Kearney headlines U.S. Olympic freestyle team
Jeret “Speedy” Peterson is hoping for “Hurricane” conditions in Vancouver.
The U.S. aerialist would love to do his signature jump on Cypress Mountain next month – in which he crams three flips and five twists in one frenetic 3.5-second leap – if only to bring a little spice to an event that’s become a bit stale over the years.
“I definitely feel like it needs to have somebody push the envelope,” Peterson said. “We’ve been doing the same tricks since ’88 when it first became an Olympic sport.”
Peterson would know. Vancouver will be his third Olympics. The veteran secured the spot by winning the Olympic Trials in December and will spearhead the U.S. Olympic Freestyle team that coach Jeff Wintersteen called much improved over the one that managed just a single medal in Turin four years ago.
“I think we’re much stronger,” Wintersteen said. “It’s the Olympics and anything can happen.”
It might have to if the US wants to up its medal haul from Turin. Four years ago all 14 team members were ranked in the top 15 in their respective disciplines. This time around only 13 of 18 skiers can make the same boast.
“We’re going to be as competitive as we can on a given day,” Wintersteen said.
The best day might be the first. Women’s moguls hits the mountain on Feb. 13. The US team, featuring World Cup champion Hannah Kearney, Tahoe City’s Shannon Bahrke, Heather McPhie and Michelle Roark, is peaking. The quartet swept the top four spots in a World Cup event last week in Lake Placid.
Wintersteen said the men’s moguls team – World Champion Patrick Deneen, Michael Morse, Nate Roberts and Bryon Wilson – “still has some gas in the tank,” and the addition of skicross will give former alpine stars Daron Rahlves of Truckee and Casey Puckett one last shot at an elusive Olympic medal.
In aerials the climb to the podium may be more difficult.
The US hasn’t medaled in aerials since Eric Bergoust and Nikki Stone won gold in Nagano 12 years ago. The sport hasn’t really evolved during the interim, one of the reasons Peterson would love to have his Hurricane make landfall.
“Really doing three flips and four twists isn’t that difficult,” Peterson said. “There’s a huge gap between doing three flips and four twists and adding one more twist.”
That doesn’t mean Peterson thinks he needs to nail it to medal. The 28-year-old from Boise, Idaho, pointed out he didn’t need the Hurricane while winning the majority of his seven World Cup titles.
Still, he’s hoping to at least be able to have the choice. That means hoping for benign conditions on Cypress Mountain, hardly a given considering Olympic organizers are so concerned about a lack of snow they’ve closed the mountain in hopes of preserving the snow pack for when the freestyle events start on Feb. 13.
While Peterson – who was seventh in Turin and ninth in Salt Lake City in 2002 – says he “definitely” plans on doing the Hurricane, he won’t make up his mind until the night before he jumps.
“I feel very confident in landing it,” he said. “I’m close to where I want to be.”
Peterson has been steady if not spectacular this winter, finishing somewhere between ninth and 12th in each of his five World Cup starts.
That’s heady territory compared to teammate Ryan St. Onge. The reigning world champion has struggled during the run-up to the Olympics, cracking the top 15 once in five events.
Peterson, however, isn’t worried about St. Onge’s ability to turn it around before qualifying begins on Feb. 22.
“Aerials is a very unique sport in the fact that you can be No. 1 in the world one week and you can run into some small difficulty where you’ll have trouble being inside the top 12,” Peterson said. “It’s not like you have the fastest runner and everything is inside you. … Yeah, Ryan is having some difficulty this year. He’s one of the best jumpers out there and needs to put it down in competition.”
Peterson and St. Onge will be joined on the men’s aerials team by Olympic newcomers Matt DePeters, 22, and 21-year-old Dylan Ferguson.
DePeters and Ferguson, however, are nearly senior citizens compared to 16-year-old Ashley Caldwell, who became the first athlete in the United States Ski and Snowboard Association’s Elite Air Program to qualify for the Olympics.
The former gymnast from Hamilton, Va., was focused on making the 2014 games in Sochi, Russia. Instead, she’ll make her Olympic debut four years ahead of schedule after a meteoric rise through the ranks.
Caldwell jumped well at the Olympic Trials then cemented her spot on the team with 10th and 13th-place finishes in a pair of World Cup events earlier this month.
“She’s grown up extremely quick in this sport,” said teammate Emily Cook, who will be competing in her second Olympics. “It’s pretty unprecedented.”
Cook and Caldwell will jump alongside teammates Lacy Schnoor and Jana Lindsey in Vancouver, where increased competition from programs like China’s will make reaching the podium difficult.
Yet Caldwell’s surprising berth and the leadership of Cook and Lindsey gives the team some pretty good balance.
“We’re far ahead of where we were four years ago,” Wintersteen said. “There are huge challenges, but I think we’ve made some significant strides.”
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