- Freestyle Skiing
U.S. medal hopes increase with new freestyle events
With the addition of ski halfpipe and ski slopestyle to the Olympic program in 2014, freestyle skiing will feature more of the gravity-defying tricks that have made moguls and aerials popular Olympic events for the past 20 years. The sport could also be a boon to the U.S. medal total, as there are American contenders in nearly every event.
In halfpipe, all signs point to an all American showdown between teen sensation Torin Yater-Wallace and veteran David Wise. For the past two seasons, the pair has traded off standing atop the podium at most of the major events: Wise captured the 2012 and 2013 X Games titles, while Yater-Wallace won both Euro X Games events those years. It’s difficult to give either skier a slight edge, but Yater-Wallace, who will be 18 during the Winter Games, did win the World Cup test event held at the Sochi venue in February 2013. On the women’s side, another American teen, Maddie Bowman, has proven she is a contender for gold, after winning the 2013 X Games, but the women’s field is a bit cloudier, with strong skiers from Canada, France and Switzerland.
While most Olympic fans have seen halfpipe contests since snowboarding made its Olympic debut in 1998, slopestyle is a brand-new event at the Winter Games that features athletes moving through a downhill course with rails, bumps and big jumps. Until the 2013 X Games, Canada’s Kaya Turski had dominated women’s slopestyle, winning three straight X Games titles from 2010-12 to establish herself as an early gold medal favorite in Sochi. However, Norway’s Tiril Sjaastad Christiansen’s win at the 2013 X Games suggests the Olympic event should be a tighter competition than some may have previously thought. The men’s slopestyle event features another crop of U.S. contenders, with Tom Wallisch and Nick Goepper, winners of the previous two X Games — Wallisch in 2012, Goepper in 2013. They come from unique backgrounds — Wallisch grew up skiing in and around Pittsburgh, while Goepper hails from Lawrenceburg, Indiana, a small farming town of about 5,000 along the Ohio River — and both should challenge for medals next February.
Arguably the biggest name in freestyle skiing to return to the Games is American mogulist Hannah Kearney, the 2010 Olympic champion. Since winning in Vancouver, the 27-year-old from Norwich, Vermont, has reigned over the bumps, capturing the past three World Cup moguls titles, winning a record 16 consecutive World Cup events between 2010 and 2012, and topping it off with the 2013 world title. While there are several other skiers who have the chance to do so, Kearney appears to be the favorite to become the first freestyle skier to win two gold medals. Another is her men’s moguls counterpart, Canada’s Alexandre Bilodeau. With his win in Vancouver, Bilodeau provided one of the memorable images of the Games — after earning Canada’s first Olympic gold medal on home soil, he celebrated with his brother, Frederic, who suffers from cerebral palsy. While Bilodeau also returns with a chance to win his second Olympic gold medal, his teammate, Mikael Kingsbury, is a rising star and enters Sochi as the reigning world champion. Top American Patrick Deneen, the 2013 world bronze medalist, is hoping to extend a U.S. medal streak in this event dating back to the Nagano Games in 1998.
The Chinese captured three of the six aerials medals in Vancouver and could leave with a similar total from Sochi. Their most impressive aerialist is certainly Xu Mengtao, a 23-year-old who captured the World Cup aerials title the past two seasons and won the event at the 2013 World Championships. Another woman to watch is Emily Cook, a two-time Olympian who finished second in the 2012-13 World Cup standings. When not on the jumps, Cook works with the Speedy Foundation, which helps educate athletes on mental health and was created in honor of Vancouver silver medalist Jeret “Speedy” Peterson, who took his own life in July 2011. Cook was a close friend of Peterson and will likely be wearing one of Peterson’s belts during competition next February.
A new Olympic format in both aerials and moguls will also be a storyline, with a new knockout system in place for Sochi.
Finally, ski cross returns to the Winter Games after making its debut at the Vancouver Olympics. The podiums in Sochi will likely look much different from Vancouver, as most of the 2010 Olympic medalists have either retired or fallen out of contention. The strongest ski cross team recently has been Switzerland. Fanny Smith captured the 2013 world title and the 2012-13 World Cup title and looks to be the early favorite in the women’s event, while on the men’s side, Alex Fiva and Armin Niederer finished one-two in the 2012-13 World Cup standings. Canada and France should also field very strong teams as well. And American John Teller, an auto mechanic from Mammoth Lakes, California, cannot be counted out after his bronze medal at the 2013 World Championships. Though this unpredictable event makes any preview challenging, it usually makes for great theater.
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