PYEONGCHANG, South Korea -- If Tuesday's men's ski halfpipe qualifier was any indication, the American medal tally is due for a booster shot. At different times during the contest, three American men sat atop the leaderboard, and by the finish, all four Americans had qualified for Thursday's 12-man final. Aaron Blunck, Alex Ferreira and Torin Yater-Wallace, three skiers under the age of 23 who grew up within 40 miles of one another in Colorado, qualified 1-2-3.
"We push each other a lot," Yater-Wallace said. "The U.S. halfpipe team has one of the deepest fields -- if not the deepest -- in the world. Just making the team was the hardest part."
Yater-Wallace was the first American to lead the field with a first-run score of 89.60. A few runs later, Ferreira topped him with a 92.60. When Blunck dropped in to take his second run, he was sitting on the bubble in 12th place, but he landed a massive run and jumped both his teammates with a 94.40. "It's the most nervous I've ever been before I was about to drop in," Blunck said. "I was freaking out up top and I said to myself, 'Whatever happens, happens.'"
The entire U.S. freeski team has drawn impressive cheering sections here in Pyeongchang, but the Colorado contingent was especially boisterous during Tuesday's qualifiers.
"It does somewhat feel like home here, like we're riding at the X Games," said Yater-Wallace, who's from Aspen. "We have so many family members from Colorado and friends we grew up with who are here. Some friends Alex and I went to high school with came out to watch, so you have that feeling of home even though you're many thousands of miles away."
Defending Olympic gold medalist David Wise fell on his first run, scaled back his second and landed a run he knew would be good enough to send him to the final.
"I was feeling zero pressure going into the first run, and then I skidded out and was surprised," Wise said. "I don't usually do that on qualifier runs, so the amount of stress and pressure I was feeling going into the second run was pretty high. I had to dig deep down into my core, where you pull those moments out of. I told myself, it doesn't matter what happened and what everyone else is doing, ski the way you want to ski and land a run. The job for a professional skier in qualifiers is to qualify, and I'm happy I did that."
Here in Pyeongchang, the four men are teammates. They wear the same uniform, travel together on the same bus. Blunck and Yater-Wallace are roommates; so too are Ferreira and Wise. On Monday night, they hung out together watching reruns of "That '70s Show." But halfpipe skiing is still an individual sport. All each rider can control is the tricks he throws and the order in which he throws them. He can't control what the judges think of his runs or how the other skiers perform. So while all four men admit it would be incredible to make the podium and to share it with two of their teammates, they know only so much is within their control.
"I think it would be really cool, a U.S. sweep, but I'm just one person skiing for myself," Yater-Wallace said. "I'm going to try and do the best I can and I assume they'll all do the same, and if that puts us top three, that would be unreal."
The competition to make the U.S. team was intense, the qualifying process a long, stressful grind. But it also could be the reason the Americans are peaking in Pyeongchang.
"That's what the U.S. team is trying to do, make the process as rigorous as possible so we can endure all types of conditions and pressure," Ferreira said. "I guess it's a good thing. We're all doing well, and we all made finals."
Two weeks before leaving for Korea, Wise, Ferreira and Yater-Wallace swept the podium at X Games Aspen, and although Blunck finished eighth, he was the defending X Games champ. Ferreria won two World Cup contests and the Dew Tour in 2017, Yater-Wallace won two World Cup events and Wise won the Grand Prix in Snowmass. That's all to say that any one of these men could leave Pyeongchang an Olympic champ. And the harsh reality is that, at best, one will be left off the podium.
"The chances are pretty good [for a U.S. sweep]," Wise said. "The conditions are not only optimal for pipe skiing in general, the conditions are optimal for American pipe skiers because all four of us like to go big. When you go big, you tend to run out of pipe, but this one is nice and long, so we're all going to get five hits, we're all going to be able to do the tricks we want to do, and we'll see how the cards fall.
"I'm excited about putting on a show. That's the one thing I felt was lacking in Sochi, that we didn't get to put on the show that the world deserved to see. The conditions weren't optimal, but they're going to be good here and I'm excited to see freeskiing show off. If I get to be the guy standing on top of the podium at the end of the day, I'll be over the moon."
If he's standing next to two of his teammates, even better.