After less than optimal starts to the World Cup Big Air and Slopestyle circuits in Chur and Stubai, it was up to the halfpipe riders to show the freeski world how to kick off a contest season properly. With sunny weather, not too much wind and a perfectly shaped pipe at the Olympic venue in Secret, Garden, China, that’s exactly what they did.
The last major contest to be held here in the Secret Garden pipe was the 2022 Winter Olympics, where both the men's and women's contests had to deal with challenging weather conditions. In contrast, Saturday's World Cup final was the kind of day that pipe skiers dream of, with sunny skies and a great cut on the pipe courtesy of Alli Zehetner.
Nearly a year after straining her knee at the X Games, Eileen Gu showed the world that she hasn't missed a step. Back in the pipe between her modeling gigs and college classes, Eileen skied as strongly as ever, putting down her signature run clean: left cork 900 buick, right cork 900 japan, right 720 tail, left alley-oop flatspin 540 mute, right alley-oop flatspin 540 safety. With solid amplitude and clean grabs throughout, Eileen easily cruised to a first-place finish. She put down three clean runs all scored in the 90s, but it was her second-run score of 94.25 that took the cake.
"Coming back here after 11 months off out of the bib is a dream come true," said Eileen. "With all the fans out here, it gives me memories of the Olympics for sure."
"It makes me feel proud to see how many people have started snow sports [in China] after 2022," she added. "Just the real passion that people have startd to cultivate here, especially young people. There are ton of girls out here, and that's all I ever could have asked for."
From her first hit to her last, Eileen Gu showed she´s still in a class of her own. Photo: Buchholz/FIS
The USA's Hanna Faulhaber found herself in a place she's often been before, trailing Eileen Gu in second place. Hanna's first-hit amplitude with a clean blunt grab was as impressive as ever, backed up with a left 900, right flair safety, left 720, switch right cork 720 and a left 540 japan. Her first-run score of 82.25 clinched the silver medal. Amy Fraser of Canada locked down the bronze with the help of her impressive first-hit switch right 900 into a switch left 540 tail, switch right 720 mute, left flair tail and a right 900 tail.
Some of Eileen Gu's Chinese teammates missed their chance at a podium on home turf. Noted halfpipe threat Kexin Zhang didn't start in the finals, and Li Fanghui—who's first-hit air to fakie mute is a thing of beauty—struggled to put down a full run.
Finishing in fourth and sixth place respectively, Riley Jacobs and Kathryn Gray showed the strength of the USA's young-blood women's pipe squad, while Canada's Dillan Glennie skied to a respectable fifth place.
On the men's side, it was two-time Olympic medalist Alex Ferreira's time to shine. Skiing like a man on a mission, Ferreira also landed three runs, but it was his first-run score of 91 that held out for the win. Alex linked up a switch left 1080 tail into a right double 1620 safety, followed by a left cork 1080 tail, switch right double 1080 japan, and a left double 1620 safety to cap it off. With both-way switch 10s and both-way 1620s, it was easily the day's most technical run.
"Thank you so much to Secret Garden for putting on an awesome venue, Alli for cutting the pipe absolutely fantastic," said Alex. "The weather was amazing. Last time we were here it was definitely a struggle, and this time it's a pleasure and a beauty."
"I was talking to my coach on the bus ride up, Elana Chase, and I said, 'E, I don't know whats going on, but this is the least stressed I’ve ever been going into a final,'" he added. "I think it's finally because I have my life in order, and I’m just so happy to be skiing well. I've been training very hard, and everything is just unfolding in front of my eyes exactly how I envisioned it."
Two-time Olympic medalist Alex Ferreira is clearly still on top of his game. Photo: Buchholz/FIS
Luke Harrold staged the day's biggest upset with a second-place finish. The fresh-faced 15-year-old from New Zealand showed that he can hang with the big boys, throwing down a stellar run of double corks. He led off with back-to-back switch alley-oop 900s, followed by a switch left double 1080 before finishing with back to back double 1260 safeties. Looking right at home in the Secret Garden pipe, Luke showed that if he keeps skiing like he did today, he's got a very promising career ahead of him.
The USA's Hunter Hess fought his way to third place with the help of a stylish switch left 540 safety, switch right 720 mute, and back to back left and right double 12 japans. He ended his run with something we haven't seen before in ski halfpipe, a McTwist-style forward-rotated 540 mute that looks amazing and terrifying at the same time. His second run score of 88.75 boosted Hunter to the podium, where he was able to hang on despite some third-run challenges.
Top qualifier Jon Sallinen of Finland didn't have the finals that he hoped for, landing outside the podium in fourth place. And Nico Porteous' return to halfpipe competition after a year off definitely didn't go as planned. After an awesome 180-pop-switch-360 entrance into the pipe, Porteous sent a switch straight air but smashed hard on the coping and took a heavy dive into the bottom of the pipe. He returned for a second run and again showed us something new, landing a right double 16 safety and carving straight back into the left wall for an alley-oop 540—a fresh interpretation of pipe riding that might change up the way runs are constructed in the future. But after that heavy first run slam, today definitely wasn't Nico's day, and he didn't return for a third run.
The men's field showed a lot of new, exciting talent, from the smooth and stylish skiing of Eugene "Kai" Morris (8th place), the youthful energy of Finley Melville Ives (6th place) and huge amplitude from Lee Seung Hun of South Korea (5th place). With a new generation of halfpipe riders on the come-up, this season's contests are sure to deliver more surprises.
The World Cup hafpipe circuit now moves straight to Copper Mountain, Colorado from 13-16 December, 2023.
View the complete results including qualifications at fis-ski.com.