An Aspen guide to the 2021-22 Winter Olympic ski and snowboard season
This was an article written for the Aspen Times, 11/4/21
Aspen, you’re beginning to look a lot like you should. Those pretty leaves are being replaced by white mountain tops, those chairlifts will soon be spinning and with glee winter will be upon us again.
And this season is particularly special as the four-year Olympic cycle hits its crescendo with the 2022 Winter Games coming up from Feb. 4-20 in Beijing.
While a world away, Aspen, the Roaring Fork Valley and the entire state of Colorado will buy into what is arguably the largest celebration in the skiing and snowboarding world, where everyone with a television set will be able to take in those sports that are commonplace here in the mountains.
So, to get things started, here’s an Aspenite’s guide to the Olympic season, from what local athletes could possibly represent the red, white and blue, to the Colorado events that will help determine who gets to chase the Olympic glory.
Buckle up. The next few months will be full of excitement in the competitive world of skiing and snowboarding.
Alex Ferreira returns for more
In terms of Aspen athletes, it starts with Alex Ferreira. The 27-year-old halfpipe skier is the reigning Olympic silver medalist, having finished second to Nevada’s David Wise in his one and only appearance at the Games four years ago in South Korea. Ferreira also is a two-time X Games Aspen gold medalist (2019, 2020) and is undoubtedly one of the best in the world when he’s on top of his game.
So, can he get back to the Olympics in 2022 and go for another medal? Without a doubt, but the competition for those coveted U.S. team spots will be fierce in halfpipe skiing. In the first Olympic qualifier, held at Aspen’s own Buttermilk Ski Area back in March, Ferreira finished sixth overall and fourth among Americans, behind Crested Butte’s Aaron Blunck, Wise and Winter Park’s Birk Irving. He’s in a good position entering this winter, but will need to keep it up over the remaining qualifiers.
Hailey Swirbul heads to her first Olympics
The closest thing to an Olympic lock this winter has to be Hailey Swirbul. The 23-year-old is a Basalt High School graduate and has become one of the U.S. cross-country ski team’s top up-and-coming talents. This will only be her second season as part of the prestigious A team for the U.S., but she’s already proven she belongs.
She landed her first career World Cup podium last December and is poised to add to it this winter. Swirbul also was chosen to represent the Americans at the world championships last season, and there is little doubt she’ll get to do the same at the Beijing Olympics come February. Only three women were named to the U.S.’s A team this winter, a list that includes Olympic gold medalist Jessie Diggins, veteran breakout star Rosie Brennan and Swirbul. That’s a sign from the U.S. coaches that her Olympic spot is written in Sharpie.
Hanna Faulhaber is ready to shine
Along with Swirbul, Hanna Faulhaber looks primed to make her first Olympic team. The halfpipe skier, who happens to be a current Basalt High School student much like Swirbul used to be, has skyrocketed up the world rankings. The 17-year-old had a breakthrough performance when she finished fourth at the world championships last March in Aspen and is one of only six women on the U.S.’s freeski pro halfpipe team for this upcoming season.
The downside to her Olympic dreams is that she crashed during training ahead of the first Olympic qualifier last march in Aspen and did not compete, meaning she’s behind the curve in that regard. Veterans Brita Sigourney and Devin Logan look like Olympic team locks, but the rest of the U.S. contingent is wide open. As long as she stays healthy, one must like Faulhaber’s chances.
Athletes who could surprise
Let’s call Ferreira, Swirbul and Faulhaber locks, at least for a second. Who else could surprise and find their way onto the U.S. Olympic team from the valley? It’s worth keeping an eye on the rest of our halfpipe skiers, notably pro team member Cassidy Jarrell and rookie team member Tristan Feinberg. I’d say both are longshots considering the insane amount of depth the U.S. has in halfpipe skiing these days, but they’ll both be knocking on the door. Jarrell missed the first Olympic qualifier because of injury, while Feinberg — only 18 — was a surprising finals qualifier in that competition in Aspen. He finished seventh among the Americans at Buttermilk, which at least has him in the mix entering this winter.
Another name worth watching is Aspen’s own Bridger Gile in alpine skiing. The 22-year-old is on the U.S. B team and fared well at U.S. nationals here in Aspen back in April. He has numerous World Cup starts under his belt, including this season’s opener in Soelden, but hasn’t yet touched a second run. He’ll probably need to finish a little stronger in races over the next two months to make that Olympic team, but it’s very much in the cards for him.
Not quite Aspen, but we claim them
Thanks in large part to the incredible coaching available through the Aspen Valley Ski & Snowboard Club, there are many athletes who are not valley natives but have trained through AVSC and could possibly represent at the Olympics this winter.
At the top of that list is Chris Corning, one of the world’s best big air and slopestyle snowboarders. Still only 22, Corning made the 2018 Olympic team, finishing fourth in big air and 17th in slopestyle. He was a disappointing 16th in the Olympic slopestyle qualifier in Aspen last March, but was still fifth among Americans. He’s not a lock, not with rising stars like Dusty Henricksen and Judd Henkes looking to snag a spot — let’s assume someone like Red Gerard is a guarantee — but Corning has enough experience and talent to make a push for the U.S. team again.
Others with AVSC ties include snowboarders Jake Canter and Jake Pates, alpine skiers Cooper Cornelius and Isabella Wright, and snowboardcross’s Hagen Kearney. He won’t be on the U.S. Olympic team, but former AVSC athlete Jon Sallinen — he, like so many, works with valley legend Peter Olenick these days — could very well represent his native country of Finland at the 2022 Olympics. He competes in both halfpipe and slopestyle skiing.
Who is not going to China?
As fun as it is to guess who will represent the Roaring Fork Valley at the Olympics, it’s worth pointing out who will not. Last spring, we bid adieu to a cross-country skiing legend in Simi Hamilton. The Aspen native hung it up after three Olympic appearances, six world championships and a decade on the U.S. ski team. He’s retired home to the valley along with his wife, fellow U.S. Olympian and standout Sophie Caldwell Hamilton, and will likely be found competing in many of the local ski races this winter.
Other 2018 Olympians from the area who we won’t see in China include cross-country skier Noah Hoffman, alpine skier Wiley Maple and halfpipe skier Torin Yater-Wallace. Hoffman and Maple have since retired, while Yater-Wallace dedicates himself to the film world exclusively these days. New Castle’s Alice McKennis Duran, who was oh-so-close to that 2018 downhill podium in South Korea, also retired back in the spring, saying her goodbyes with a final lap at Aspen Highlands during U.S. nationals.
About those Olympic qualifiers
So, how does one go about qualifying for the Olympics, anyway? As far as disciplines like alpine and cross-country skiing, it’s mostly about scoring World Cup points. There aren’t any true qualifiers, so doing well in the regular races should get you on the Olympic team. A superstar like Mikaela Shiffrin probably wouldn’t have to touch her skis between now and February to be named to the team for Beijing, but good luck keeping her out of the starting gate.
The freeskiers and snowboarders — i.e., halfpipe, slopestyle and big air — do have specific qualifiers, which largely make up the U.S. Grand Prix series. In the chaos of last season and the pandemic, Aspen stepped in to host the first qualifier in March at Buttermilk, a week after also hosting the world championships, which was not a U.S. qualifier. The qualifiers resume this season with the Copper Grand Prix (Dec. 8-11), Dew Tour at Copper (Dec. 16-19) and the Mammoth Grand Prix (Jan. 6-8). There is also a one-off big air contest Dec. 2-4 in Steamboat Springs.
The name of the game at the qualifiers is to make podiums and beat your American teammates. In recent years, the U.S. coaches have pretty much stuck to the results in naming the Olympic teams, so it’s really in the athletes’ hands. Another qualifier of some sort in mid-January can’t be ruled out, but U.S. ski and snowboard hasn’t yet announced any plans to add any additional contests.
So, what about X Games?
Yes, X Games is scheduled to make its annul trek to Aspen’s Buttermilk Ski Area this winter. ESPN’s made-for-TV spectacle is scheduled for Jan. 21-23. Somewhat unceremoniously, X Games “celebrated” its 20th anniversary in Aspen last winter without fans because of the pandemic. This January’s event marks No. 21 at Buttermilk, and fans will even be able to attend this year after not being allowed in last winter because of the pandemic.
While X Games remains one of the most popular and desirable contests for athletes, it’s not an Olympic qualifier. In fact, most countries will have named their Olympic squads before then and if anything, X Games will be a final tune-up before athletes head to China.
That said, don’t expect it to be a glorified practice session, as X Games competitions during Olympic years can be some of the best, with athletes often bringing new tricks to the arena. Winning gold at either X Games or the Olympics more often than not means being the innovator and doing something that’s never been done before, and Buttermilk will be a showcase for just that come January.