PARK CITY, Utah -- Moguls skier Heather McPhie picked the best possible time to notch the run of her life.
A rare dead heat for the gold medal at the Visa International Freestyle World Cup on Thursday put McPhie, a former gymnast from Montana, in prime position to claim one of three remaining slots likely to be available on the U.S. Olympic team in her discipline.
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesHeather McPhie won her first World Cup event on Thursday in Park City, Utah.
Judges awarded McPhie and Canada's Jennifer Heil -- the defending Olympic champion and a favorite going into the Winter Games in her home country -- exactly the same score over the bumps and jumps. Even the arcane mathematical formula used to break such deadlocks, a mind-numbing drill-down into infinitesimal differences between scores on turns and airborne tricks, didn't untangle the result.
What counted for the 25-year-old McPhie, who lives in Park City, was notching her first World Cup podium on her home course at the Deer Valley resort after a few near-misses since 2007, when she was named rookie of the year on the circuit.
"Six girls in the top 12 [qualifiers] from the U.S., to end up on top is unreal," a teary-eyed McPhie said afterward. "I've believed in myself for a long time, but there's so many things out of your control, so many variables. I really wanted to go out there and give it all I had, and I did. I left everything out there."
Olympic veteran Shannon Bahrke, the gregarious 2002 silver medalist who owns a coffee roasting company, also strengthened her case to make the team by finishing third.
The team selection is likely to come down to the final World Cup event before the Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y., next weekend. Moguls is a traditionally strong event for the U.S. team as a whole, and the women's moguls race is especially competitive this year. The U.S. will almost certainly name four women and four men to compete in moguls in Vancouver, although those numbers must fit within the overall quota of 18 skiers in moguls, aerials and ski cross.
Hannah Kearney, the defending World Cup champion, punched her ticket to Vancouver by winning at the U.S. trials last month. The other skiers will be selected based on World Cup results.
"Everyone on the team is skiing so well, they're all putting down their best runs and finishing in the top 10 every week," said an out-of-breath Shelly Robertson, one of eight American women who made the final 16 on Thursday.
Freestyle coach Jeff Wintersteen said the women are dealing with the tension well as a group, but that doesn't make it any easier for him. "I'm pleased for the ones who are getting it done and broken-hearted for those who aren't," he said.
"With Heather, every World Cup result this year has improved. Bahrke started on the outside looking in, but she's been plugging away. Now she's being a bit more aggressive. The girls are really upping the ante with the jumps and she's starting to respond."
Seven U.S. men qualified for the 16-man field in the finals, but couldn't crack the top three.
Surging young talent Bryon Wilson, 21, of Butte, Mont., made a statement last month with two World Cup runner-up finishes in Finland, but he fell on his first jump Thursday and tumbled out of contention. Patrick Deneen, a Washington state native who, like Kearney, earned a trip to the Olympics at the U.S. trials last month, was bumped off the podium by the last man down the slope, France's Guilbaut Colas. On the bright side, 21-year-old Jeremy Cota of Greenville, Maine, competing in his first World Cup, finished sixth.
Australia's Dale Begg-Smith, the 2006 Olympic gold medalist, looks like a good bet to repeat as he won his third consecutive World Cup. Dmitry Reiherd of Kazakhstan finished third.
McPhie's parents, Kristie and Scott, were on hand to see their daughter's bravura performance. Heather is "a responsible daredevil," her mother said, meaning Heather takes risks only after she feels fully prepared. Her parents own a cabinetry and design business in Bozeman, Mont., where they once were ski instructors.
"From the time she was little, she was in a backpack when Scott was skiing, telling him to go faster," Kristie McPhie said.
Heil and McPhie are now ranked 1-2 in the World Cup standings. The moguls skiers have a second competition on the same course in Deer Valley scheduled for Saturday night.