The 2019/20 FIS Freeski World Cup season launched in style on Saturday at the QRC Winter Games NZ, fuelled by Forsyth Barr, with a thrillingly heavy competition taking to the Cardrona superpipe, where Zhang Kexin of China and Birk Irving of the USA both put down hugely progressive runs to walk away from the season-opener victorious.
While the women’s qualification round went down without a hitch on Friday, with Li Fenghui (CHN) leading the top eight athletes into the finals, Mother Nature then forced the postponement of the men’s qualifiers when heavy fog and snow moved in.
However, Saturday’s weather was an entirely different story, and the rescheduled men’s qualifiers took place early in the morning under perfect blue skies and ideal pipe conditions, with Simon D’Artois (CAN) leading the top 10 men into the finals. And there, with the likes of 2018/19 halfpipe crystal globe winner D’Artois, two-time reigning world champion Aaron Blunck (USA), and New Zealand’s own Miguel Porteous in the mix, a heavyweight finals battle was assured.
Finals competition got underway at 11:00, and from the outset there was no taking it easy, despite the fact that Saturday’s competition was the first of the 2019/20 FIS Freeski halfpipe World Cup season.
“I’m just going to try and push it and push it and push it,” said Eileen Gu of China, putting down a score of 88.80 on run one to take an early lead. Unfortunately for Gu, her compatriot Zhang would up the ante considerably on run two, landing an incredible back-to-back switch 900s combination on her second run to take the lead with a score of 91.00.
While Gu upped her the score in her second run to an 89.00, it would’t be enough to catch Zhang, and the 17-year-old would lock down the third victory of her young World Cup career.
“Today I wanted to be true to myself and do the best of my ability,” Zhang said through the Chinese team’s translator, “I wanted to ski well and enjoy skiing. I’ve only done the back-to-back 900 combination one time before today, so I’m very excited and very happy with my skiing.”
Russia’s Valeriya Demidova was in strong form all day, landing three solid runs for a top score of 87.80 on run three, putting her in to third place overall.
Irving outstanding in second World Cup win
The men’s finals competition stepped up to a whole other level from the morning’s qualifying event. Perhaps the USA’s Jaxin Hoerter put it best after his second run when he said, “it’s a lot bigger than qualifying…the boys are getting sendy.”
Birk Irving set the bar with a score of 95.00 and the lead on run one but never got the chance to relax as the rest of the field threw down heavy run after heavy run behind him, forcing the 20-year-old to keep pushing hard to be assured of the win. Birk’s third run was indeed his best, with the judges rewarding him for his huge amplitude, clean execution, and progressive tricks that included a left side double 1440 safety and an unheard-of double flatspin 720 on his final hit, upping his score to 95.60.
“I’m just really excited to land that run, those are tricks I’ve wanted to do for such a long time,” said Irving, “It’s insane to put that run down today. I’m beyond words. The pipe was perfect, everything just lined up and ended up working in my favour, and I couldn’t be happier.”
In the end Irving couldn’t be toppled, although Noah Bowman (CAN) gave the scoreboard a good nudge, laying down perfect back to back switch doubles and scoring 93.40 on his last run of three to finish in second.
Aaron Blunck (USA) also saved his best for last, stomping a gutsy run three that included three double corks to earn a score of 92.80 and third place on the World Cup podium.
NZ’s Miguel Porteous took a heavy crash on his first run and consequently did not start his second or third runs, but thankfully avoided major injury.
- Kexin Zhang (CHN) – right 720 mute, switch left 900, switch right 900, switch left 360, right 540 mute
- Eileen Gu (CHN) – right 540 tail grab, left 540 japan, right 720 safety, switch left 7 japan, left alley-oop mute
- Valeriya Demidova (RUS) – right flair safety left flair safety right 720 safety, switch right alley oop 540, switch left alley oop 360 japan, left 720 mute grab
- Birk Irving (USA) - Left double 1440 safety, switch right 720 mute, left 900 tail grab, right 900 tail grab, left double flat 720 high safety
- Noah Bowman (CAN) - Right 1080 tail grab, switch left 540 mute, switch left double 900 safety, switch left souble 1080 safety.
- Aaron Blunck (USA) - Switch left double 900 japan, switch right double 1080 japan, left 900 tailgrab, right double 1260 tail grab.