PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (AP) – Don’t blame the kids throwing tricks up at Phoenix Snow Park for America’s medal woes at the Winter Olympics.
From snowboard stars Shaun White and Chloe Kim to freeskiers Nick Goepper and Brita Sigourney, the Americans have dominated the podium at the resort village a good 45 minutes northwest of the other venues, where success for the United States has been “meh” at best and decidedly underwhelming at worst.
One last chance at giving the U.S. medal haul a serious jolt awaits on Thursday, when halfpipe skiers Torin Yater-Wallace, David Wise, Alex Ferreira and Aaron Blunck face off in the finals with a legitimate shot at a podium sweep.
Blunck, Ferreira and Yater-Wallace took the top three spots in qualifying. Wise, the defending Olympic champion, finished eighth after opting for a safe second run following a wipeout during his first trip down the pipe. It’s exactly the scenario they envisioned when arriving in South Korea, even if they don’t talk about it.
“Some people might be, ‘Yeah, all right let’s go one, two, three on the podium,'” Yater-Wallace said. “It makes you start thinking too much about that kind of stuff. It’s inherent we would love for all four of us to be in the final, but I don’t think it needs to be spoken about.”
Maybe because the Olympics are simply a natural extension of their own competitiveness.
The group that spent qualifying trying to one-up each other carries the same vibe away from the snow, whether they’re playing poker, pool or “NBA2K.”
Asked if there’s one area in which he might have the advantage over his teammates, Ferreira just laughed.
“No one is giving up (when we play), that is the most important thing I would say,” said the 23-year-old from Aspen, Colorado. “I probably have everybody in pingpong, that’s my one strength.”
While glory is certainly at stake, all four men know the finals present them with a chance to showcase their discipline on the world stage. Things didn’t exactly go as planned in Sochi four years ago, when freeski halfpipe made its Olympic debut. The finals were a bit of a snowy mess. And while Wise survived to make history, he’d be just fine with his sport being the true winner this time around.
“We didn’t get to do what we wanted to do (in Sochi),” Wise said. “So looking at the conditions how everything is running (now), I think we’re going to have a really great contest.”
One with more than its fair share of storylines.
Yater-Wallace broke his ribs shortly before Sochi. He competed in serious pain and failed to make the finals. In 2015, he spent 10 days in a medically induced state of paralysis to fend off an infection.
Blunck is the reigning world champion. Ferreira and Yater-Wallace have been good friends since elementary school. Wise is the elder statesmen, a 27-year-old father of two who has been around long enough to see his passion morph from outsider to a vital part of the Olympic program.
“The snowboarder/skier beef is over,” Wise said. “The alpine/freeskier beef is over. We’re all out here doing what we love to do at the highest level we possibly can. Nobody needs to hate on anybody. I think the reality is we’re winning the fun meter and we’re winning some of the contests.”