SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — The sun had long since baked the snow into mashed potatoes, but a group of elite freestyle skiers were still sending it without hesitation into the clumpy landings.
“Coming into that bottom air I was just thinking, ‘OK, I’m not going to check any speed.’ I just hit it, grabbed and got both tips,” said Jake Hickman of the Squaw Valley Freestyle Team, who was back in top form a little more than a year after suffering a serious spinal cord injury, placing sixth overall.
The nation’s top moguls skiers sped through the slushy mogul finals Friday during the first day of the Sprint U.S. Freestyle Championships at Heavenly Mountain Resort. Skiers were scored on their turns, speed and air. Turns are the most important, accounting for 50 percent of the score. Speed and air are each worth 25 percent.
The snow was soft, and those who came out standing picked their spots well.
“You could see the course had some teeth. There were a lot of mistakes and a lot of crashes,” said Heavenly skier Sho Kashima, who finished third. “You wanted to push your speed, but you really didn’t want to too much because once you lost control there was no getting it back. You had to ski a fine line of organized chaos.”
Kashima and the Wilson brothers found that perfect balance.
Bradley Wilson and Bryon Wilson took first and second place, respectively, and climbed the podium together for the first time. Bradley Wilson earned a top score of 26.33, while his brother posted a 25.33 and Kashima a 25.24.
“This event always brings you back to the freestyle roots and what freestyle is about,” Bradley Wilson said. “When I remember to have fun I’m usually really happy with my results.”
Kashima, South Tahoe’s own snow hero, earned his first podium finish after coming back from a second knee surgery in February.
“I still haven’t found what comp speed is. I had one event where I was slow, but felt really good and I missed out on the finals because of it,” Kashima said. “I’m just still trying to find that comp speed because I’ve only been competing for three weeks before this.”
Kashima sure looked like he had competition speed on lock Friday. He threw a single twist back flip off the first air and accelerated through the long mogul field. He capped his run with a double spin that initially landed him in second.
Hickman and Trevor Semmens, also a member of the Squaw Valley Freestyle Team (ska SquawFree), both turned in solid runs that placed them in the top three in the first half of the competition. Hickman received a score of 24.14 for sixth place, while Semmens came in seventh with a 24.09. SquawFree teammate Riley McGuire-McCarthy was 19th, with a 20.38.
“It was really exciting to put down a good run,” said Hickman, who suffered his spinal cord injury at the U.S. Freestyle Selections in Colorado last December, but has since recovered to ski competitively again. “I just felt in the zone the whole way with no distractions. Up at the top I did a double tap on my ski. That’s my anchor and it gets me into the zone. Coming into the top air I felt super confident, got my pop on my backflip, came through on the landing and I just knew I was going to smoke right out of it.”
In the women’s competition, Heather McPhie, of Bozeman Mont., grabbed first place with a new twist on her final trick that no other woman was throwing. It was just enough to give her an edge over regular top contender Hannah Kearney, who captured second with a 26.20 to McPhie’s 26.41. Eliza Outtrim (24.19) snagged third place in the women’s finals.
“I’ve been sick all week and I really had to dig deep today to pull out the win,” McPhie said. “There is so much depth on our team and you really see it at an event like this. To be up on the podium again with Hannah and Eliza is something that is just so unbelievable.”
Other members of the SquawFree team included Lynne Hickman (23rd, 15.75), Julia Semmens (24th, 15.65), Emily Tewksbury (31st, 14.64), Sophia Marseilles (33rd, 13.79), Bryn Anderson (37th, 12.87) and Tamara Wescott (43rd, 8.83). Former SquawFree member K.C. Oakley (18.24) was 11th.
— Sierra Sun sports editor Sylas Wright and the U.S. Ski Team contributed to this report.