Saturday, August 17, 2019

Aaron Blunck wraps up second trip to the Olympics

“I’m just going to see what opportunities happen and see where the snow is.“

by Than Acuff

Four years ago, Aaron Blunck put the finishing touches on his best season of halfpipe skiing to date with a trip to the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. He was 17 years young, the youngest male athlete on the entire Olympic team, and he had no expectations heading in.

“I wasn’t even expecting to make the team,” says Blunck. “I just wanted to see all the things the Olympics had to offer. No expectations really, just take it all in.”

Blunck finished in seventh place and since then his career has taken off, with sponsors lining up to sign him, trips to heli-ski in locations around the world and parts in ski movies. He continued to compete on the halfpipe skiing circuit, as a professional now, flirting with the top spot and posting numerous podium finishes. Yet, something was missing.

Heading into his season last year, he shifted his mindset. After stressing for years about results, he made a conscious decision to step back and enjoy the ride.

“My refocus came when my brother said to me that there’s no reason to have a focus you’re not used to,” explains Blunck. “I realized that it wasn’t about the money, results and fame. I skied because I enjoy skiing. That was the vision I wanted all of the time, like a kid in a candy shop.”

That transformation was part of a whirlwind season last winter as Blunck reached new heights, winning X Games gold and the world championships.

“That refocus was one thing that played a huge role in that season,” says Blunck. “Yeah, it’s a job, but at the end of the day, it’s still skiing.”

But stress was never far away. It began to ramp up again with the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea on the horizon. That meant Olympic qualifying was now thrust into the forefront of every athlete’s mind. The halfpipe skiers had a series of five qualifier events to decide who would make the U.S. Ski Team. And while he worked to keep things in check, Blunck admits, the Olympic qualification process was a wild ride.

“That’s the hardest part about making the team,” says Blunck. “The media and the U.S. Ski Team put on all this pressure about the Olympics. I just kept my head high and reminded myself that if I don’t make the team, so be it, I’ll still crush powder, go snowmobiling, still ski.”

In the end he did it, qualifying for the team headed to the 2018 Winter Olympics, among a group of athletes that was arguably not just the best in the United States but also the best halfpipe skiers in the world.

“The U.S. team has one of the strongest field of skiers in the world,” says Blunck. “In most countries there are probably five guys with a shot at making their team. In the United States, we had 10 dudes gunning for a spot on the team and 20 others who could easily come out of nowhere and make it. That was me four years ago.”

Blunck was now returning to the Olympics. And while the first trip was all about soaking up the entire experience, this year he had a different approach. After going through all of the required steps to get checked into the Games and set up with the vast assortment of outfits, Blunck and his teammates skipped the opening ceremonies to go to Japan for additional training. Or so it seemed, until conditions in Japan had Blunck and his close friend and teammate Torin Yater-Wallace and others change “training” plans.

“We were supposed to go to a pipe camp but it was just Hammertime USA there,” says Blunck. “I was like, I’m strictly going to ski pow. We had chest-deep powder every day. It was honestly the most perfect thing before the Olympics. That was a place I always wanted to visit and it was nice to clear the head and remind myself what I like most about skiing.”

He returned to Pyeongchang with his headspace just right, put together some of the best training days of his career, and went into the qualifying day full of confidence. That is, until his first of two qualifier runs.

“Leading up to it, everything was going perfect,” says Blunck. “And then, in the first run I had a butt-check and I was like, ‘Oh God, this is not happening—I peaked during training.’”

Then came the stress and he had to go back to what it all meant and tune out all of the chatter surrounding him at the top of the halfpipe prior to his second run.

“Everyone was just trying to pump me up and I had to tell everyone to stop talking, I know how to get in the right mindset,” recalls Blunck. “I said to myself, ‘At the end of the day, you’re a skier, just go have a good time and ski,’ and when I stepped into the gate I had a moment of happiness.”

That translated into the top qualifier run of the entire field, as Blunck posted a score of 94.40.

“When the score went up I was like WOW,” says Blunck. “The confidence was there now heading into the finals. I’m just going to go for broke.”

As it turned out, Blunck’s first two of the three final runs did not go as hoped and he was staring down the pipe once again, caught between why he was there and the expectations set on him by his surroundings. Fortunately, his mentor, Jossi Wells, shared some words with him before he headed up for his third run.

“He pulled me aside and said, ‘The mountain is white, go paint it now. Don’t talk to anyone, just enjoy the moment and have some fun,’” explains Blunck.

Blunck went for broke on his third and final run, throwing everything he had at the judges. In the end, the judges felt otherwise, giving him a score of 84.80 and leaving him in seventh place when all was said and done.

“I’d been saving that run for X Games and the Olympics,” says Blunck. “I thought my score was going to be higher and I was devastated.”

It took a while for Blunck to recover from the end result but he just remembered what he had waiting for him back home.

“All I could think about was all of the people back home, my family, friends in Crested Butte and that at least they’re here for me. It was the hardest day of my life,” admits Blunck. “Which seems crazy because I’m still an Olympian, a two-time Olympian, and not a lot of people can say that. Pyeongchang was a crazy scene, out of this world. Man, was it a scene—it was pretty cool.”

Now back in the States, Blunck is focused on rest, recovery and skiing powder and keeping the bigger picture firmly in place.

“I’m going to take it easy. My body has taken a beating. I’ve been to the hospital four times,” says Blunck. “I’m just going to see what opportunities happen and see where the snow is. So many people who were professional skiers, when they retire, hate skiing. I want to retire from competitive skiing and still be a skier.” 

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