Ashley Caldwell and Jon Lillis won aerials gold last week at the 2017 FIS Freestyle Ski & Snowboard World Championships in Sierra Nevada, Spain, marking the first time since 1995 that Americans swept gold in those events.
Starting Thursday, halfpipe qualifying takes its turn in the spotlight, following on Friday by slopestyle and Saturday by skicross.
Here’s what to watch for in those high-flying contests:
Can McRae Williams continue his dream season?
No U.S. freeskier carries more momentum into Sierra Nevada than McRae Williams, whose second place at the FIS World Cup slopestyle in Silvaplana, Switzerland, earlier this month clinched the slopestyle crystal globe, awarded to the season’s top point-getter.
Williams kicked off the new year with a win in Font Romeu, France, and remained in the top-five overall standings all season.
“I’m getting old for my sport, and to have the season of my career at this age is definitely a relief,” said the 26-year-old, who added, “This season is going insane. I can’t believe the consistency I’ve had this year. I’m skiing super well and feeling healthy.” This is Williams’ first trip to the world championships; a medal would cap off his dream season.
Kenworthy and Logan: Two double medal threats
Gus Kenworthy and Devin Logan are entered in both halfpipe and slopestyle; if they qualify for the finals, they will compete four consecutive days, March 16-19. Logan, the 2014 Olympic slopestyle silver medalist, won bronze at the 2017 X Games in Aspen, Colorado, the first time she has been on that podium since 2012. She placed second in halfpipe at the world cup stop in PyeongChang, South Korea, which was an Olympic test event, in February.
Sochi slopestyle silver medalist Kenworthy made no secret of his disappointment when he was passed over for Sochi’s halfpipe team, and he aims for double duty in PyeongChang. This season, he has podium finishes in both events: second in halfpipe at Mammoth Mountain, California, in February — an Olympic qualifying event — and third in slopestyle earlier this month in Silvaplana, Switzerland.
Big breakout for Blunck
At age 20, Aaron Blunck had a breakout season. At Aspen’s X Games in late January, he was one of very few skiers to stay on his feet and won the halfpipe title. He followed up with a second-place performance at the Olympic test event in PyeongChang, and ended up the top U.S. finisher in FIS overall halfpipe standings, placing second to Kevin Rolland of France.
Will youth be served?
In a nod to the future, the United States is sending three teenagers to Sierra Nevada. In 2014, slopestyler Maggie Voisin became the youngest X Games medalist ever at age 15. The now 18-year-old Voisin posted her first major win at Mammoth Mountain and finished fourth in the FIS overall season standings.
Last year, Birk Irving won the halfpipe gold medal at the Lillehammer 2016 Winter Youth Olympic Games, becoming Team USA’s first Youth Olympic freeskiing gold medalist. The 17-year-old placed 11th in the FIS halfpipe standings this season. Slopestyler Alex Hall, 18, a Youth Olympic silver medalist, had a fourth-place finish in Font Romeu.
What’s in store for Sochi gold medalists?
Olympic halfpipe champion Maddie Bowman finished second at Mammoth Mountain to earn her eighth world cup podium. She placed fifth in the season halfpipe standings, just below teammate Annalisa Drew, who was third overall. In a “TODAY” show appearance in February to mark the one-year-out push to the PyeongChang Games, Bowman was asked how she dealt with the pressure: “The cool thing about our sport is you’re not necessarily competing against each other, we’re competing against ourselves,” she said. “That kind of makes it a little more fun.”
Joss Christensen, winner of 2014 Olympic slopestyle gold medal, ended last season early due to a separated collarbone, and then took eight months off due to a nagging knee injury. He’s had some disappointments this season, finishing 31st in the FIS slopestyle standings and settling for fifth place at the X Games after losing a shoe on his first jump, and will have to regain form in order to make his second Olympic team.
David Wise, too, hopes to salvage his season in Sierra Nevada. The Olympic halfpipe champion has suffered some inconsistency, failing to qualify for the final rounds at several events, including in PyeongChang.
Can Tania Prymak crack the top 10?
Team USA’s most accomplished women’s skicross athlete finished the world cup season ranked 15, having posted the two best finishes ever — a pair of seventh-place places — by an American skicross woman. But she wants more. “It was definitely a roller coaster of a season, but I'm very happy with the progress I made,” Prymak told her fans on social media. “I can't wait to make that number even lower next season.” A top-10 finish in Sierra Nevada would set her up well for the Olympic season, where she hopes to become the first woman to represent the United States in skicross.