Freestyle trials: Engaging risk or waste of time?


STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) — The fact that one of America’s best freestyle skiers, Ryan St. Onge, didn’t earn an Olympic spot at Olympic trials didn’t bother him at all.

"These are just warm-ups," he said.

That rare bit of truth-telling may have said it all about the Olympic trials that ended Thursday in Steamboat Springs.

They were a made-for-TV event — to be aired on NBC via tape-delay this weekend — that handed out spots to four skiers on the U.S. freestyle team who would have eventually earned them anyway.

Of the four — Lacy Schnoor, Hannah Kearney, Speedy Peterson and Patrick Deneen — only Schnoor was anywhere close to the bubble. Skiers such as St. Onge, meanwhile, will almost certainly make the team later thanks to strong results on the World Cup.

Kearney celebrated when she earned her spot, calling it "the only golden ticket" available. But the fact that she already had a first- and third-place finish in the World Cup this season meant there was no scenario that could have kept her off the team when it’s announced in late January.

All of which may have left some of the athletes and coaches wondering what they were doing in Steamboat to begin with.

It was a rushed event that meant very little. It may have even put the aerials skiers at risk. They were only four days removed from a brutal, 38-hour journey back to the United States from China, where they fared poorly in the season’s first World Cup events.

"Everyone’s a little tired and cranky," Peterson said. "Very jet-lagged. Four hours sleep last night, four hours sleep the night before …"

A total of 12 skiers performed 24 jumps Thursday. Of the 24 jumps, 16 were landed successfully. Among those falling were America’s top two women, Emily Cook and Jana Lindsey, who are also favorites to make the team.

"No excuses. No excuses at all," Cook insisted.

But the falls — and there were others from top skiers on the moguls, as well — illustrated why Olympic trials are seen far more infrequently for winter sports than for summer sports. Winter sports like to dole out spots based on consistency over the season, not in winner-take-all events, because snow, ice, bumps and hills can be unpredictable.

In fact, had the freestyle team given out three men’s and women’s spots in moguls and aerials instead of only one, it would have left out Lindsey, Bryon Wilson, Nate Roberts and Heather McPhie: All came in ranked either first or second on the U.S. team.

What made these trials most interesting were the names Jeremy Cota and Ashley Caldwell.

Cota, the seventh-ranked skier on the men’s moguls team, was leading the competition with one skier left. Caldwell, a 16-year-old who only made her way onto the women’s aerials team three days before, was the leader with one jump remaining.

The judges awarded Deneen first place over Cota, while Schnoor landed her jump and squeaked out the win over Caldwell.

Cota and Caldwell were disappointed, but both conceded they knew they were long shots.

"Oh, absolutely not," Cota said when asked if he ever thought he’d find himself that close to making the Olympic team.

And that big sigh of relief came from the coaches and managers of the freestyle team. Had things not gone to form, they might have had to leave one of their medal contenders at home in place of a newcomer who had one good day. There are, after all, a limited number of freestyle spots to go around.

It’s the risk they take for the sake of what is, essentially, a made-for-TV event.

"It is," aerials coach Matt Christiansen said when asked if the event felt a bit like a crapshoot. "It’s also good in a sense. Ashley is really good. And it fires up the rest of the girls when they see someone like that perform. That’s what we saw today. It makes them take their level up a bit.