Canada's Cassie Sharpe looks to defend gold in ski halfpipe, while American David Wise goes for 3-peat
Sharpe returned to competition in November after suffering knee injury
When freestyle skiing's halfpipe competition hits the Genting Snow Park on Wednesday, there will be a chance for an unprecedented three-peat on the men's side and a chance for one the stars of the Beijing 2022 Games to win her third medal.
These are the third Games for freestyle skiing halfpipe, which made its debut in Sochi 2014 in large part to the lobbying of pipe pioneer, the late Canadian Sarah Burke, a member of Canada's Sports Hall of Fame.
On the men's side there's only been one champion in Olympic history, American David Wise.
Wise took gold in Sochi 2014 and the United States took gold and silver in Pyeongchang, with Wise narrowly edging teammate Alex Ferreira for the Olympic title.
Asked why the Americans have enjoyed such success in the pipe, Wise said: "We have that rebel spirit. We are here to do things differently than everyone else."
Wise, a 31-year-old from Reno, Nev., isn't feeling pressure for a three-peat, however.
'Enjoy the ride'
"I really, truly feel like I'm going to be the hardest guy [to beat] because I have nothing to prove," Wise said after locking down his Olympic berth with a second-place finish at Mammoth Mountain World Cup on Jan. 7. "I just get to go out there and enjoy the ride. I'm not going to be stressed."
His toughest competition will come from a trio of U.S. teammates, New Zealand super star Nico Porteous and three high-flying Canadians.
Two-time X Games champion Ferreira is back, as is 2019 world champion and 2022 X Games silver medallist Aaron Blunck (seventh in 2018). Birk Irving will make his Olympic debut. Of note, the Americans are coached by Canadian Mike Riddle, the Sochi 2014 silver medallist.
Porteous, the 2021 world champion, won Olympic bronze in Pyeongchang when he was just 16 years old. He's fresh off defending his X Games gold medal with a run that commentators called the most technical of all-time.
But watch out for the Canadians — Olympic rookie Brendan Mackay is the hottest man on tour, along with veteran Olympians Noah Bowman and Simon d'Artois. All three have reached the World Cup podium this season, with Mackay wrapping up his first Crystal Globe as overall champion.
Of note, Bowman finished fifth at the past two Olympics, while d'Artois is the reigning world championship silver medallist.
On the women's side, Eileen Gu is a heavy favourite to claim gold on the halfpipe, where she remains unbeaten on the World Cup this season. Born in San Francisco, the 18-year-old competes under the Chinese flag, the birthplace of her mother. She already captured gold in the debut of ski big air as well as a silver in slopestyle.
Sharpe aims to defend gold medal
What sets Gu apart in the pipe is her high amplitude, switch skiing (skiing backward) and variety of tricks.
The reigning Olympic gold medallist, Canada's Cassie Sharpe, is back looking to defend her crown, but this time she's on the comeback trail.
Last January at the X Games in Aspen, the Comox, B.C. native tore her ACL and MCL in her knee while attempting a 1260. One of the sport's renowned innovators, Sharpe went through an arduous rehabilitation, only returning to skis in November. She's hoping to peak in Beijing.
"I'm coming off a pretty traumatic knee injury so I'm trying to allow myself to take the pressure off, try to have fun and go and represent Canada in a really fun, exciting way," Sharpe told the CBCSports.ca series Returning Champions. "My approach is that if I'm having fun and I'm enjoying myself that's when I'm performing my best.
"I'm just going out there to not defend anything because I don't need to defend it, it's in my house, I have it on my mantle, it's not going anywhere, but I'm definitely going out there fighting for that podium."
WATCH | Returning Champions with Cassie Sharpe:
Sharpe isn't the only Canadian skier in the mix for the medals. Rachael Karker of Erin, Ont., is the top Canadian on the World Cup circuit this season, sitting third overall in the standings after two second-place and one third-place result. The 2021 world and X Games silver medallist has excellent air awareness thanks to a background in trampoline, training at SkyRiders, the same club as two-time Olympic champion Rosie MacLennan.
Newcomer Amy Fraser of Halifax rounds out the Canadian squad. She's made three finals this year.
Keep an eye out for Estonia's Kelly Sildaru. Like Gu, the 19-year-old is another triple-threat skier, who already has a bronze medal in slopestyle in Beijing. She's the reigning X Games champion and hungry for multiple medals after a knee injury took her out of competing in Pyeongchang four years ago.
American skiers will also be challenging for the podium, including veteran Brita Sigourney, the 2018 Olympic bronze medallist and multiple X Games medallist, and 17-year-old rookie Hanna Faulhaber, who picked up two medals on the World Cup circuit this season as well as a bronze at Dew Tour.