After four years away from halfpipe contests because of injury, U.S. freeskier Tanner Hall returned Saturday to win the men's superpipe finals at The North Face Freeski Open in Wanaka, New Zealand.
It was a momentous victory for Hall, a seven-time Winter X Games gold medalist who hasn't competed in a pipe contest since the February 2009 Winter Dew Tour. He injured both of his knees in a film shoot later that season and didn't drop into a pipe again until December 2011. Hall returned to competition for the first time this past May, at the Sammy Carlson Invitational Big Air, where he placed fourth.
Hall, 28, has been attempting a comeback in time for ski halfpipe's Olympic debut at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. Earlier this week, Hall was dropped by his longtime sponsor Red Bull. "I guess they don't believe in me but it's gonna be bittersweet proving them wrong," Hall wrote this week about the sponsor change.
Because of stormy weather and fog at Snow Park NZ, the men's finals were limited to just one run. Hall's winning run, which scored an 85.00, included a 900 tail, alley-oop 360 Japan, a switch 720 mute, a right 900 safety, and a 1080 tail. He beat out 2012 Winter X Tignes SuperPipe gold medalist American Torin Yater-Wallace, 16, who scored second with a big switch right 900 mute, and Frenchman Benoit Valentine, who took third.
"I am so stoked to be back after four years of not competing, and coming back to win The North Face Freeski Open of New Zealand is the best feeling ever," Hall said afterward.
In the women's halfpipe finals, Norway's Tiril Christiansen took her first major contest win, ahead of American Angeli Vanlaanen in second and Belgium's Katrien Aerts in third. "It is the first time that I have won a major pipe competition so I couldn't be happier," Christiansen said. "I will definitely be back next year."
The slopestyle finals took place Friday after several windy days of qualifiers. For the men, Australian Russ Henshaw took first. Henshaw's run included a front 450 off the close out rail, a lip 270 on 270 out of the down rail and a switch 540 tap over the bonk feature. On the jumps, he stuck a right double cork 1260 mute and a switch left double rodeo 900 Japan.
"I am super stoked to be able to compete at The North Face Freeski Open of New Zealand this year, after missing out through injury last year," Henshaw said. "Getting first here in New Zealand is just the best feeling I have had in a long time."
Eighteen-year-old Jesper Tjäder from Sweden took second and France's Jules Bonnaire took third with a switch right bio 900 and a left rodeo 1080 tail grab.
The women's slopestyle field saw American Emilia Wint, in her first contest of the season, on top of the podium. Her run included a left 540, a switch left rodeo 540 critical and a 720 tweaked mute grab. "I couldn't be more stoked," Wint said afterward.
Now in its eighth year, the NZ Freeski Open is usually a primer for the winter season to come, giving athletes a chance to get back into contest mode before the snow starts to fall in the northern hemisphere, and it's a chance for athletes to start earning AFP World Tour points.
It's also one of few open contests still left, giving any skier a chance to sign up and spend two days qualifying to compete alongside some of the best freeskiers in the world.
"We are seeing more and more international competitions move to invitation-only formats," said NZ Freeski Open events manager Cam Craighead. "The New Zealand Open is one of the few comps in the world where Scandinavians, Europeans and Americans can meet on an even playing field, and it just so happens some pretty good Australians and Kiwis are there to meet them. We will continue to push the open format, as it is an important part in building world-class freeskiers."