PARK CITY, Utah – After suffering a back injury last season, Aaron Blunck admits he pushed himself past the limit a few times. Blunck could not wait to get back in the halfpipe and build on his 2014 season that saw him finish seventh at the Sochi Olympic Winter Games. Resting his bulging disk was not an option.
Blunck put in the hard work to return to top form and it paid off with a nearly flawless run down the halfpipe in his first attempt of the afternoon at the Visa U.S. Freeskiing Grand Prix – a world cup event – on Friday.
The 19-year-old freeskier scored a 94.20 on his first run and it was good enough for him to claim a first-place finish in Park City. French skier Benoit Valentin scored 92.80 to finish second and his teammate Kevin Rolland took third with a score of 88.80.
Blunck wowed the spectators with a flurry of complex tricks that included a left double cork 900. His crisp execution of each trick even took him by surprise.
“I honestly did not expect to do that well on my first run,” Blunck said. “I thought to myself, 'Just get this one down and you can always improve on it on the next run.' I ended up landing the best run of my life on the first run. I wasn't able to put any more down, but I'm overall super stoked.”
Blunck, who won a bronze medal at the inaugural Winter Youth Olympic Games in 2012, had modest goals upon returning to full strength. He simply wanted to earn a couple of podium finishes and position himself to earn a victory before the season was done. Pulling off a dominating win at Park City Mountain Resort changes the perspective a little.
Before the world cup race, Blunck looked at the year he competed at the Olympics as a career pinnacle he could never top. Now he is the points leader in the world cup standings and feels like there is plenty of fuel left in the tank for him to move to an even higher level.
“Coming out here, it just feels good to know I put in the work and the work is finally paying off from the injury,” Blunck said.
Maddie Bowman can relate to the satisfaction Blunck felt. Bowman battled knee injuries over the past two seasons after winning the first-ever Olympic gold medal in women's halfpipe skiing in Sochi.
She added a world cup win to her glowing resume on Friday. Bowman was in second place behind Japanese skier Ayana Onozuka until her third and final run. Then she laid down a run that scored 89.80 and gave her first place by a single point. Onozuka finished second with a score of 88.80. French skier Marie Martinod scored 84.20 to place third.
Bowman unleashed some complicated tricks on her third run which included a 900-degree rotation and a high safety grab. It played out exactly as she hoped to help her move from second to first.
"You always try to picture a little bit more, but it was nice to come out and lay down a run I'm super happy with,” Bowman said.
Dominating in the halfpipe is nothing new for Bowman. Besides winning gold in Sochi, she has claimed gold medals in four consecutive Winter X Games now. This feat seems even more impressive when you consider that she balances training with classes at Westminster College in Salt Lake City.
Bowman wouldn't have it any other way. College is a welcome distraction from simply focusing on skiing all the time. And it helps Bowman maintain a love of the sport — something that has helped her battle through knee injuries and remain one of the world's best.
“I've learned a lot coming off the Olympics and then going into two years of knee surgeries,” Bowman, 22, said. “What I've learned the most that's helped me is that I really just love skiing. Being out here with my friends has helped me more than anything else.”