Seventeen years after it began, the U.S. Grand Prix series marks a first this week at Copper Mountain, Colo. All four of the Olympic disciplines the Grand Prix now supports -- freeski and snowboard slopestyle and halfpipe -- will be contested at the same event, with World Cup points on the line in each competition.
The Copper Grand Prix carries heavy significance across world rankings. Not only is it sanctioned by the International Ski Federation, it's also a 5-star event on the World Snowboard Tour and one of eight Platinum-level events on the Association of Freeskiing Professionals World Tour.
Accordingly, an international field, including many of the sports' biggest names, is entered in each of the eight competitions between men and women. This includes a handful of athletes making their season debuts after injuries, notably Bobby Brown, Simon Dumont and Grete Eliassen, who were all on the entry list provided by the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, which is hosting the event. The trio missed the season-opening Dew Tour at Breckenridge in December.
The Grand Prix will be the first time that snowboard slopestyle riders get an opportunity to secure Olympic qualifying points through the World Cup system. Each athlete must post at least one top-30 result to be eligible for the 2014 Olympics, and the other three disciplines already got a chance to do so last summer and fall. But the top-30 isn't the only objective this week. The number of start spots each nation is given in Sochi also will be determined through this year's World Cup circuit, meaning there are team goals as well. This week's Grand Prix is also one of the last major contests before X Games Aspen, which takes place later this month.
"The U.S. teams have three goals at Copper," said U.S. Freeskiing and U.S. Snowboarding head coach Mike Jankowski. "Number one is to get your top 30, No. 2 is to perform at a high level and get on the podium and put down progressive tricks in a contest, and No. 3, although not necessarily in that order, is we need to have four people in the top of those [World Cup] standings so that we have those four [Olympic] start spots."
Jankowski added: "All our team is clear on what they need to do in order to make sure we have a consistent presence on the World Cup. We're not just doing one and done, get one top 30 then we're out. We have a good master plan to make sure that each discipline gets those available start spots."
One could argue there's even more on the line for a handful of Canadian athletes this week. As opposed to the Americans' Olympic-qualifying system, which awards Olympic berths based on results in next winter's Grand Prix series leading up to the Games, Canadian athletes are able to qualify this year. The process is designed to take pressure off of the top contenders next season and allow them to focus on peaking at the Olympics, Canadian freeski halfpipe coach Trennon Paynter said.
In snowboarding, a Canadian athlete must rank in the top five of the World Snowboarding Points List come April, which includes the Grand Prix; currently Sebastien Toutant, Mark McMorris and Spencer O'Brien are in line to do that. In skiing, two male and two female athletes can qualify in both the halfpipe and slopestyle disciplines if they podium at two of five designated events for their discipline, and finish in the top 16 of another.
Pipe skiers Justin Dorey, Mike Riddle and Roz Groenewoud secured one of those podiums at the Dew Tour. The Grand Prix isn't a designated event in halfpipe, but it is for slopestyle. Any athlete who qualifies this year must still finish in the top 12 of one AFP Platinum event next winter to cement their Olympic inclusion. Skiers and snowboarders who don't qualify this season will get another chance next year, albeit with different criteria.
Though this weekend promises to be busy with eight finals on Friday and Saturday (qualifying starts Wednesday), Jankowski was confident the event would run smoothly and that the best runs would win. "That's what we're going to continue to strive to do with this Grand Prix series, and I think that's what USSA and FIS bring to the table," he said. "We want to keep a fair, level playing field for everybody and provide top-quality judges and venues and make sure we've got a fair result at the end."