The 2020/21 FIS Freeski World Cup gets underway in less than two weeks, and in the lead-up to the season-opener in Stubai (AUT) we're reaching out to some of last winter's crystal globe winners to get a sense of what it's like to head into a new winter as top dog, how they've held it together over what was a pretty difficult summer for everybody, and what their hopes are for the coming season and beyond. Today's feature is on 2019/20 men's halfpipe crystal globe winner Aaron Blunck of the USA...
2019/20 halfpipe crystal globe winner, two-time reigning world champion, five time World Cup winner, 2020 X Games silver medallist, 2017 X Games gold medallist, first skier to do both switch doubles in the pipe, backcountry ripper, proud Coloradan, and all-around good guy; Aaron Blunck's impact on halfpipe skiing and on the freeskiing world in general will be indelible, no matter what happens moving forward.
However, after a massive crash in Saas Fee (SUI) on 13 October, Blunck is currently laid up at home in Denver resting, recouperating, and reevaluating the future.
Read on for the biggest and most in-depth interview we've ever done, with the one and only Aaron Blunck...
FIS - Where are you living now? Are you still in Crested Butte?
AB - I moved down to Denver a couple months ago, actually. I still love Crested Butte, it'll always be my home, but I kinda feel like I want to be able to travel around easier when I'm at home, whether it's here in Colorado or if I need to fly out. From Denver, Breckenridge is two hours away, Snowpark is an hour away, I can drive to Utah in five hours instead of nine hours from Crested Butte, Jackson Hole is six hours away...you're pretty close to a lot of ski meccas here in Denver. And if I want to go to British Columbia or something I just hop on a flight from here and go. I'm super stoked to be here.
FIS - Next up, the big question, is tell me about what happened in Saas Fee and why you’re currently laid up at home?
AB - In Saas Fee I was trying to learn the switch double cork 1440. I was feeling really good, like it was right there. The switch 10s leading up to it were feeling so comfortable, I felt like I was going big enough, and so I thought, "Ok, today’s the day, I’m gonna go do it."
I dropped in and everything felt great, I was like “I’m gonna lace this,” and I could see it in my head and everything. But then I took off and next thing I know, all I could see was Noah Bowman (hiking up the pipe) 15 feet away from me, and then me looking at the deck and being like, “Oh god, that deck is super close,” and then smashing.
The first thing I remember was the pain. I just shut my eyes and I was just screaming in immediate, horrible pain, and thinking to myself, ‘This is bad. This is really not good.’ And I knew if I was already in that much pain after having so much adrenaline just before the crash…honestly, it crossed my mind that I might die.
By that time Mike Riddle (US halfpipe coach and Olympic silver medallist) had already made it down to me and a couple other guys, and I had grabbed Riddle’s hand and I was just like, ‘Do not let me die. Do not let me die. But if I do die, tell everyone that I love skiing, I love my fiancé, and I love my family and friends. Tell them that.’
So I laid there just trying to breathe, thinking how bad it was, in the worst pain I could ever imagine…I pretty much felt like I was on my way to a bodybag.
I knew right away that I had several broken ribs, that something was wrong with my insides, and something was wrong with my hip. But after a few minutes, of course, stubborn me went from, ‘I’m gonna die,’ to trying to tell everyone that I was ok and that I could make it down on my own.
Luckily, they made me get in the helicopter. Mike Jankowski (US Snowboard team coach) was just like, “Dude, you’re not ok. Just listen to me and get in the heli.”
FIS - Unreal.
AB - Yeah. So they flew me to the hospital and the first few doctors I saw were great, really nice. But after that I was seeing all these doctors that didn’t speak a lick of English. So I’m sitting there in Switzerland and trying to communicate what’s wrong with me, but it’s pretty confusing.
Eventually they’re like ok, you’ve got a laceration on your kidney and one broken rib. Which to me…I mean, I felt like I just got hit by a truck. I KNEW there were at least two broken ribs in there. But they’re just like, nope, one broken rib and a grade-1 laceration on my kidney. So I thought maybe I was good to go, but they were like, “No, you’re staying overnight.”
The next day they come back and tell me that I’m still bleeding internally and that I’ve gotta stay another night. So, it’s starting to get crazy now. I’m in the hospital in a foreign country and I’m basically completely alone, you know? It was a really good day to go train that day, so no one was going to skip a day of skiing to come hang out with me in the hospital. So it’s basically just me hanging out by myself during the day and then a few people would come visit me during the night and bring me dinner and stuff.
After a couple days the doctor told me I was good to fly home. They told me to wait three days up in Saas Fee to get over the pain a bit and then I could fly out, which is what I did.
I fly out and get home and the next day I get a call from the US Olympic Committee guys in Colorado Springs saying they had booked me a CT scan and a doctor’s appointment with a nephrologist, which seemed really quick to me.
I drive up there the next day and the first doctor I saw was just like, “You are so lucky to be alive. Like, beyond lucky to be alive.” So then she shows me the images and I can just tell that it’s bad. Like, really bad.
FIS - So what’s is the prognosis at this point, then?
AB - Basically I’ve got two broken ribs, 11 and 12, and then we did a CT scan up higher to see if there’s any more because no one’s really looked too closely up there yet. But I can feel some bumps up there and I’m pretty sure there’s that are more broken, so let’s say four broken ribs, total. And then I’ve got a grade-3 laceration of the kidney, a compression fracture on my pelvis…and a bruised heart, which is the big one I just found out about today.
The doc said that typically it would be a six month recovery for most people, but she understood who I am as a person and an athlete, and she understands athletes, and she’s pretty sure they’re going to have me back on snow in six weeks. So that’s one positive, at least.
FIS - Man. I’m glad we’re actually sitting here having this conversation.
AB - Yeah. It was a bit of a shock walking around for a few days there feeling like I was going to be back on snow in a few weeks, to finding out that most people dealing with this would be looking at six months to recover. And that’s six months of bed rest.
FIS - So what’s your feeling on your timeline for return? I’m guessing the world champs is probably number one on your priority list, because you’ve got the chance for a three-peat which has never been done before, but do you think you’ll be good to go before then?
AB - I have no clue at this point. I’d love to make it back for Copper, but will I be able to? Who knows. With the ribs, I know how those are healing, but with the kidney I don’t know how it’s healing every day. It’s like, once the pain in my ribs and pelvis goes down, am I going to start feeling my kidney more? That’s kinda what the doctor told me - once I think my ribs and pelvis are good, I might think I’m good, but my kidney will not be good yet. That’s going to be tough to deal with, mentally.
But yeah, world champs are huge on my radar, as well as the Grand Prix in Mammoth, because that’s an Olympic qualifier.
But if I just get feeling good enough to ski but maybe not push it in competitions, I might just step it back and just film for the winter. If that’s the case I’ll just look at it like destiny, the universe just telling me to take a break and maybe redefine myself as a skier. I’m going to take it day by day, and if I get back to feeling right then yeah I’m going to be back and competing this season.
FIS - Yeah, a crash like yours would make anyone take a step back, for sure.
Yeah. I’ve got a whole new outlook on skiing now. I’m looking forward to world champs, of course, but I’m kind of excited to come back to competing specifically for myself. I’m done thinking about it in terms of goals.
Truly, at this point, after having a crash as serious as the one I had, now I just want to ski for the sake of skiing. I thought that that’s what I was doing before, but in reality I wasn’t. Now, it’s going to be just for me. I don’t want to worry about impressing the judges, I don’t want to focus on winning the contest, I just want to do the best that Aaron Blunck can do.
It was something I just kind of discovered laying there in the hospital bed, thinking, “Why was I trying to do this trick?” And it was partially just to do it and accomplish it, but also I wanted to have it for contest season. And in reality, I should have just waited for a better day to do the trick and remembered that contests are contests. You can be creative and win a contest; you don’t necessarily need to have the biggest and baddest tricks.
I’m confident that I have big tricks, but at the same time I look at Noah Bowman and he hit every podium last season except for X Games I think. It was an incredible season for him.
FIS - Yeah, Noah is a guy who obviously has incredible tricks, but he’s really looked to for his unique style and approach to skiing pipe.
AB - Yeah, and I think for a long time people kind of forgot about that. It was all about spinning right 12, to left 12, to switch double. For so long it was all about how important it was to have three doubles. But I think this year, with Noah, he showed that you can still get a very high score with just two doubles and in the rest of your run being creative and stylish. Dew Tour was a perfect example of that. He deserved that win big time.
So, that’s something that I’ve spent some time thinking about. It’s not all about having the biggest trick. It’s about skiing for yourself, and I think somehow I might have forgot that. Maybe I forgot how awesome skiing can be. Even if you’re competing, you can still just go have fun with it.
FIS - But you have had some opportunity to get in the backcountry and do some filming the last couple of seasons, between competitions.
AB - Yeah I have, and I’m really fortunate for that. That’s definitely where my heart is at. I still love competing, but it’s so rewarding to go out basically on your own, doing all that work to get out there in the backcountry. If you want numerous laps, you’ve gotta hike it, you've gotta put the work in. And it’s awesome.
FIS - Do you feel different pressure trying to get a shot in the backcountry vs. trying to stomp a run?
AB - I think I probably did see it differently before, but that’s also part of this new way I’m looking at things. I’ve just got this vision now of how fun skiing can be. I think when I was out in the backcountry I definitely felt a different kind of pressure. Not sure much like, “You have to land this because you need to win,” but more like, if I land this, I’m going to be so hyped, and maybe the couple guys I’m with will be hyped.
And then you get to look back at that and think, “Man, that was sick. That was so cool.” I’m not saying you don’t get that with contests, but I feel like a lot of the time contest are so high risk it’s like, I’ve got to land this just to survive - let alone win. I think in contests a lot of your stoke can get lost when you’re thinking about having to win.
FIS - I was thinking about your winning run in Mammoth, though, which I think was maybe the sickest pipe run of last season, and it felt so organic and natural and looked almost easy and fun. What did that one feel like to you at the time?
AB - Yeah, at Mammoth I didn’t feel any pressure at all. My only goals for last season were to hopefully win a crystal globe, and to podium again at X Games, because I had only had one podium there and I wanted another. But going into Mammoth, the day before I just skied all day by myself. I hadn’t freeskied for myself in like a couple months before that, but the day before finals I just ripped around by myself and I was doing my thing and having such a good time. I think that lead into that contest, having that vibe of skiing pow with no restrictions.
So in my mind I was just thinking about how I wanted to go ski pow again, and I think somehow that lead into the way I skied at that contest, and I think maybe that’s how it lead to everything being so natural. It was one of those days where I was just like, “I’m here, I need to do this,” and it just so happened it was on a finals day. It could have been practice that I was feeling that stoked, but it was at the contest.
I was just stoked, and it was the type of feeling I get more often out in the backcountry, where it’s like, “I’m supposed to be here, I’m following my heart and my passion, and that’s skiing deep snow and big mountains.” But my second favourite kind of snow is spring corn snow and that’s what Mammoth was that day and everything just kind of lined up.
FIS - Speaking of the globe again, how cool was it to finally achieve that goal?
AB - Honestly, that was one of the coolest awards you can win. I’ve come so close so many times and last season it was like, this has to happen finally. Sometimes it seems like it just happens for someone and it’s like, it wasn’t really a battle. There’s been times when like Kevin Rolland (FRA) won it and it was like, “Well yeah, you podiumed at every single event. No one else got a podium at every event.” Which isn’t to say that isn’t impressive to win like that; he killed it and earned it.
But for it to be so close between me and Noah - it came down to literally one placing. By my math, I thought Noah had it because I thought he only needed to finish fifth in Calgary, but then it came down that it was mine because of that new rule (that only the points from an athlete’s top four best results count towards the globe).
I don’t think many athletes actually knew that rule, and that’s what made me feel bad, because I think even Noah thought he only needed to get fifth place. Like, I can’t imagine what he felt like…he thought he only needed to get fifth place and he did that, but he needed fourth. I was super stoked to win, but thinking about how Noah felt, I felt bummed.
FIS - Yeah, it was tough. It’s a good rule because it allows the top athletes to miss a World Cup competition if there’s an overlap with X Games or Dew Tour or whatever and not have that effect their ranking, but it was tough to see it come into play like that.
AB - Yeah for sure. I think it’s a good rule, too. Look at a guy like Birk Ruud (NOR) who’s skiing in all three freeski events. If he’s got to go to a halfpipe comp and miss a slopestyle or a big air, he can do that once and not have effect his other rankings.
But honestly, I felt bad for Noah to come up that short. If Noah had just come fourth, he would have got the globe and I would have been stoked to see him do it. I couldn’t imagine what he felt like there. But you know, obviously, overall, I’m stoked. It was a goal, and I achieved that goal, and I don’t ever have to chase it again if I don’t want to.
FIS - So with the globe ticked off, it kind of just leave one major one left on your career competition checklist, which is a podium at the Olympics. Obviously, your injury has probably changed the plan a bit, but is that still what you’re aiming for?
AB - Yeah, before this injury, that’s what I was going for. That’s why I was working on that trick. I'm trying to put together a quiver of tricks and combinations of those tricks that's untouchable. And man, that was the goal, but now all of a sudden…well, that’s still my goal. I definitely would love to go to another Olympics.
But at the same time, I’m just going to go skiing. If that’s where skiing takes me, then yeah I’m going to be there. I’m going to try to go there. But if I don’t make it, I’m not going to be like, “Oh, I’m not going to the Games, I didn’t make it, I’m a failure.” That’s not what I’m going to do. I’m going to look at skiing the exact same way that I’m looking at it now.
I want to have fun, and I want to make a statement of that. I just want to go ski, because that’s what I love to do and I’m fortunate to have that be my job.
FIS - Ok, well with that in mind, I’ll bring it around to the final question here: what does one perfect day in the life of Aaron Blunck look like?
AB - Ahh, man. I would say that one perfect day would probably be you wake up to a bluebird pow day up high, and a freshly groomed terrain park down low. You could ski all morning up high in the pow, and then come down later in the day and ride a perfect park. And then at the end of the day a good sushi dinner. Anything after that is between me and my fiancé…