Finns circling, but American bump specialists up to the challenge
Fasten your seatbelt; Saturday is going to be a bumpy ride.
When the 2000 Sprint U.S. Freestyle Grand National event at Heavenly Ski Resort skates out of the gate this weekend, all eyes will be on Sunday’s mogul competitions on Gunbarrel, and on the local racers. But the local bumpers have their eyes on the prize, and on the competition.
That said, they won’t be able to focus far without finding Finland. Four Finns have turned the finish line into the “Finnish” line, creating a logjam on the podium – and beyond. After winning two of three events this season – including the most recent race Jan. 15 at Mount Tremblant, Quebec – Janne Lahtela has a daunting 52-point lead on his second-place countryman, Sami Mustonen, while Finns Lauri Lassila and Mikko Ronkainen sit third and fourth, respectively.
But the Americans aren’t far behind, with two racers – Evan Dybvig of Tunbridge, Vt., fifth and Luke Westerlund of Scarsdale, N.Y. – in the top 10, and three more – Toby Dawson, Alex Wilson and Ryan Riley – among the top 15. While Wilson’s best finish of the season was the seventh he posted in Deer Valley, Utah on Jan. 8, he provided the U.S. Freestyle team – and the South Shore – a highlight last season with a U.S. win at Heavenly.
“I think I can (repeat),” said Wilson, a Buffalo native who sits 14th in the World Cup standings. “I’m skiing well, and the course is awesome. I love this site.
“It’s definitely going to take my timing, making sure my speed is right up there with the top five competitors.”
Travis Ramos has been the best of the three local men – Ramos, Travis Cabral and Chris Hernandez – in the World Cup. Ramos’ lone finish for points was a 13th at Tremblant, but it pushed him into 23rd in the World Cup standings. Ramos targeted the Finns for the Deer Valley race, but declined to tip his hand about his goals for Saturday’s Grand National.
“I always want to be on the podium, and there’s only one place I want to do that more than my hometown,” Ramos said, hinting at his desire to land on the Olympic finish podium. He said he wasn’t calling his shots yet.
“Right now, It’s just for me to put down the best training I can, prepare and stay healthy,” Ramos said.
Cabral, Ramos’ friend and fellow Sierra-at-Tahoe product, is not far behind, at 27th. Cabral has raced in just one career World Cup event after winning the U.S. Nationals at 15. But he was impressive in his debut, skiing into 15th at Deer Valley.
“I’m skiing good,” Cabral said during practice on Wednesday. “I’ve got a few things to tune up before the competition day, but it’s going to be good.”
Still, many racers were sharp during practice. With a legion of aggressive racers ready to step up, one slip or bad move can make a huge difference on Saturday.
“If you make a mistake in this event, you just went to fifth,” said Heavenly Ski Foundation freestyle coach Jere Crawford, who observed the first practice on Wednesday.
The women’s rankings are packed even tighter than the men’s. American veteran Ann Battelle of Steamboat Springs, Colo., has been the most consistent performer, and leads the standings by 16 over Norway’s Kari Traa and by 20 over Canadian bumper Tami Bradley. Traa, though has raised eyebrows by winning two out of three events this season – Tanddalen, Sweden on Nov. 11, and Tremblant. A 12th in the second race at Deer Valley has made the race for second with Bradley tighter for Traa than the battle with Battelle for first. But Traa clearly has the world’s attention.
“I think she can beat some of the guys,” Crawford said. “I didn’t even see any of the girls today who looked even close to her.”
Aside from Battelle, though, the American women have not yet turned a ton of potential into wins this year. Jillian Vogtli is 13th, and the only American in the top 15. North Shore native Shannon Bahrke is 19th. Bahrke, from Tahoe City, has emerged since last year, taking fourth at Deer Valley on Jan. 9. Last year, Bahrke moved up steadily, first making the World Cup team, then finishing among the top five, then making the podium with a second.
Brooke Ballachey grew up skiing Heavenly’s bumps for the home-mountain freestyle team. As she’s recovering from knee surgery and an injury, though, Ballachey is taking this year easy. While she will ski, she’s looking for personal progress instead of a perch on the podium.
“It’s definitely a good course,” Ballachey said. “There’s a lot of skiers out there. Everybody seems to be doing well.”
After surgery in the spring to realign the patellar tendon in her right knee, Ballachey suffered a slight tear of her other patellar tendon during a fall in the Desolation Wilderness this summer. While it compounded her problem, it didn’t keep Ballachey out of the season’s first races – Ballachey finished among the top 30 at the first World Cup event of the season, in Deer Valley, Utah.
But Ballachey is optimistic. She estimated an American racer could make the podium with good runs.
“(It’s) everybody, if they put down a run,” Ballachey said. “(Traa) is beatable, but she’s good.”
After two training sessions on Friday and one Saturday, the moguls competition begins at 10:30 a.m. Saturday with pacesetters and forerunners. Qualifying runs start at 11 a.m., and the finials follow at 2:15 p.m.
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