White and Clark win first Grand Prix stop at Copper

Nate Abbott

Shaun White took top honors at the first Winter Olympic qualifier of the year at Copper Mountain.

And ... exhale.

The first U.S. Grand Prix halfpipe contest of the season is finally out of the way. And if there was one universal feeling on the hill after the awards ceremony, it was relief. "I can't even explain how I feel right now," said Shaun White, moments after taking his final run — a victory lap — in the Copper Mountain halfpipe. "I'm just happy to finally be competing. There has been so much buildup to this event. This morning, I woke up at 5 and was taking runs in my head. That's never happened to me before. I'm just happy to be one step closer."

The men's final was exactly what it promised to be: a double-cork-a-thon. White landed back-to-back double cork 10s and back-to-back 10s. Louie Vito, whose back-to-back 10s looked even flashier than White's, finished second. "I was having trouble learning the double cork switch," Vito said. But a couple of weeks ago, he started setting them down in practice and landed the combo for the first time in competition in Friday's qualifier. Vito and White are still the only riders to land back-to-back double corks in competition.

Vito finished his first run with a 12, but sketched the landing and opted to play it safe and drop it from his second run. "I hate losing," Vito said. "And I usually have the 12 on lock. But the overall points difference between second and third place is huge, and I have to keep my eye on the prize — the Olympics. So I'm happy starting off the season with second."

Nate Abbott

Louie Vito, whose back-to-back 10s looked even flashier than White's, finished second.

Of all the competitors, Vito seemed the most composed. Then again, he worked out his nerves on a dance floor this fall. "I will never have those kind of nerves again," he said. "Yesterday, standing at the top of the halfpipe, I realized this is nothing compared to dancing in front of 22 million people every week. There, I was out of my element. But I know how to do this. I've been here before. So the nerves weren't there."

USSA rookie team rider Zack Black, 19, surprised even himself and finished in third place. Missing from the podium was any member of the Frends crew. Kevin Pearce fell in qualifiers and suffered a concussion. But standing at the bottom of the halfpipe cheering on his friends, he said missing the first final of the season is just more motivation for the next stop at Mammoth Mountain from Jan. 7-10. Scotty Lago, Jack Mitrani and Danny Davis were three of the most exciting riders to watch all day, but couldn't put down a run. In the first heat for the men, only four of 16 riders landed their runs.

But it wasn't just the men who could have used a pre-finals yoga class. The women were on edge, too. "I feel like I have been riding better than I have in my entire life and I think that led to my nerves," said 2006 Olympic silver medalist Gretchen Bleiler, who fell on her first run, but landed a clean, but less difficult second run and finished second to 2002 Olympic gold medalist Kelly Clark. "I over-amped myself. This stuff is high pressure and I need to learn how to overcome these nerves. You'd think after doing this for 10 years, I wouldn't get nervous anymore. But now I know exactly what I need to do."

Nate Abbott

Gretchen Bleiler, who fell on her first run, landed a clean, but less difficult second run and finished second to 2002 Olympic gold medalist Kelly Clark.

Clark's first run, which consisted of three 5s, two 7s and the cleanest frontside 9 thrown by a woman all weekend, was enough to win the event. "This is the strongest start to a season I have ever had," she said. "I'm usually not riding at this level until late January. I'm thankful I put in the time and worked as hard as I did. I came out and did my hardest run right off the bat and landed it. Now every contest is just prep for the Olympics. Hopefully that will be my easy run."

Ellery Hollingsworth, 18, Maddy Schaffrick, 15, and Clair Bidez, 22, were the only other U.S. riders in the final, and finished fifth, sixth and eighth, respectively. Missing from the women's final was 2006 Olympic gold medalist Hannah Teter, who dislocated her shoulder in a practice run minutes before Thursday's qualifiers. "It was so frustrating, but it's already feeling better and I'll be ready for Mammoth," Teter said. After Bleiler took her final run, she walked over to her 2006 Olympic teammate and gave her a long hug. "I told her I miss her up there and she needs to get healthy," Bleiler says. "It's not the same without Hannah. She's fun and relaxed and we need her up there with us."

At the next Grand Prix at Mammoth Mountain, two halfpipe finals will be held, and the competition will only be more intense. "I know I say it all the time, but practice makes perfect, and these riders have been putting their hearts and souls into preparing for this season," said Mike Jankowski, head coach of the U.S. halfpipe team. "It showed today, don't you think?"