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Colorado snowboarders, freeskiers vie for Olympic berths, snow sports immortality

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December 17, 2013, 12:03 pm

Qualifying for the Feb. 7-23 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, is in full swing in Colorado after last weekend’s Dew Tour in Breckenridge and with this weekend’s Grand Prix at Copper Mountain. A slew of local snowboarders and freeskiers are still hoping to qualify for their shot at Olympic glory and maybe one day enshrinement in the Colorado Ski & Snowboard Museum Hall of Fame.

Gretchen Bleiler

Gretchen Bleiler

Of course, winning an Olympic medal is no guarantee of election to the HOF, but it certainly can’t hurt. Aspen’s Chris Klug was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2011 after winning a bronze medal in parallel giant slalom at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City – just the second Games where snowboarding was a full-medal sport.

“I’m proud to be part of a great group of people that has contributed so much to skiing and snowboarding in this state, and to the sport in general,” Klug told the Aspen Times in 2011. “I never envisioned when I stepped on that Burton Backhill where it would take me. One of the things I’m most proud of is being part of the early spirit and early culture of the sport. To participate in the sport’s evolution has been pretty cool.”

Klug was a further inspiration by winning his medal just a year and a half after receiving a life-saving liver transplant.

And the sport’s founding father, Jake Burton Carpenter, who was part of snowboarding’s first competition at Ski Cooper in 1981 and has owned a home in Colorado for decades, was inducted into the Hall in 2010.

Last weekend in Breckenridge, snowboarding fans saw some of the sport’s top names, including Burton athlete Shaun White at the Olympic-qualifying Dew Tour iON Mountain Championships.

White, a 27-year-old California “kid,” was trying to qualify in both the newly added slopestyle competition and men’s halfpipe, which has been around since the 1998 Nagano Olympics and White has dominated with two gold medals in 2006 and 2010. White wound up second in halfpipe but pulled out of the slopestyle event with a bad ankle.

Chris Klug

Chris Klug

On the women’s side, likely future Colorado Hall-of-Famer Gretchen Bleiler battled a deep halfpipe field in Breckenridge that included two-time Olympic medalists Kelly Clark (2002, 2010) and Hannah Teter (2006, 2010).

Bleiler, 32, is another Aspen snowboarder who’s had huge X Games and Olympic success, winning a silver medal in halfpipe at the 2006 Winter Games in Torino, Italy. While she missed the medal podium at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Bleiler is hoping for another shot at Olympic gold at Sochi early next year.

“Obviously, for me, the Olympics have played a huge role in my life,” Bleiler said in an interview last year. “I just think the Olympics is the most amazing movement, and whether you get to compete in them or get to go watch them in person or even just on TV, I feel like it’s one of the most inspiring events out there.”

At the time, Bleiler was working with Junior Sherpas at SOS Outreach, a national nonprofit based in Avon that gets at-risk kids to take charge of their lives by participating in outdoor sports. Bleiler says she’s committed to programs that improve access to snow sports for kids who can’t afford to participate on their own.

The Aspen resident is a four-time gold medalist at the Winter X Games – a Buttermilk event with global TV reach that has impacted the Olympic movement. In addition to X Games staples like slopestyle being added to snowboarding at Sochi, slopestyle freeskiing and halfpipe will be new to the Games in February.

Slopestyle and halfpipe freeskiers laid it all on the line at the Dew Tour last weekend at Breck and will go for it again at the Visa U.S. Freeskiing Grand Prix and World Cup at Copper Mountain Dec 19-22 – the first of a five-event Olympic-qualifying series.

Look for Colorado athletes and potential future Hall-of-Fame Olympians like Torin Yater-Wallace, of Basalt, a six-time X Games medalist in halfpipe skiing. Other Coloradans to watch for include Ski & Snowboard Club Vail’s Aaron Blunck (Crested Butte), Duncan Adams (Breck) and Gus Kenworthy (Telluride).

In men’s slopestyle skiing, keep an eye on Bobby Brown (Breck) and Kenworthy, and on the women’s side look out for World Cup slopestyle champion Keri Herman, of Breck, and Meg Olenick (Aspen) and Emilia Wint (Denver).

“This is an exciting and historic time with freeskiers heading to the Olympics to showcase halfpipe and slopestyle for the first time,” said Mike Jankowski, head coach of the U.S. Freeskiing and U.S. Snowboarding teams. “The U.S. Team athletes are eager to charge into the season and have their sights firmly set on bringing home gold medals for Team USA.”

Editor’s note: During this Winter Olympic season and leading up to the 2015 FIS Alpine World Championships in Vail and Beaver Creek, this weekly series will tell Colorado’s rich snow sports history and heritage through stories about the state’s heroes and legends. The articles first appear in the Vail Daily and are written for the Colorado Ski & Snowboard Museum Hall of Fame, located on the third level of the Vail Village parking structure adjacent to Vail Village Covered Bridge. The museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. For more information, call (970) 476-1876 or go to www.skimuseum.net.

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David O. Williams is an award-winning energy, environment, sports and outdoor writer based in the Vail Valley. His work has appeared in publications as diverse as the The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Denver Post, SKI, SKIING, Powder, People, LA Weekly and the Huffington Post.

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