What’s harder than earning a medal in the men’s halfpipe at Vancouver? If you ask the American riders, it’s simply earning a spot on the U.S. Olympic halfpipe team. So hard, in fact, that after the five Olympic qualifiers, there is a three-way tie for the fourth and final spot on the men’s U.S. team.
Shaun White, Louie Vito and Scotty Lago all booked tickets to Vancouver after Saturday night’s final qualifier in Park City, Utah. They each secured their spots during the qualifying series and were officially named to the U.S. Olympic team post-competition, but picking the final Olympic team member for the men’s halfpipe team won’t be easy.
After a grueling five-event qualifying season filled with landmark performances (Danny Davis’ landmark run and White’s stunning “double McTwist 1260”) and serious injuries (Davis’ season-ending, back-breaking ATV accident and Kevin Pearce’s serious head injury), three riders find themselves tied for the coveted final slot. Luke Mitrani, 2002 bronze medalist J.J. Thomas and Greg Bretz are all in the running for the team’s fourth spot. And we won’t know who will be given the precious honor until tomorrow.
So the million dollar question is: Who will it be?
Well, there’s good reason these three are tied. They’re all seriously talented. But each brings something different to the table, which means the final decision could come down to team chemistry.
If experience is the only deciding factor, Thomas wins hands down. He won bronze in Salt Lake City and today, at 28, he’s certainly the most battle-hardened of the three. Thomas is consistent and comfortable under pressure, which means he’d be a steady hand, but he is lacking an element that many insiders feel every Olympic halfpipe rider must have: the double-cork, a corkscrewing double backflip, considered to be the most progressive new trick out there.
What Thomas lacks, Bretz has in spades. He’s got one of the best looking double-cork 1080’s in the game, and he’s only 19. Then again, he’s only 19. And even though he’s been riding since he was five years old, Bretz didn’t really burst onto the contest scene until 2008, so his ability to handle the heavy pressure in unknown. That said, he entered the Olympic qualifying season knowing he was a longshot for the Vancouver team and seems to be relishing the role. He’s impressed the coaches with his healthy dose of youthful enthusiasm.
Mitrani is another member of the youth brigade. He’s only six months older than Bretz, but he’s been in the spotlight for years. When he was 12 years old, Mitrani became the youngest member ever to join the U.S. Snowboarding team. Since then he’s been a staple at top-tier contests. Mitrani and his older brother, Jack, are key members of the “Frends Crew,” a notorious snowboard posse well known for dominating the competitive halfpipe scene.
The influence of that same crew may be what gives Mitrani the edge over the other two contenders. The Frends Crew has suffered two devastating blows in their race to Vancouver when Pearce then Davis, both expected to headline the U.S. Olympic halfpipe team, were taken out of commission. Mitrani has been looking inspired riding in honor of his fallen “Frends,” and it’s that fire that could lead to big things if he were to make the Vancouver team.
Things aren’t nearly as dramatic on the women’s side of the halfpipe team, but Ellery Hollingsworth and Elena Hight are still battling for the final slot now that Kelly Clark, Hannah Teter and Gretchen Bleiler are in.
The job for U.S. coaches and officials won’t be easy. Not only do they have to weigh each rider’s performances and results, they also have to digest and interpret the complex selection rules set forth by the United States Olympic Committee, which is a major feat in itself. It’ll likely be a long night for those who have to decide. But they won’t be the only ones losing sleep. The entire U.S. Olympic snowboard team – including the final spots for halfpipe, snowboard cross and parallel giant slalom, will be announced Monday.
Photo: Those already named to the 2010 U.S. Olympic halfpipe team celebrated last night in Park City, Utah. But the judges will be fretting all night over their final two choices.