One of the most highly anticipated events of the 2014 Winter Games, the men's halfpipe qualification run got underway on Tuesday, with 40 participants all seeking the same goal of making it to the final.
With the six top scorers from across the two qualifying heats making their way straight into the final, Tuesday's semi-final was made up of the 12 next-best riders, all of them clinging to the hopes of staking a claim on Sochi halfpipe gold.
*Qualified for final - via Sochi2014.com
With the field whittled down substantially, 12 riders once again took to the halfpipe on Tuesday afternoon with only six places left to compete for in the event's final.
Early on, Iouri Podladtchikov continued to improve his standards. His qualification started off with a disappointing first run, but he sealed a semifinal place thanks to a much more confident second outing at the heat stage.
The Swiss giant went to the summit of the standings after registering a first-run mark of 87.50. Joining him as the only other semi-finalist to break the 80.00 barrier with his first attempt was the United States' Gregory Bretz, who managed an 83.00.
However, Podladtchikov's compatriot Jan Scherrer never took to the run, with NBC's Shawn Smith confirming the drop-out:
Jan Scherrer is OUT. That makes this an 11-man semi with the top six advancing.— Shawn Smith (@theshawnsmith) February 11, 2014
When the second runs got underway, it was far from a superstar resumption from the remaining participants, some of whom let mistakes get in their way in the pursuit of a final-worthy score.
Seamus O'Connor and Johann Baisamy of France were some of those to show creaks, their places in the competition's crescendo by no means secure given the wealth of athletes left to take their second runs.
However, Nathan Johnstone, Wancheng Shi and Kent Callister would end that streak, outscoring one another in succession. Respective scores of 73.50, 78.50 and 79.50 altered the top six substantially.
Taylor Gold’s final run-through was an impressive one that featured two double backside 540s, but any hopes of ensuring all four Team USA members were in the final ended when his final trick forced him into taking the slightest seat on the snow, inches from qualification.
An extremely sensible finish from Yiwei Zhang was clinical enough to budge Australia’s Johnstone out at the final hurdle. The Chinese athlete opted not to take the biggest of risks, but a score of 79.25 nevertheless ensured that he’ll be one of those lining up in the final 12.
With the field now complete for the final, the 12 remaining halfpipe stars will look to dethrone the back-to-back gold-medal winner Shaun White, who looked supremely confident heading into the climax:
Peace! pic.twitter.com/57FtjvxREY— Shaun White (@shaun_white) February 11, 2014
NBC photojournalist Skyler Wilder also tweeted to show that fellow American Danny Davis appeared to be in good spirits in the build-up to the final:
Read on for a full breakdown of Tuesday's qualifying heat scores, with the top three of each heat booking a place in the finals, while places four through nine settled for a semifinal berth.
You can find a full list of Tuesday's qualifying results at Sochi2014.com.
Qualification Heat 1 Recap
|1||JPN||Ayumu Hirano (QF)||92.25|
|2||SUI||Christian Haller (QF)||83.75|
|3||SUI||David Habluetzel (QF)||81.00|
|4||FRA||Arthur Longo (QS)||79.25|
|5||SLO||Tim-Kevin Ravnjak (QS)||76.50|
|6||CHN||Wancheng Shi (QS)||76.00|
|7||USA||Gregory Bretz (QS)||71.75|
|8||IRL||Seamus O'Connor (QS)||71.50|
|9||FRA||Johann Baisamy (QS)||71.25|
|12||NED||Dimi De Jong||64.25|
|14||NED||Dolf Van der Wal||62.50|
QF - Qualifies for final. QS - Qualifies for semi-final via Sochi2014.com
As is the case in most trick sessions, judges looked to the opening runs of today's snowboarders as the benchmark for the scoring, some using their opening trials as an opportunity to ease into their campaign.
However, such was not the case for Ayumu Hirano, the second entrant on the billing. The 15-year-old took no time at all to amaze onlookers with a 92.25 first run, featuring a superb cab double cork 1080 to show that age is indeed just a number.
The Japanese prodigy shot to the top of the standings with that effort, while other early participants such as Arthur Longo, Christian Haller and Janne Korpi opted for safer routines relying on more basic manoeuvres in their arsenal.
NBC's Shawn Smith also revelled in just how admirable Hirano's score was, especially given his age:
Ayumu Hirano getting massive air on his first run - that's one of the things that sets him apart. He's just 15 years old, 5'1" in height.— Shawn Smith (@theshawnsmith) February 11, 2014
Twists being the foundation of most riders' routines, moves such as the frontside 720 became a common sight as the competition progressed, and Hirano's extravagance in that sense was enough to see him endure a lot of competition.
Russia's Nikita Avtaneev and Great Britain's Ben Kilner both impressed with some pleasing opening runs, but in the process of going for the bigger frontside 1080 and switch moves, mistakes were made, resulting in more mediocre scores of 34.50 and 43.50, respectively.
Dominic Harington was the second of the two British athletes out in action, but he received a 12.75 score for a run that saw the 29-year-old slip up on two occasions, killing all momentum and any hopes of registering a competitive opening mark.
And the mistakes would continue to show among others, too, with commentators taking note of the halfpipe's condition, a subject of some controversy at these Winter Olympics.
Team Korea's Kwang-ki Lee was perhaps the most notable of these slip-ups, nosediving the flat in between the two walls in the midst of attempting to land a big twist.
After the first 20 riders had made their first runs, the order came back to the start so that those early on in the action could get their second runs underway. France's Longo restarted things in slightly disappointing fashion, losing pace with a frontside 720 attempt and failing to overcome his first run of 79.25—good enough for second at the time.
Hirano may have opened his account in amazing fashion, but a second run containing a cab 1080 and frontside 900 was only good enough for the judges to award a 64.75, far off the 92.25 registered earlier.
Which Heat 1 final qualifier is favourite to take gold?
The United States' Gregory Bretz went big on his second run, clocking in with some audacious double corks and a flat 1080, but again it was a lack of precision that prevented the American from finishing clean.
Haller boomed into second place on his second run, scoring 83.75 thanks to an outing complete with double cork, frontside 900 and a stylish method to boot, putting him in firm contention for a place in the final.
As qualification made its way through the order, the conditions would once again become a topic of discussion, with numerous athletes hitting below-par runs and attention always glancing in the direction of the halfpipe's condition.
Business Insider's Tony Manfred was among those speculating on the halfpipe's quality:
Pretty much everyone is falling in the halfpipe. I assume that’s not normal— Tony Manfred (@tonymanfred) February 11, 2014
Where there were holes in Avtaneev's first performance, the 18-year-old corrected to clinch a clean second attempt with enough detail in the grabs and a finishing backside 1080. The ensuing score of 63.75 put him in ninth, right on the cusp of a semi-final spot.
Irish contender Seamus O'Connor came not long after, building on his first-run mark of 66.25 and solidifying his place in the top nine with a 71.50 on Run 2, his double-cab frontside 720 clinching the necessary dazzle.
Irish commentator Will Downing confirmed his countryman's fate:
Seamus O'Connor qualifies for snowboard half-pipe semi-finals, on at 3pm Irish time. #Sochi2014— Will Downing (@WillDowningComm) February 11, 2014
Dimi de Jong, one of the two Dutch participants in the first heat, managed to right the wrongs of his first run, too, edging Avtaneev out of the top nine with his second run, earning a 64.25 that just put him on the qualification bubble.
Melon and double cork included, Lee also overcame his first-run woes, and his face clearly healed from the first-run fall. He knocked de Jong out of the semi-final running with his 69.50 at the second time of asking.
Incredibly, the improvements would continue with Swiss hopeful David Habluetzel, who pushed his way into the top three with a second ride of 81.00 that boosted him into third.
Tim-Kevin Ravnjak of Slovenia and Canada's Derek Livingston rounded things off in Heat 1, with the former's 76.50 again changing the order. Lee ebbed out of the running, while Livingston's second outing wasn't quite tidy enough to edge him in.
It didn't take long until the other half of the field were out in action for the second heat.
Qualification Heat 2 Recap
|1||USA||Shaun White (QF)||95.75|
|2||JPN||Taku Hiroaka (QF)||92.25|
|3||USA||Danny Davis (QF)||92.00|
|4||CHN||Yiwei Zhang (QS)||90.00|
|5||USA||Taylor Gold (QS)||87.50|
|6||AUS||Kent Callister (QS)||87.00|
|7||AUS||Nathan Johnstone (QS)||86.00|
|8||SUI||Iouri Podladtchikov (QS)||82.00|
|9||SUI||Jan Scherrer (QS)||69.75|
QF - Qualifies for final. QS - Qualifies for semi-final via Sochi2014.com
After a brief respite, Australia's Scotty James got things started in Heat 2, his double crippler and double cork 900 impressing judges enough to stage a 68.50 that some may have thought was slightly underscored by the judges.
And it wasn't long before the big guns came out firing. Team USA's rookie Taylor Gold hit two massive double Michalchuks, shooting him to the top of the Heat 2 standings with an 81.50, and then it was Shaun White's turn to begin his gold-medal defence.
A huge frontside 1080 started matters off, and a safe double alley-oop rodeo finish laid the foundation for a superb 95.75. With all the controversy surrounding the Sochi courses and White's decision to opt out of the slopestyle, class simply rose to the top as the 2006 and 2010 halfpipe Winter Olympics champion began his search for a three-peat with aplomb.
The official Sochi Twitter account heaped praise on the American:
China's Yiwei Zhang, an unknown quantity given the difference in competition participation that his nation adheres to in snowboarding, announced himself to the world with a terrific 90.00, with a very well-drilled double McTwist serving as basis for the score.
And within the first half of the second heat, it became clear what class there was in this group as Japan's Taku Hiraoka exploded into second, just behind White with a first run of 92.25-grade quality.
Thrive Sports support the notion that Heat 2's field was far stronger than that of Heat 1:
Taku Hiraoka of Japan also had a strong run, notching a 92.25. This heat is much, much stronger than the first one.— ThriveSports (@Thrive_Sports) February 11, 2014
As was the case in the first heat, the standards seemed to drop off slightly as the riders progressed through their order, whether by coincidence of some bigger names being at the top of the billing or again because of the halfpipe's condition.
Peetu Piiroinen, having taken a tumble in training on Monday evening, opted out of his starting spot, making progression that much more hopeful for the rest of the field.
The penultimate participant in the Heat 2 queue, Team USA giant Danny Davis showed precisely why he's a contender to take some of the spotlight away from compatriot White this year.
In terms of style, one could easily argue Davis' first run as the best of Tuesday's action, with his backside 360 leading into a McTwist before he rounded things off with a frontside 720, double alley-oop and backside rodeo. He edged into the No. 3 spot with a mark of 92.00.
The Associated Press' Will Graves made an early call on Davis' qualification chances:
And @theDDeadshow cruises into halfpipe semifinals. To be honest, at times it looks like he's playing an entirely different game. 92.00— Will Graves (@WillGravesAP) February 11, 2014
By the time Heat 2's first runs reached their end, we already had seven riders scoring 80.00 or higher, a dramatic contrast to the three that managed the feat in Tuesday's first heat.
Which Heat 2 final qualifier is favourite to take gold?
Jan Scherrer was the first of the second-run attempts to stage a surge on the top nine. His 69.75 threw him into eighth place but not before Heat 2's giants would look to disappoint his semi-final hopes.
Gold upped his score to an 87.50, but White wasn't quite able to spark things into life again. A stalefish, double McTwist and double cork frontside 1440 landed him a slightly underwhelming 70.75.
Iouri Podladtchikov, one of White's biggest competitors in the event, got over a disappointing first run to burst into the semi-final places with a recovered 82.00, which just bumped James out of the race for a semi-final berth.
From there, the order wouldn't change much despite the best efforts of Sochi's halfpipe hopefuls, as those who had impressed with their first runs simply maintained pace in the top-ranked places.
One factor in this steady decline may have been the slowly decreasing temperature, with the halfpipe course icing up slightly as a result.
It's something that didn't affect Davis' second performance, however, as he rode through any poor circumstance to unleash a big-enough run to score 73.75, with Markus Malin failing to qualify with the 78th and final run of the heat phase.