Sixteen months after fracturing his pelvis in a frightening training crash, Aaron Blunck of Colorado bested 22 other freeskiers in halfpipe qualifying Thursday at the 2022 Winter Olympics to advance to the final with U.S. teammates David Wise, Birk Irving and Alex Ferreira.
The two-time world champion put down a stylish Run 2 with locked-in grabs, landing a mid-run switch leftside double cork 900 and another in the opposite direction before cleaning up a right double 1260, which had given him trouble on his first run. His score, a 92.00, was the highest of the round.
"Once I dropped in [for the second run], I just remembered that it's just skiing, I just tried to smile and just remember like, 'It's just skiing, dude, this isn't what makes you as a year [sic], just go skiing, just have some fun,'" Blunck said. "I just had to get a little nervous and get those fun nerves out … Game-time mode, baby. Turn the beast on."
Wise, Olympic gold medalist in Sochi and PyeongChang, produced the top Run 1 score with an 88.75 and improved with an 89.00 on his second to place fourth overall. PyeongChang silver medalist Ferreira was seventh with an 84.25 and Irving took third with an 89.75.
"We don't want to jinx it but we kind of knew in this event above all else we had a really good chance to get all four guys in the finals," he said. "We all ride together and when you're constantly skiing with the best guys in the world you're going to get better and keep improving."
Born and raised in Reno, Nevada, the four-time X Games champion said he's enjoying skiing and is not letting any nerves or expectations get to him.
"I could certainly find some pressure if I wanted to. There's plenty out there, but I won't really let myself feel it because I just have a sense of gratitude going into this third Games," he said. "I'm thankful to still be in this and thankful to just still be in the mix … I'm in finals, that's all I needed to do today."
At 31, Wise is older than all but one of the other finalists: Sochi bronze medalist Kevin Rolland of France. But the father of two considers his years of involvement and competition incredible advantages.
"You cannot put a price on experience. There's a couple of things that I'd like to have back but I wouldn't trade those things for experience because you learn how to let go of pressure," Wise said. "You learn how to enjoy the ride, embrace the opportunity and that becomes part of your modus operandi and that's hard to beat."
Reigning world champion Nico Porteous of New Zealand, the bronze medalist behind Wise and Ferreira in 2018, finished second behind Blunck with a 90.50, while Canadians Brendan Mackay and Noah Bowman grabbed the No. 5 and 6 spots with scores of 87.25 and 85.50., respectively.
Sochi slopestyle silver medalist Gus Kenworthy, now competing for Great Britain, went down on his first run but cleaned up in Run 2 for a 70.75, squeezing into the final in the 12th spot in his Olympic halfpipe debut.
Blunck, seventh at both the 2014 and 2018 Games, crashed during a Switzerland training session in October 2020, breaking his pelvis and bruising his heart. He initially thought he might never ski again but recovered rather quickly and that January was able to earn his second of three straight X Games silvers.