative determinism is more than just a theory. “I’d never seen her ride before,” said Tom Kingsnorth, an industry veteran and the owner of Transform Gloves, “but she’s sick!”
Wakushima is far from the only up-and-comer to watch. On the evidence on display at Laax, the Beijing Games is shaping up to be something pretty special for snowboarding.
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