Closed-Out and Down: Rails 2 Riches 2012

L.J. Strenio goes back east, wins big

Killington's Rails 2 Riches is one of the few remaining significant park events on the East Coast. And thanks to its sizable cash purse, it's the only open event in the East where you'll find skiers that have flown in from the West. The East Coast homecoming ended up paying off for almost everyone visiting from Salt Lake City. Steve Stepp, Giray Didali, and L.J. Strenio, all native East Coasters chasing the dream in the City of the Saints, found themselves on the receiving end of varying amounts of hundred dollar bills after being on the producing end of a heavy barrage of tricks.

The inclusion of a multi-takeoff closeout rail breathed life into an event that usually has a straightforward set of features, with many competitors mentioning the feature as the one they were most excited to dial in. The soft, slushy landings, a product of an unseasonably warm December weekend, also gave skiers extra incentive to throw down, which made keeping track of the trick list a dizzying effort. Judges Andy Parry, Ian Compton, and Matt Bennedetto, along with the grip of photographers, videographers, and one amateur journalist from POWDER, could barely keep up as the field of 37 skiers worked the setup. Plenty of unknown amateurs were in town to keep the visiting pros on their feet. All three judges said that deciding who made it into finals was harder than figuring out who podiumed during finals.

Strenio, who forgot his ski boots, took to the qualifiers with a packed-out pair of rental silver and magenta Dalbellos. Despite feeling "a little less snappy" in them, Strenio managed to nab a 630 off the closeout rail, a few misties off, and a few variations of switch-up, 450 out on the down-flat-down to secure his spot in the final.

By the time the foggy day turned to foggy night and finals started, the course's copious ruts had been smoothed into a clean, slushy shine and the squeeze from 37 athletes to 10 guys and five women meant that the disorienting torrent of tricks of qualifiers had calmed into a digestible, although still fierce, pace.

Strenio recovered his boots and went to work on every feature. Line teammate Giray Dadali was right with him on the closeout, using his power skiing to switch 270 on, 810 out, and cab 270 again into a rodeo 630 out, standing up landings that would have crushed weaker skiers while taking a page from Tom Wallisch to "spin into the future," as he put it. Only Steve Stepp was able to keep up with the number of tricks Giray and Strenio landed.

Ultimately, this trio's ability to find big tricks on each of the three features is what got them onto the podium, with the sheer volume and consistency of Strenio’s finals performance edging him into first and making him $4,000 richer.

Plenty of others found their feet on big tricks. After several swings, Dom Leporte imported a Quebecois-vintage to the double kink--a Charlie Chapman to lipslide, 450 out--while finding that last kink of the rail that had eluded him during qualifiers. Will Hibbs and John Kutcher both kept up the style slaughter on the closeout, although Hibbs was unable to find the tricks on the double kink that he had skied away from earlier in the day. And while Kieran McVeigh only put together two or three notable tricks in finals, his 270 onto the down-flat-down put him in the middle of a deep, committed tail press through both kinks, which he mopped up with a pretzel 270 out right to his feet. Kieran's loose, bouncy flow had the crowd rooting for him all night, and this trick brought them all to their feet.

Eventual women's winner Jackie Kling, in qualifiers on the down bar, which she was able to 270 out of. PHOTO: RYAN DUNFEE

The young women's field had a harder time feeling comfortable on what was a very intimidating setup. Third place winner Catharine Warchal still went full-bore, cleaning the closeout rail multiple times in between a few near-disasters trying to 270 onto the double kink. Second place winner Kim Lamarre nabbed a controversial win of the Last Dash for Cash thanks to a catastrophic double ejection and consequent near-Earth orbit after trying to go switch onto the close-out. Pennsylvania's up-and-coming star, Jackie Kling, ultimately skied the most confidently, nailing a 270 out of the down bar, greasing the double kink multiple times, and cleanly stomping a giant disaster to the last bar. Her comfort level with the setup, and subsequent ability to put down more tricks than the rest of the field, vaulted her into first.

With that, the most exciting Rails 2 Riches in years was over. Men's winner Strenio was off to use his winnings to pay off debt incurred while buying a flight to Sweden for a Level 1 film trip, and Giray was split between using his $2,000 to pay off student loans or buy a sled that wouldn't strand him in the Utah backcountry. Whatever the shopping plans, the finals field spread onto the Killington access road to swindle as many cocktails off of Strenio as his mandatory tab contributions would allow.

* Women's Snowboard winner Lily Calabrese also deserves a shout-out. An early victim of the closeout rail, Calabrese had to get 14 stitches in her leg to sew up a quarter-sized hole before heading back out for finals, which she won.