COPPER MOUNTAIN — Rookies typically shine in the year after the Winter Olympics. Medal-adorned veterans tend to bask in the postshow glow, giving the young up-and-comers in their wake a shot on the big stage.
That slope-worn narrative is dissolving this year as an ambitious crew of young-gun skiers and snowboarders climbs Olympic-qualifying podiums, forcing the veterans to dig deep. Eight of the 32 athletes closest to making the U.S. Olympic men's and women's freeskiing and snowboarding teams for the Sochi Games are rookies.
They are the teenagers being groomed for 2018. They are the next generation. But after two recent Olympic-certifying events, the rookies aren't settling for spectator status.
The early surge of medaling freshmen has been a "huge success" for the red-hot rookies, said U.S. Freeskiing and U.S. Snowboarding coach Mike Jankowski.
"This whole process of the rookies pushing the pros and how the pros respond is going to really build things up to a high level of performance where these athletes are going to be battling it out to make the U.S. team, so when they get to Sochi it's going to be smooth sailing," Jankowski said.
The coach was about to express another thought when 16-year-old snowboarder Ty Walker spun a flawless off-axis 720 off the Breckenridge slopestyle course. The explosive trick has propelled her to the second-highest rider in the battle to make the U.S. women's slopestyle Olympic team after two of five contests.
"Yes! Did you see that? Right on, Ty!" Jankowski said, dashing off to congratulate the ecstatic Vermont teenager.
Taylor Gold, the Steamboat Springs 20-year-old who finds himself a breath away from top qualifier Greg Bretz (an Olympic veteran) in snowboard halfpipe, said his young colleagues spent the summer working hard with an eye on unseating the kings and queens of snow sports. His 18-year-old friend, Ben Ferguson of Oregon, is the country's third-ranked top qualifying snowboard halfpipe snowboarder.
"Everyone worked so hard to learn a bunch of new tricks and practice going big. I think we outworked them this summer and I think that's where our success is coming from," said Gold, after a day of home-hill powder riding during a three-day Christmas break. "We are doing a good job of showing we can hang."
Montana's Maggie Voisin is the top qualified skier after two slopestyle contests, one step ahead of 16-year-old Darian Stevens in a field rich with battle-tested pros. If Voisin, 15, makes the U.S. Olympic team, she would be one of the youngest competitors in Sochi.
"I try to take the pressure off myself. Especially being a younger athlete, I don't think it's on me as much, which is going to help me learn to manage the pressure in the future when I get older," she said. "I have a long career ahead of me."
It's yet another glimpse of wisdom that belies her age. She seems amazed at the disparity between her life — living away from her family, traveling across the continent, winning contests — and her age.
"I'm only in ninth grade. It's crazy. I only see my parents occasionally in the winter. Where I come from, that's rare," she said. "But I can't think of anything else I'd rather be doing."
Voisin joins Crested Butte's Aaron Blunck as U.S. Freeskiing's top teens. Blunck is having the season of his life, with a career-apex win at the Copper Grand Prix last month, but said he's not skiing exclusively for Olympic glory.
"A lot of people, the Olympics weigh so heavy on their mind. It's all they think about for every run," Blunck said. "I know there's more to life than the Olympics. I'm trying to look at all of these (Olympic-qualifying) competitions like they are any other competitions."
But don't expect the pros to roll over, said Jankowski, noting that the Olympic-tested Louie Vito will come out big at this week's Breckenridge Grand Prix and the final two events at California's Mammoth Mountain. "Louie will fight like no one you've seen," he said.
And Shaun White, who is splitting his time and training between the halfpipe and slopestyle course, has yet to stick his best run in the pipe.
The rookies know that the heavy hitters will be coming in hot in these final three contests.
"The competition will step up," Gold said. "If Shaun is riding at the level he normally rides, no one can touch that. It's interesting to see him balance slopestyle and halfpipe. He's having a hard time, I think, trying to maintain his skills in the pipe. It seems like the playing field is more level right now."
The fierce competition among Americans is all part of the U.S. coaches' Olympic plan.
"That way has proven successful for us," Jankowski said. "This five-stop qualifier process in December and January right before the Games really brings out the best in these riders, so when they show up for the Olympics, they are really firing on all cylinders."
A look at top rookies in position to qualify for the Sochi-bound U.S. Olympic team after the first two of five events:
Aaron Blunck, 17
Hometown: Crested Butte
Rank: First in men's skiing halfpipe
Lyman Currier, 19
Rank: Fourth in men's skiing halfpipe
Maggie Voisin, 15
Hometown: Whitefish, Mont.
Rank: First in women's skiing slopestyle
Darian Stevens, 16
Hometown: Missoula, Mont.
Rank: Second in women's skiing slopestyle
Brandon Davis, 18
Hometown: Mammoth Lakes, Calif.
Rank: Fourth in men's snowboard slopestyle
Ty Walker, 16
Hometown: Stowe, Vt.
Rank: Second in women's snowboard slopestyle
Taylor Gold, 20
Hometown: Steamboat Springs
Rank: Second in men's snowboard halfpipe
Ben Ferguson, 18
Hometown: Bend, Ore.
Rank: Third in men's snowboard halfpipe