- Devon O'Neil, Writer, Action Sports
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If Saturday's season-opening Sprint U.S. Grand Prix is any indication, get ready for a winterlong game of Can You Top This. How else to describe a halfpipe snowboarding contest where 90 points was only good enough for sixth place?
In the end, Luke Mitrani's spectacular first run -- which scored 96.4 on a 100-point scale -- topped a rare display of near-flawless runs and ridiculous trick sequences to win the season opener under bluebird skies at Copper Mountain, Colo. Thanks to Mitrani's tweaked grabs and impeccable style, Louie Vito's three double corks and frontside 1260 were only good enough for second, despite earning a 95.2 score.
Mitrani, 21, took second last year at the same event, but he wasn't thinking about redemption after Saturday's finish. He was simply stunned to have won what many in the crowd were calling one of the best contests they'd ever seen.
"It's crazy, because I actually didn't even snowboard once this summer," Mitrani said. "I just skateboarded a lot, and it took my mind off of snowboarding. To jump back into it, it's pretty crazy to win a contest. I'm shocked."
Vito, the No. 1 qualifier, called it an "intense day." He said he only threw the 1260 -- for the first time since last January, at that -- because Mitrani's first run upped the ante. Said Greg Bretz, whose 94.2 was only enough for third (!): "It's definitely heavy for the first contest of the year."
Ryo Aono (92.0, including a backside 1080), Christian Haller (91.0) and Benjamin Farrow (90.0) rounded out the 90-point scorers. But the top three stood above the rest thanks to a string of tricks that went like this:
Mitrani: double Michalchuk, frontside 9, backside indy, front 10, cab double 10.
Vito: double Crippler, method, front double 10, cab double 10, front 12.
Bretz: air to fakie, cab 10, front 9, back 9, front double cork.
"It's wild, man," Mitrani said. "The contest scene each year just progresses more and more. Since the last Olympics, everyone's just getting better and better, more and more consistent with the double corks. I'm scared, I'm scared for next year. I need to quit now."
In the women's final, two-time Olympic medalist Kelly Clark reminded everyone why she has been next to untouchable in a halfpipe since last winter began. After falling early in her first run on a 900 attempt, Clark, 28, rebounded with a stellar second run for a winning score of 92.6 -- nearly six points better than runner-up Maddy Schaffrick.
"It's never ideal to fall first run in finals, it definitely puts the pressure on," said Clark, who opted not to throw her 1080 due to the first-run fall. "But I just tried to stay focused and I really look at it as an opportunity to overcome instead of a threat to take away my goal for the day. I knew exactly what I did wrong my first run and I just went out and fixed it my second run."
Clark said her goal the past two seasons has been to raise her stock run above everyone else's best run. "It's hard to compare yourself to where you finished last season," she said, "but I can compare myself to where I was at this time last year, and I'm ahead of where I was."
Schaffrick, a bubbly 17 year old from Steamboat Springs, Colo., earned a career-best result with an 86.8 on her first run. Later, when asked why she had orange and black whiskers on her face, she said: "My face is painted like a tiger so that I have the eye of the tiger at all times."
Spanish rider Queralt Castellet, the morning's No. 1 qualifier, took third. Olympic medalists Gretchen Bleiler and Hannah Teter struggled, with Bleiler washing out on both of her runs and Teter failing to make the final.
The contest season continues next weekend at Breckenridge with the first of three stops on the Winter Dew Tour.
2011 U.S. Grand Prix of Snowboarding at Copper Mountain ~ Women's Halfpipe final results
2011 U.S. Grand Prix of Snowboarding at Copper Mountain ~ Men's Halfpipe final results
Kelly Clark and Luke Mitrani win 2011 U.S. Grand Prix at Copper