COPPER MOUNTAIN, Colo. — David Wise would like to win another Olympic gold medal at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018. And the 27-year-old freeskier is finally one step closer.
“It’s a boost of confidence, it’s a pressure ease, it’s everything,” Wise said with a big smile. “The weight’s off my shoulders now.”
He nailed his first run at the Toyota U.S. Grand Prix, sailing high above Copper’s sunny superpipe and linking a series of double corks. He scored an un-toppable 92.80 and made a statement to the eight other men in the final, including Torin Yater-Wallace, who won the first Olympic qualifier last February as well as the PyeongChang test event, and reigning world champion and X Games gold medalist Aaron Blunck, who also competed in the 2014 Sochi Games.
The U.S. Grand Prix at Copper is serving as the second 2018 U.S. Olympic qualifier for freeski halfpipe. Up to three skiers who earn two top-three finishes in the five qualifiers will qualify for the PyeongChang Games.
Canadians Noah Bowman and Simon D’Artois rounded out the podium at the Copper Grand Prix, with scores of 91.00 and 89.20, respectively. Yater-Wallace was the next American in fifth, with 2016 Youth Olympian Birk Irving seventh and Blunck eighth.
Of note, Gus Kenworthy — one of few athletes in the world trying to qualify for both halfpipe and slopestyle at the 2018 Games — did not make the final at Copper.
For Wise, his win here in the first halfpipe contest of the Olympic season showed that the Olympic gold medalist is back on form after two less-than-stellar years.
Since he won gold in Sochi, Wise has not been a regular atop the halfpipe podium. At the first Olympic qualifier at Mammoth Mountain, California, last February, he qualified third but then finished eighth. Two weeks later, he finished 11th at the PyeongChang test event. Until today, he had not won a halfpipe since the Copper Grand Prix in December 2014. And he has not won X Games since January 2014, right before he won the inaugural Olympic halfpipe event.
He called the previous two seasons the toughest in his career, adding that he suffered two concussions and fought through several other injuries.
“I felt like I was always only at 75 percent,” he said. “So I’m starting the season off really healthy, really mentally strong, in a good place, and just enjoying the ride.”
In the off-season, he worked hard on a few new tricks and said it was “vindicating to come out and do those tricks and have them rewarded.”
After his first run, he threw his ski poles in joy and relief, then emphatically stated, “That’s a start.”
A family man from Reno, Nevada, Wise’s wife, daughter and son were not at Copper. But Wise said they were home in Reno, watching the contest live.
Wise needs one more win to solidify a spot on the 2018 U.S. Olympic Team, or another podium finish to make a strong case for himself. But it will not be easy. Only four men will be named to the team.
“I’ve been saying it a lot and I’ll repeat it until I’m blue in the face, the U.S. team right now is the strongest team I’ve ever seen in the sport of halfpipe skiing,” said Wise. “So qualifying for the [2018 U.S. Olympic] team is going to be as big of a challenge I think as podiuming at the Olympics.”
He cited Yater-Wallace, who would have qualified for his second Olympic team had he won the Copper halfpipe, and Blunck, who has “the most unique run in halfpipe right now.” Blunck was happy with his runs at Copper and said that the media is pushing the pressure angle, not the athletes or coaches, “so you just have to avoid that and just go ski because that’s what it’s all about.”
Wise also listed Alex Ferreira, who won the first world cup of the season in New Zealand in September, as a favorite to make the 2018 U.S. Olympic Team, as well as Kenworthy. And he mentioned Irving, an 18-year-old from Winter Park, Colorado, who is “doing brand new tricks that haven’t been done.” Irving is novelist John Irving’s grandson.
“I’ve already just named off more than four people,” said Wise, “so being in that top four is really going to be difficult.”
The Dew Tour next weekend in Breckenridge, Colorado, serves as the next Olympic qualifier. The final two Olympic qualifiers are scheduled for Snowmass, Colorado, and Mammoth in January.
Irving could have spoken for all the U.S. men when he said, “I’m just hyped to see how the rest of the season plays out.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered four Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.