By Peggy Shinn | Dec. 10, 2017, 2:48 p.m. (ET)
Julia Marino competes in big air at the FIS Snowboard World Cup Toyota U.S. Grand Prix on Dec. 8, 2017 in Copper Mountain, Colo.

 

COPPER MOUNTAIN, Colo. — Six years ago, Julia Marino was a once-a-year skier with no eye on making an Olympic team.

Now the 20-year-old snowboarder will likely make the 2018 U.S. Olympic Team in slopestyle and big air. Marino goes biggest in big air – which makes its Olympic debut at the upcoming Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 – throwing a signature double underflip — or in snowboarder parlance, a Cab double 9 indy — and finished second at the Toyota U.S. Grand Prix at Copper on Sunday. Her best two (of three) jumps totaled 160.25 for the runner-up spot.

Reira Iwabuchi, a 15-year-old from Japan, won the contest, landing a backside 1080 on her final jump. She is one of few women to throw a 1080 and was rewarded with the top score of 169.25. Silje Norendal, 24, from Norway rounded out the top three with a 156.75.

“I’m feeling great,” said Marino, after she high-fived a line of young fans and stood for several selfies. “It’s really cool to see where the sport is going, and I’m really happy with what I did.”

“But I’m also really excited to push myself more because obviously the level of women’s snowboarding is being stepped up by all these younger ones, and even some of the older girls too, which is really cool too,” she added.

Olympic gold medalist Jamie Anderson, 27, landed three safe jumps — a Cab 900 and two 720s — and made a strong case for making her second Olympic team by finishing fourth with a score of 151.50.

The U.S. is sending a combined slopestyle/big air team to PyeongChang, and both Marino and Anderson were on the podiu  in the first Olympic slopestyle qualifier in Mammoth, California, last February. Anderson won that event, with Marino taking third.

This was the only big air qualifying event. The women have three more chances to qualify for the 2018 U.S. Olympic Team: slopestyle contests next weekend at the Dew Tour in Breckenridge, Colorado; then again in January at Snowmass, Colorado, and Mammoth.

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Both Marino and Anderson have now met U.S. Ski & Snowboard’s objective Olympic qualification standard of one top-three finish. If more than three athletes achieve the objective criteria, then those athletes’ best two results will be added together to create a ranking list for nomination. A fourth athlete will be named to the combined slopestyle/big air Olympic team by coaches’ discretion.

Hailey Langland, 17, finished second in the Mammoth qualifier but failed to advance to the final in the Copper big air competition.

Marino’s rise in snowboarding has been surprisingly fast. From Connecticut, she grew up skiing, but only one week each winter during family trips to Beaver Creek, Colorado. She did not even snowboard until six years ago, when she broke a ski in the moguls. Instead of buying her new skis, her dad made her use a snowboard that was lying around the family’s vacation house.

Five years later, she won the big air world cup at Boston’s Fenway Park. In the past year, she has racked up five world cup podium finishes in both big air and slopestyle. And she is one of the women pushing the sport. Marino and Austrian Anna Gasser, reigning big air world champion (who did not compete in the Copper Grand Prix), are two of the only women throwing difficult underflips.

Yet Marino is not content to sit on her current bag of tricks. In the coming weeks, she is hoping to add another rotation to her underflip — making it a Cab double 10 — as well as “something else,” though she is not sure yet what it will be.

“There’s like no choice,” she said. “Everyone has to step it up.”

Including Anderson, who for years dominated slopestyle competitions (she first competed at the X Games in slopestyle in 2004) but not so much big air. That competition has been more the domain of Marino and Langland. Anderson hasn’t finished better than fourth in big air at X Games. At the PyeongChang test event, she finished fifth behind Marino — who was second — and Langland.

In part because the younger athletes are pushing her, free-spirited Anderson has tried to up her game, yet she seems wary of the risks. Still, a year ago, she won the big air competition at Copper. And she won another big air world cup in Quebec in 2016.

“Nowadays, the girls are doing lots of different double cork 1080s and 900s, backside 1080s, frontside double 1080s,” she said in September, referring to the number of rotations and flips with each jump. “For me, it’s sparked what’s already been in the back of my mind.”

With second place in the one big air Olympic qualifier, Marino will likely be a favorite to win a medal in big air’s Olympic debut in PyeongChang. But she was all smiles at Copper, with the pressure of the Olympic season seemingly far from her mind.

“The weather takes the pressure off and brings out the fun in everyone because when it’s sunny and bluebird and warm, there’s not too much you can complain about,” she said. “It’s all good times.”

A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered four Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.