Slippery slope as New Zealanders hope for gold

BEN STANLEY
Last updated 05:01 09/02/2014
Rebecca Torr
Reuters
BAD RUN: New Zealand's Rebecca Torr reacts at the finish line during the women's snowboard slopestyle qualifying session.

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Fifteen into four. Any way you cut it, it's an equation that is as messy as it gets.

Messier still when it's 15 Olympic dreams you're dealing with. Dreams of 15 athletes who have slept on couches, sustained sprained ankles and broken wrists, and spent years away from the family and friends for the opportunity to be there - to compete on the biggest sporting stage of all.

At 7.30pm tonight, that messy equation will take place when the semi-finals of the first-ever Winter Olympics women's snowboard slopestyle event are held at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park in Sochi.

By the time it's over, so too will be the Olympic dreams of a number of boarders - and there will be Kiwis among them.

After failing to secure direct qualification for the slopestyle final tonight in the heats on Friday morning, Shelly Gotlieb, Stefi Luxton, Christy Prior and Rebecca "Possum" Torr will compete in the "sudden death" semi-finals - needing to be in the top four to make it through to the final later tonight.

Even if all the cards fell the right way, or other boarders the wrong way, the cruel reality is it is hugely unlikely that all four Kiwi women will make the final 12 alongside American favourite Jamie Anderson, and Australian star Torah Bright.

Tom Willmott, the head snowboard and free-ski coach of the Kiwi team, admitted the plan was to see at least one Kiwi gain a direct spot in the final - but the "Awesome Foursome" remain excited by the challenge at hand.

"Sure enough, everyone else stepped up in the heats - and it was a pretty impressive display too," he said.

"Lots of people were landing good solid runs. We've adjusted the game plan a bit going into Sunday.

"The standard will be really high - and that means we'll have to up our game."

The Rosa Khutor course has been criticised for its dangerous lines, but Gotlieb, who crashed out in the heats, said early judging has given athletes a clue of how to plan their runs for tonight.

"The judging [on Friday] gave us a few answers about what they are going to be looking for in the finals," she said.

"It was interesting to see the difference between the big side and the small side and how the judges will looking at that too."

Getting too aggressive with your runs, given the sudden death nature of competition, will count against you, said Torr, the top Kiwi in qualifying. She finished sixth in her heat.

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"Bomb out in the first run, and you've just got to reset, clear your mind and head back to the top of the hill. Nail what you know you can nail, and you will definitely be through.

"It is 95 per cent in your mind, this sport," she said.

"Everyone is capable of the tricks at this level, of course. It's just your approach and if you land them on the day."

Though Te Puke's Torr scored the highest in the heats, Prior is still seen as the best Kiwi hope for something special tonight.

The Kaukapakapa 25-year-old, who is ranked seventh in the world, landed two consistent, smooth runs in qualifying - and certainly has the stuff to top the semis and shake things up in the final.

Prior, who experienced her first pro season over the last year, said that sticking to your plan and not getting spun out by what you are seeing from other competitors is key.

"You've just got to focus on what you can do, not what everyone else is doing," she said.

British boarders Jenny Jones and Aimee Fuller, and Norwegian Silje Norendal, loom as the biggest threats to the Kiwis gaining a spot in the final.

Regardless of how the New Zealanders fare, the group will remain supportive. They've done the hard yards on tour with each other. If one Olympic dream comes true, it comes true for all of them in some way.

"We, together, are so supportive of each other, and we just want each other to do the best," Gotlieb said.

"It's not against each other - it's with each other we compete. These girls mean a lot to me, and I'm really proud to be here with them."

- Sunday News

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