Athletes pumped for pipe's revival 

Discipline's return major boon for WSSF

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ERIC LARS BAKKE/ESPN IMAGES - gunning for gold Simon d'Artois, the reigning X Games superpipe champ, is hoping to repeat the feat at the World Ski and Snowboard Festival here in Whistler.
  • photo by Eric Lars Bakke/ESPN Images
  • gunning for gold Simon d'Artois, the reigning X Games superpipe champ, is hoping to repeat the feat at the World Ski and Snowboard Festival here in Whistler.

Simon d'Artois had two items on his freestyle bucket list.

When he won the superpipe gold medal at the X Games in Aspen, Colo. in January, he halved the list.

He can burn the note entirely here at home when the World Ski and Snowboard Festival kicks off this Friday (April 10). The halfpipe event takes place Sunday, April 12.

"Other than X Games, it's been my dream to win at the Ski and Snowboard Festival in Whistler, at least one of the events," he said. "I was growing up and watching the guys ski the pipe and dreaming about winning this event.

"It would be huge for me to win."

That dream appeared in doubt in recent years, as this is the first time the discipline will take place at the WSSF since 2012 after financial and practical challenges arose.

Organizer Sue Eckersley of Watermark Communications explained this year's WSSF had an opportunity to be something special as the Association of Freeskiing Professionals (AFP) World Tour Finals, but it meant offering a halfpipe option.

"We're really excited about having all three disciplines involved in the festival again," Eckersley said. "It was critically important this year, because in order to have the AFP World Tour Finals, we needed to have all three disciplines.

"Every year, we'd love to be able to do it, but this year, the critical factor was being able to host the AFP Tour Finals."

Eckersley, noting funding came from the Resort Municipality of Whistler's Festivals, Events & Animation budget, said construction of the 22-foot (6.7-metre) Olympic-sized pipe is coming along well and in an interview on April 7, said it was expected to be open for training on April 8.

"The groomers and snowmakers and the event staff from Whistler Blackcomb, have gone above and beyond and used all their expertise," she said, heaping praise on them for what they've done in the face of a challenging season overall.

With its status as the culminating event of the season, the event will be featured as part of American network ABC's World of X Games on April 25. It'll provide excitement for those here in Whistler, too, as strong competitors were drawn to the event.

"It's great, because we're able to host the final comp of the year in freeskiing, which means all the biggest athletes are here," she said. "It's critically important for them for points for the overall cups in pipe, slopestyle and big air."

D'Artois knows all about that, as he is both sixth overall and in the halfpipe on the AFP tour. He recalled the 2012 event fondly and is excited to be a part of the 2015 edition as well.

"This was my favourite event of the whole festival and I had a really fun time up there," d'Artois said from Calgary where he was attending a training camp. "I couldn't be more happy for it to be back at the festival."

Noting family and friends don't always travel with him to see him live, d'Artois appreciates taking the gold rush to his home hill.

Another locally based athlete who will seek to make an impression is Cassie Sharpe, who captured gold at the FIS Freestyle World Cup in Tignes, France last month.

Sharpe, who is originally from Comox, is set to welcome three friends as well as her family to Whistler for the event. Brother Darcy, who is also Whistler-based, is expected to attend as well.

"It's cool to have the family vibe," said Sharpe, who is ranked sixth overall and fifth in halfpipe. "When we go away, we don't really get that. It'll be a good change.

"Last year I competed in the slopestyle, which was awesome and it's a good event, but to put the halfpipe back in means a lot to all of us, especially to all of us on the Canadian team," she added. "It's nice to be able to represent Canada on our own home turf."

Sharpe expects to see a thing of beauty when she gets to take to the pipe for the first time, noting Whistler Blackcomb's excellent track record with the infrastructure.

"Normally, the pipe in Whistler is always top notch. They know how to cut a pipe and they know how to keep it good," she said. "Hopefully it'll be the world-class pipe that we have come to love up there."

For those who have been following her season closely, Sharpe added she may bust out some new spins and switch skiing for the event.

Whistler resident Justin Dorey, meanwhile, won't be competing after bruising his knee during a recent photo shoot.

"I'll be up there watching," he said. "It would be awesome if I could do it, but it's not going to happen."

The 2011 champion was "totally" taken aback to see the event taken away, especially as it provided a major event for Canadian competitors who may not quite qualify for X Games. Athletes and fans alike looked forward to it, as skiers were always at the top of their games.

"It's probably one of our most favourite events as athletes," he said. "It's usually the most fun event we get to do all season because it's a wrap-up event.

"Everybody at that time of year is pretty laid back and there are some good vibes."

In particular, Dorey is bullish on d'Artois' chances, as his friend has learned a new trick "that will change the game for him" and could help d'Artois realize his dream.

"If he puts his new trick into his new run, I'm definitely putting my money on him," Dorey said.

Harle pumped to compete at home

Local skier Teal Harle has had a breakout season, highlighted by a recent second-place showing at the Dumont Cup in Sunday River, Maine against a who's-who of skiers.

The 18-year-old, two-time Canada Winter Games champion is already the fourth-ranked skier on the AFP World Tour as a result of his well-roundedness on the circuit. Harle boasts ranks of 19th in slopestyle, 39th in big air and 82nd in halfpipe. The Dumont Cup result, which saw him knock off tough competition like 2014 Winter Olympic gold medallist Joss Christensen, will provide a boost for Harle's homecoming.

"I was just having a good day, just hanging out, doing fun tricks on the jumps and it just turned out well, I guess," he said. "I landed everything well except for the first rail trick. Everything else was pretty on point."

Speaking from a chairlift on April 6, Harle was encouraged with what he saw out of the local park, and is excited to get competition underway in his WSSF debut.

"The slopestyle course is looking pretty good right now," he said. "Hopefully they're going to put in some pretty cool rails at the top.

"I hope to do as well as I can and land the runs as well as I can."

Big air moved uphill

Eckersley confirmed the Gibbons Big Air will be moved up into the Nintendo Terrain Park on Blackcomb and viewers will need a lift pass and skis or a snowboard to go watch. The competition is usually at the bottom of the mountain with no lift pass necessary to watch, but a lack of snow forced the event uphill.

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