American-born Eileen Gu of China put down a pair of smooth, seemingly effortless runs Thursday during the qualifying round in halfpipe, topping the 20-skier field with the only two scores over 90 to make a third final at her Winter Olympics debut.
With two medals already in possession heading into arguably her best event, the 18-year-old hit back-to-back 900s, a 720, a switch 360 and two alley-oops to score a 93.75 on her first run, then upped the 900 Buick trick to a cork and the final alley-oop to a 540 flat spin on her second to improve to a 95.50.
"[I wasn't] going all out," Gu said. "I have a few more tricks I would like to have the opportunity to do [in the final] … I wanted to do that right 'oop 5, it's a new trick that I learned this season, and I felt like it would build confidence … I am happy I was able to do that."
Gu, halfpipe's reigning world champion and Youth Olympic gold medalist, captured the event's overall World Cup crystal globe last month after an undefeated season, with wins at the Copper Grand Prix, back-to-back Calgary Snow Rodeo contest and the Mammoth Grand Prix.
"It's really fun for me because it's all about flow. In slopestyle you have rails and jumps and you're skiing in between them, but in halfpipe you land and you go, you land and you go and has a rhythm to it, which I love so much."
Competing in three different events has been tough, and the 18-year-old has been trying her best to avoid exhaustion, even journaling about being fresh in attempt to convince herself she is, which she says has been working.
"I'm competing every single day of three events," she said. "It's definitely not easy, but I ran a half-marathon every week over the summer to prepare. I feel proud of the work I've done to build up my endurance base, so this is what I've been preparing for."
Canadian Rachael Karker, runner-up to Gu at the 2021 World Championships, threw down back-to-back 900s herself to record two scores in the high 80s and finish as the round's second-best skier.
Behind her in the No. 3 spot was slopestyle bronze medalist Kelly Sildaru, who strung together three-straight 540s to score an 87.50 on her 20th birthday. She opted to skip her second run.
"I feel more tired now and I [am a] little exhausted," Sildaru said. "Maybe in the beginning it was really hard after getting bronze in slopestyle to get my stuff together and go into halfpipe, but now I landed my run, I'm here, I'm happy."
Americans Brita Sigourney, Hanna Faulhaber and Carly Margulies grabbed three of the last five spots, placing a respective eighth through 10th. PyeongChang bronze medalist Sigourney, who crashed during warmups, scored an 84.50 on Run 2, while Faulhaber and Margulies put up an 84.25 and an 82.25.
Margulies, 24, has endured four torn ACLs and seven knee surgeries over her career, and hasn't competed in a World Cup since December 2019. Her most recent surgery for a torn meniscus in December 2021 jeopardized her chances at making the Olympic team, but she was able to return to the slopes last month.
Faulhaber, fourth-place finisher at the 2021 World Championships, said she broke a boot right before her first run, then on her first run proceeded to break a binding. The 17-year-old made two World Cup podiums this season at Calgary Snow Rodeo – runner-up to Gu on Dec. 30, and third to Gu and Karker on Jan 1.
Vermonter and Sochi slopestyle silver medalist Devin Logan, also competing on her birthday like Sildaru, just missed the 12-athlete cut in 13th.
The final takes place Friday – or 8:30 p.m. Thursday ET.
NBC Olympics Research contributed