words and photos by Jeff Schmuck
As the million dollar question of whether or not halfpipe skiing will be an Olympic sport by 2010 continues to be asked, the only glimmer of hope that seems to be emerging out of the political abyss is the continuing and growing number of halfpipe events on the FIS World Cup circuit.
With three events happening this year, one earlier this winter in France, one in Japan and the FIS World Cup Finals in Italy in March, high on my checklist of things to do this winter was to go to at least one of them to see for myself just how close it could be to becoming a reality, or how far things still have to go. For example, is there an acceptable and working format in place? How many countries and skiers are attending these events? And perhaps most importantly, where are things at with the judging?
All of these questions and more were answered when I traveled to Japan last week with the Canadian halfpipe team (who we’ll also be featuring a story on later this week) to attend the Inawashiro World Cup.
Lake Inawashiro is near the northern part of the main island of Japan, and is a sight to behold even when frozen over. Judging by pictures of it in the summertime, the fourth largest lake in the country appears to be nothing short of a paradise that would be great to come back to under warmer circumstances, but seeing it blanketed with deep, fluffy powder certainly wasn’t a bad thing either. Rising from its shores is Mount Inawashiro, an ex-volcano turned winter wonderland that played host to the aerial and mogul portions of the World Cup event. Just a short jaunt north is Mount Bandai, home of the superpipe venue and next week’s Nippon Snowboarding Open.
Mount Bandai & Mount Inawashiro
It goes without saying that the hospitality of the Japanese is arguably unsurpassed by any other culture in the world, but the organizers of this event when far beyond the call of duty. From the amazing meals to dealing with everyone’s transportation to and from the event to the perfectly organized event itself, not to mention late night antics in the hotel and a blown knee from yours truly, the organizing committee did a fantastic job of treating everyone involved in the event like gold and it would be simply criminal not to mention it.
On to the event itself, which much like our surroundings, was a sight to see. With nine countries participating and a total of 48 athletes (16 women and 32 men), the World Cup halfpipe circuit is no small potato, and it’s no joke. The athletes that are taking part in these events this year and passing on opportunities to ski powder and film or attend more profitable competitions in the process are at the fore front of the push towards the Olympics, and considering the number of them involved, it was a joy to see.
Even more of a joy was the competition itself, because on top of being the most organized event many including myself have ever attended, it felt like…every other halfpipe competition. There was nothing abnormal or questionable or controversially about virtually anything to do with it. The pipe was in good shape, the competitors were stoked, and when the smoke had cleared and the dust had settled, there were little to no questions being asked about the FIS-regulated judging, which was wisely and thankfully headed up by Ola Sundqvist, a current FIS judge of the World Cup snowboarding halfpipe events who also happened to be head judge at the Olympics. The only actual downer of the event was the weather, which was rather grey bird, although the ridiculously accomplished and diligent team of slippers took care of the falling snow like no one had ever seen.
In attendance at the event were the Canadian team of Mike Riddle, Matt Hayward, Justin Dorey, Sarah Burke and Roz Groenewoud. Also along for the ride were Canadians Nathan Wood, Matt Margetts, Tyler Spence and Mike Mertion. From the States recent US Open podiumer Taylor Seaton was in town, along with Brent Abrams, Walter Wood (who seems to be a crowd favorite wherever he goes) and Jen Hudak and Jess Cumming representing the women. Byron Wells and Lyndon Sheehan made the trip out to throw down for New Zealand, Loic Collomb-Patton and Xavier Bertoni came in for France and Finland had a strong showing with Kalle Leinonen and US Open halfpipe champion AJ Kempainen. The most represented country seemed to be Japan though, as some of the host countries’ top skiers (including Yutah Ueno, who just kicks ass) came out in full force to put on a show. All in all, it was a damn good line-up and no one failed to disappoint.
Although legendary Japanese flakes pounded the pipe through qualifiers, few seemed to have problems with the conditions. However the first run saw some initial mistakes from Mike Riddle, Kalle Leinonen and Roz Groenewoud, but they quickly made up for it on their second.
Skiing ridiculously well all day were Matt Hayward, AJ Kempainen and Justin Dorey, who was tearing the pipe a new one by going bigger than anyone all day, bum knee and all.
The girls were skiing as good as ever, with Sarah Burke and Jen Hudak going bigger than some of the guys and Roz Groenewoud and Jess Cumming styling out some 9’s and 7’s throughout their runs. Also killing it all day long was Australia’s Davina Williams, who continuously put down solid runs riddled with smooth airs and technical spins. Team Japan also had a strong showing of ladies, and they were doing their best throughout the day to get the home crowd fired up, and based on the size of some of their airs as the crowd roared in approval, they did one hell of a good job.
After qualifying and a short break it was time for finals. As they began, a massive crowd of children pulled from their elementary school for the day to cheer on the competitors lined the side of the pipe, waving each competing countries flag, much to the delight of Canadians' Mike Mertion and Tyler Spence, who were busy encouraging the kids to chant Dorey, Riddle and Hayward’s names as loud as they possibly could.
T-Spence and Mertion get the crowd fired up
The women dropped in first, and it was more of the same top notch showing as Sarah, Jen, Jess and Davina continued to dominate. Jen and Jess kicked things off with a bang and held the top two spots for a while, but just like at the World Cup in France, X-Games and 48Straight, no one could touch Sarah. After throwing some huge straight-airs and a few 5’s and a 7 Sarah took home her second World Cup gold and remained the yellow bib leader of the circuit. Jen took home second place with some big mutes and a nice 7 at the bottom and Davina continued to ski consistently and was deservingly awarded the bronze for her efforts.
Jen Hudak (silver), Sarah Burke (gold) and Davina Williams (bronze)
On the men’s side of things, the competition really began to heat up in finals with Dorey, AJ, Kalle, Xavier, Riddle and Hayward all continuously one-upping eachother.
After the six of them each took their turn near or at the top of the leader board, Hayward emerged victorious and kept the yellow bib as well with a run consisting of his trademark 1260 on the top hit, along with a picture-perfect 9 true tail and a couple of smooth flairs. Following closely behind was Kalle with some left and right 9’s and a sick cork 5 double nose near the bottom. Mike Riddle rounded out the podium with his textbook style on a 5 and 9 at the top followed up by a right 7 to huge switch 7 at the bottom.
Kalle Leinonen (silver), Matt Hayward (gold), Mike Riddle (bronze)
Once the extensive and (again) extremely organized awards ceremony had completed the second World Cup halfpipe stop was in the bag. After seeing how dialed in the event was, from the number of competitors to the judging to the format and everything in between, I couldn’t help but walk away from the event a bit angry, wondering why on earth these talented and dedicated group of athletes, the coaches that believe in them, the countries that support them and all of us as fans may have to wait until 2014 for this organized event to become an Olympic sport. In the coming days, stay tuned to NS for a full story on the Canadian team and an interview with its coach, the legendary Trennon Paynter, on what’s being done to try to make it happen sooner rather than later.
1 - Sarah Burke (CAN)
2 - Jen Hudak (USA)
3 - Davina Williams (AUS)
4 - Rosalind Groenewoud (CAN)
5 - Jessica Cumming (USA)
6 - Manami Mitsuboshi (JPN)
1 - Matt Hayward (CAN)
2 - Kalle Leinonen (FIN)
3 - Mike Riddle (CAN)
4 - Justin Dorey (CAN)
5 - Xavier Bertoni (FRA)
6 - Reto Comicioli (SUI)
7 - AJ Kempainnen (FIN)
8 - Walter Wood (USA)
9 - Loic Collomb-Patton (FRA)
10 - Kentaro Tsuda (JPN)
11 - Byron Wells (NZ)
12 - Yutah Ueno (JPN)