Aspen athletes who could bring home the hardware

The list of Aspen Olympians is long, and includes athletes who have represented the U.S. at recent Winter Games in alpine and cross country skiing, snowboarding and figure skating. An elite subset have climbed the podium to accept a medal for Team USA.

Most recently, native son Jeremy Abbott won a bronze medal in the team figure skating event during the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia. In 2002 at the Salt Lake Winter Games, Aspenite Chris Klug earned bronze by laying down a gutsy final run in snowboard parallel slalom. It came just 19 months after receiving a life-saving liver transplant.

In Torino, Italy, four years later, Aspen Valley Ski & Snowboard Club product Gretchen Bleiler, pioneer of the Crippler 540 inverted maneuver, brought home the Olympic silver medal in snowboard half pipe.

As the opening of 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, ticks closer, five athletes with Aspen connections have emerged as bonafide medal contenders in multiple winter sports: skier half pipe, snowboard big air, cross country skiing and alpine skiing.

Alex Ferreira
Four years ago, Alex Ferreira missed a berth on the 2014 U.S. Freeskiing Olympic Team by a single spot. A more mature Ferreira is again gunning for a place on an American Olympic team loaded with talent, and this time he’ll have the ammunition of two recent World Cup wins to make his case.

Ferreira’s 2017/18 season started with momentum carried over from last year, with the 23-year-old standing atop the podium in a World Cup skier half pipe contest on Sept. 1 at Cardrona Alpine Resort, New Zealand. There his huge score of 93.4 earned gold. That followed closely behind a World Cup half pipe win in Tignes, France last March.

A broken collarbone this fall was a small setback, he said, but a relatively minor one that hasn’t caused Ferreira to deviate from his charted course.

The Aspen High School graduate is meticulous in his preparation and said he sticks by a regular routine of workouts in the gym and on the trampoline. Ferreira’s schedule also includes time for video review and a regular stop in the steam room, “where I do a lot of my visualizing.”

Eric Knight, freestyle/freeride director at Aspen Valley Ski & Snowboard Club, said this week that “Alex has spent a tremendous amount of time training at the club all summer and fall.” Knight has worked with the athlete since he was a kid, as has coach Elana Chase, who is based in Vail.

Ferreira doesn’t disagree: “Victory lies within preparation. I would say I’m prepared,” he said on a recent cloudless, snowless November day. “Health is wealth.”

His current focus is on the upcoming Dew Tour Olympic qualifying event, Dec. 14-17, at Breckenridge, where Ferreira plans to further up his game.

“I do have a certain run I want to do for the Olympics,” he said. “I’m planning on executing four double flips in one run. Possibly five, which would be the first of its nature.”

Another goal would be for he and lifelong friend and teammate Torin Yater-Wallace to both represent their country, and their home town, in South Korea this February. That’s not a stretch by any means given they’ve each had two victories in the past year.

“I think it would be really special if two people from Aspen can represent such a small town in such an amazing way. The more Aspen the better,” said Ferreira.

Knight said it’s his hope that both athletes will “come out with guns blazing and hopefully claim those Olympic spots. It would be a dream come true to see them both on the podium.”

There’s precedent for that as in March 2016, Yater-Wallace and Ferreira took gold and silver in half pipe at the European X Games.

Here at home, Ferreira has earned a pair of bronze X Games Aspen medals but given the success of the past half year, it’s obvious he won’t be satisfied with the status quo in this Olympic season and before the X Games home crowd.

“Be as passionate in your skiing as possible. Success will grow from that,” Ferreira said.

Torin Yater-Wallace
On the cusp of the 2014 Winter Olympics season, Torin Yater-Wallace of Basalt seemed to have it all: His face was emblazoned upon boxes of Wheaties cereal and the teen was in high demand for television appearances, including the Today Show.

As an Aspen High School freshman, Yater-Wallace’s talent just couldn’t be held back, demonstrated by his silver medal earned in 2011 in the Aspen X Games super pipe. He would medal here on home snow the next two years while also picking up gold medals in the European X Games events.

“Things took a very fast turn for me,” he said recently. “I stopped going to Aspen High School after my freshman year. One trip to Europe and I’d max out my absences.”

The fast start was followed by some huge challenges, including a collapsed lung during the last Olympic season. Yater-Wallace was still named to the Olympic team, by virtue of prior results, and competed in the slushy Sochi half pipe to a lackluster finish.

Yater-Wallace turned 22 on Dec. 2 and his emotional maturity is evident. In February, he won the Olympic skier half pipe test event and followed that up with a World Cup victory at Mammoth Mountain.

“It’s been quite the ride,” Yater-Wallace said recently during a sit-down interview at the Inn at Aspen.

That “ride” included a serious infection attacking his gall bladder and liver that landed him in the hospital in 2015 in a medically induced coma.

“The strange incidents and life battles and health scares have made me a stronger person for the better. I think it really builds you as a person and teaches you life lessons,” he said.

Yater-Wallace skipped the season-opening event in New Zealand won by Alex Ferreira, but appears ready to jump with both feet into this Olympic season.

“I’m feeling really good right now. I’m excited not just for the Olympics. I love the Dew Tour and the X Games and skiing in front of an Aspen crowd. There’s nothing else like that feeling.”

The owner of seven total X Games medals from domestic and European events, Yater-Wallace said, “I’ve never won here in Aspen. That’s something I’d love to do.”

He described the exhilaration of looking down the Buttermilk half pipe and seeing thousands of assembled friends and fans, but also said that he still gets the same kind of butterflies in his stomach as when he was a grade-schooler competing in a mogul contest at Aspen Highlands.

“You’re going to get nervous. What you learn to try and acquire is the skill of using those nerves as strength,” he said.

Yater-Wallace was back on the Today Show during November, part of an American crew invited to mark the 100-day countdown to the 2018 Olympics. Soon, his telegenic, 100-watt smile will also appear in commercials for Smuckers and Comcast.

Chris Corning
The preternaturally talented snowboarder Chris Corning landed at Aspen Valley Ski & Snowboard Club four years ago, a transplant who moved here as a 14-year-old with coach Nichole Mason and lived with a host family.

 Courtesy photo

Alex Ferreira’s victory in the season’s first half pipe event should bode well for his chances to qualify for the 2018 Winter Olympics.

In just over a year, Corning became the youngest winner of a FIS World Cup crystal globe in history. Ironically, the then 15-year-old unseated fellow AVSC athlete Torin Yater-Wallace in that distinction by one month, AVSC freestyle/freeride director Knight said this week.

Corning’s first victory in a World Cup event came in slopestyle, during an August 2015 event in Cardrona, New Zealand. In 2016, after a year that included gold medals in both slopestyle and big air at the Junior World Championships, Corning was elevated from the club ranks to the U.S. Snowboarding Pro Slopestyle Team. That year also included a gold medal in slopestyle at a World Cup venue in the Czech Republic.

In doing so, he completely skipping the normal pipeline of the rookie team ranks, according to Mason.

At the 2017 World Championships in Spain, Corning won silver in big air and a bronze medal in slopestyle. Then last month, Corning scored a dominating win at the first World Cup big air event of the season, held under the lights in Milan, Italy.

“He is one of the number one hopefuls for the Olympics at this point,” Mason said Friday, as she coached AVSC athletes practicing on small jumps near the Aspen Highlands base.

“Chris is a very hard worker,” Mason added, recalling how that’s been the case since they joined forces when he was a 13-year-old from Summit County.

By 2014, the duo had relocated to Aspen, where Corning was able to train long seasons thanks to a new airbag and “super tramp” to hone aerial maneuvers. Following the 2015/16 season he was honored by AVSC as its top club snowboard athlete.

A foot injury that hampered him earlier this year appears to be healed, Mason said, and the 18-year-old snowboarder looks to continue his ascent during this Olympic season.

Simi Hamilton
Aspen native Simi Hamilton, 30, probably should have been an alpine ski racer, given that his grandfather DRC Brown led the Aspen Ski Corp. as president and general manager for more than a generation.

Instead, the multi-talented athlete steadily rose through ranks of the Nordic skiing elite, and by the end of last season had solidified his position as the world’s ninth best cross-country sprinter.

His 2016/17 highlight was a second place during a January skate sprint in Italy, in a race where the margin of victory was 3/100ths of a second. The result was a near carbon copy of the same event the prior year.

Were it not for a a slight tactical error in the FIS Cross Country World Cup Finals last March, Hamilton would have scored another podium for the season. Instead, he was a respectable fourth before thousands of fans who assembled in downtown Quebec City for the races.

Hamilton has one World Cup career win, during a 2013 stage race in Lenzerheide, Switzerland, to his name and a total of four podiums. And as he seeks to qualify for his third straight Olympics, Hamilton feels he is nearing the apex of his career

The Aspen High School graduate attended Middlebury from 2005-2009 and was an NCAA champion before earning a spot on the national team post graduation.

“The nature of our sport takes such a big foundation period of about 800 to 1,000 hours a year for a decade to reach your prime,” he said. Hamilton said his mental focus is stronger now than it’s ever been.

Hamilton’s coach on the national team, Matt Whitcomb, has seen the Aspen native develop from a junior skier to a master skier.

“He understands what I need to be doing to be getting the best training, to stay happy and motivated,” Hamilton said.

At the end of last season, Whitcomb observed that Hamilton had all the tools in place to vie with the world’s elite: “He wants to be the best sprinter in the world. He can be that guy.”

Hamilton said he’d like to compete at least another season beyond the 2018 Olympics, perhaps retiring after the 2019 World Championships.

This would be his third Winter Games, as Hamilton qualified for and competed in both Vancouver and Sochi.

Hamilton reflected upon the rich field of diverse Aspen-trained athletes who could be named to the 2018 U.S. Olympic squad: “It’s cool to feel like you’re not representing this valley, or Aspen, alone. You have this awesome crew of hardworking (skiers and snowboarders). You feel you are part of a collective team,” he said.

Alice McKennis
On a postcard perfect day in St. Anton, Alice McKennis won a women’s World Cup downhill race, quite the feat considering the deep field of veteran athletes.

“As usual in Austria, a massive crowd came to cheer for the racers,” FIS-Ski press reported at the time.

The Jan. 12, 2013, World Cup victory would be the only one — to date — for the New Castle-raised alpine skier and horsewoman, who worked with several clubs on the Western Slope before landing in Aspen, where coach Casey Puckett brought out the best of her potential. From there it was on to the national team for the now 28-year-old McKennis, whose trajectory upon bursting onto the World Cup stage nine years ago seemed a sure thing.

Less than two months after McKennis’ best day in St. Anton, a terrible crash in a downhill shattered her right tibial plateau, an injury that stymied her for more than two years.

But the stalwart U.S. Ski Team member started the 2017/18 season fitter and more determined than ever to contend for a coveted Olympic berth among the world’s best.

“Alice trained super well over the summer and physically, she’s in great shape,” said U.S. Ski Team women’s head coach Paul Kristofic. “She’s skiing really well and has a good attitude.”

That said, McKennis will have to fight hard to earn a spot on the U.S. Olympic Team against top speed skiers like Lindsey Vonn, Jackie Wiles, Breezy Johnson and now Mikaela Shiffrin, who won her first downhill Saturday.

“This is the healthiest I’ve been since I was 20,” McKennis said last month, during pre-season training at Copper Mountain.

She was especially thoughtful in the days following French national team member David Poisson’s fatal crash in downhill training, as her long-time struggle with nagging injuries was seen through a new prism.

“It’s a terrible tragedy. You expect to injure a knee, that’s a given. But you don’t really expect to see death. That’s shocking for the whole community,” she said.

“Live each day as best as you can,” McKennis added.

Strong in training this week for the opening downhill races of the season in Lake Louise, Canada, McKennis’ first race result of the year — a 24th on Friday — wasn’t what she’d hoped for.

“What I’ve been focusing on is how I can be my best every day. I’m making sure I’m looking at every detail and compile it all together and hopefully those small percentages will lead into larger gain,” she said.

Added the kid who started skiing at Sunlight Mountain Resort before the tender age of 2 and was a Winter Olympian by the age of 20: “At the end of the day, it was the passion and love for ski racing that’s kept me driving forward.”

Twitter, @Madski99

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