Americans look for podium sweep at Heavenly |

Americans look for podium sweep at Heavenly

It’s fitting the U.S. Freestyle Team’s aerial skiers are aiming high – shooting for a podium sweep – at the Sprint U.S. Freestyle Grand National on Sunday.

“It’s totally possible,” aerials assistant coach Matt Christensen said of the sweep after Thursday’s practice session.

Coach Wayne Hilterbrand grounded the whole freestyle program – not just the aerialists – at the beginning of the season, reminding everyone a successful 1999 season was just a step along the road. The program wants to repeat its success from last year this season, and repeat it again the next two seasons for it to culminate with a successful 2002 Olympic season.

“Honestly, last season was a little bit of a surprise, but we’ve got this dedicated group of coaches and athletes, and they made it happen,” Hilterbrand said before the season. “We’re all very focused on the 2000 season, and that doesn’t change.”

Eric Bergoust, of Missoula, Mont., entered the season as the top skier on a deep men’s team, but has been recovering from an injury. That forces Park City, Utah, native Joe Pack, a bronze medalist at last year’s World Championships in Switzerland, and World Cup winners Britt Swartley, Matt Chojnacki and Mariano Ferrario into the spotlight.

Pack is the top American aerials seed, with a fourth behind Belarussian Alexei Grichin, Canadian Nicolas Fontaine and Austrian Christian Rijavec. Americans Brian Currutt, Matt Chojnacki, Bergoust and Jerry Grossi also have seeds in the A draw. Pack has had the most success lately, blowing away the competition for a hometown win at Deer Valley on Jan. 9, with 235 points, the third-highest total in the sport’s history. Pack nailed a quad-twisting triple, his first full-double full-full jump he pulled in competition, for the win.

Pack’s jump moved him to eighth in the World Cup aerials standings, and is just one spot behind Swartley overall. Swartley was third in Park City in January, bumping his total to 220 points. But even with two Americans in the top 10, the team is wary of the Canadian Air Force and the Belarussian team. Grichin still leads the standings with 296 points, with teammate Dmitri Dashinski in fourth. Canada has three skiers – Fontaine, Steve Omischl, David Belhumeur and Daniel Murphy – among the top 10.

But Christensen still thinks a men’s sweep is possible.

“We’ve just got to make sure we know we know our jumps and get our speed accurate,” Christensen. He rated Swartley, Pack, Grossi and Currutt as the best in practice.

The U.S. aerial women still are looking for depth after Nikki Stone – the most consistent performer the past few years – retired. World Cup rookie Marissa Berman, of Mount Kisco, N.Y., provided a highlight performance for the team at Park City with a third-place finish. She fought through distractions and wind to take her first career podium finish.

“The wind was a little bit of a problem,” she said after challenging series leader Jacqui Cooper and Canadian Diedra Dionne in Park City. “I don’t weigh all that much, so I can get blown around a lot up there. I was actually so psyched it snowed so much last night because it makes the landing hill so much softer.”

Cooper, an Australian, has a 16-point lead over Norwegian aerialist jumper Hilde Lid, and a 36-point lead over Canadian Veronica Brenner. No Americans are among the top 10. Kelly Hillman has been the top performer for the U.S., and is 13th, two places ahead of Cook. The best three results of four count toward the standings.

The aerials kick off on Sunday with training for the B seeds from 8-9 a.m. at Heavenly’s aerial arena beside Gunbarrel. The B seeds compete from 9-11 a.m. The A seeds train from noon to 1 p.m. Sunday, and competition runs from 1-3 p.m. An awards ceremony for aerials will finish the Grand National at 4:15 p.m.

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