COPPER MOUNTAIN, Colo. — Ben Ferguson was not expecting to be one of the top three today. After all, the 22-year-old halfpipe snowboarder has not yet been a regular on the podium of big events.
Rather than thinking about qualifying for his first Olympic team at the Toyota U.S. Grand Prix at Copper, he was just focused on his snowboarding.
“That’s all I really was focused on was just putting down a run that I’d be stoked on,” he said. “And it worked out.”
Ferguson went biggest on his second of three runs and scored 89.75, pulling ahead of three-time Olympian and two-time gold medalist Shaun White, who was sitting in second after the first run.
On his final run, White threw a 1440 (four revolutions) and his signature double McTwist 1260. Still, it was not enough to pass Ferguson. The judges gave White an 89.25.
“I’m a little disappointed in my score for the third run,” White told U.S. Ski & Snowboard. “I thought I was going to bump up doing a 14, 10(80) and double 12. So I don’t know. I’m a little confused right now. But that’s why we do these things.”
The two American men were far behind Ayumu Hirano, a 19-year-old snowboarder from Japan who won silver at the Olympic Winter Games Sochi 2014. Hirano threw his compact frame (he’s only 5-foot-3) high above Copper’s superpipe and scored a 95.25 for the win on his second run.
With their podium finishes, both Ferguson and White are one step closer to making the 2018 U.S. Olympic Team. The U.S. Grand Prix at Copper is the first Olympic qualifier in snowboard halfpipe, and riders only need one top-three result to qualify for the U.S. Olympic team — but only three (of four) athletes can qualify that way. The fourth will be chosen by the coaches.
For Ferguson, his second-place finish was a reward for the work he has put into snowboarding lately. Although he has had a handful of good results — an X Games silver medal in 2016, two previous world cup podiums (both at Copper) and a gold medal in 2012 at the inaugural Winter Youth Olympic Games — he has not yet experienced consistent success.
But the Olympic season has brought more focus to his riding, and it showed in his three solid runs.
“They all felt pretty good,” he said. “I’m stoked when I can land. I don’t land much, but this year I’ve been focused a little more and been able to put some runs down, so I’ve been feeling pretty good.”
Mostly, Ferguson wanted to have fun and keep the pressure at bay. And having his younger brother Gabe, 18, in the final helped.
“I love having Gabe around,” said Ferguson. “He’s one of my best friends for sure. He’s a good travel buddy, and he shreds, and it’s sick to watch him ride.”
At the top of the halfpipe at Copper, they gave each other hugs before their runs. On his second run, Gabe soared to score of 79, passing Ben by 0.25. But then Ben showed him who’s older.
“Definitely want to beat him still,” added Ferguson with a laugh. “And he wants to beat me, but we’re homeys for sure.”
For White, the podium finish is a bright spot after a difficult pre-season. In September and October, he crashed hard twice, bruising his hip and injuring his liver in the first fall, then scraping up his face in the second fall. Sixty-two stitches in his face showed how dangerous riding in a halfpipe can be. At Copper, he wore his signature bandana so no scars were visible.
White, who’s now 31, has also had other injuries and distractions in the past couple of years, like ankle surgery before last season. Until last February, he had lost the dominating consistency that he had had in previous years. He had not won a U.S. Grand Prix or X Games title since 2013. And in Sochi he finished fourth in halfpipe.
It was the first time since halfpipe snowboarding made its Olympic debut in 1998 that no American man had won an Olympic medal.
But there were signs of hope. White won U.S. Grand Prix in Mammoth in February 2017, then 12 days later, finished second in the PyeongChang test event. In March, he won his seventh U.S. Open title. It was a good sign. Until those hard crashes this fall.
White came to the U.S. Grand Prix in Copper just wanting to make the 2018 U.S. Olympic Team. He laid down two runs that would, hopefully, get him on the podium. Then on his final run, he pulled out the 1440 — a trick he has been working on (thus the hard crashes earlier this fall) — along with the double McTwist 1260, a signature trick he developed for the 2010 Olympic Games. But he did not get the same amplitude in the pipe that he was once known for.
“I honestly was using this contest as practice,” White said. “Obviously, I wanted to post a better score for the Americans. I put in my first easier run to put up a score and lock it in. That allowed me to go for my second and third runs a little harder.”
The remaining three Olympic qualifiers are the Dew Tour in Breckenridge, Colorado, next weekend; then after the New Year, U.S. Grand Prixes in Snowmass, Colorado, and Mammoth, California.
The competition for the four spots on the 2018 U.S. Olympic men’s halfpipe team will be stiff. The 10-man final at Copper was stacked with seven American riders, including two-time Olympian Greg Bretz, Louie Vito (who finished fifth at the 2010 Olympic Games) and Danny Davis, also a 2014 Olympian who laid down what many thought was the gold-medal run in Sochi until he crashed riding out of it. Chase Josey and the Ferguson brothers are aiming to make their first Olympic team.
Davis, Gabe Ferguson, Josey and Bretz finished fifth through eighth, with Vito in 10th.
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered four Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.