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Montana sends four Olympians to Beijing Games

by FRITZ NEIGHBOR and KATIE BROWN
| February 8, 2022 7:00 AM

With three freestyle skiers and a hockey player making the Olympic grade, you can call Montana a hotbed of (frozen) water sports.

Competition has already begun for one of Montana’s four entrants into the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing — it didn’t go swimmingly — while another, Whitefish native Jake Sanderson, is cooling his skates in the States because of a positive Covid-19 test.

The other two, women’s freestyle skiers Maggie Voisin of Whitefish and Darian Stevens of Missoula, started competition Sunday.

VOISIN WAS named to the U.S. Olympics team for a third time on Jan. 16, and this will be her second one as a competitor: A leg fracture kept her from going to Sochi, Russia in 2014.

She narrowly missed the podium at the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, taking fourth in Slopestyle. Since then she’s had to work through a torn left ACL a second time: She was injured in 2016, then had it re-tear in February 2019.

Through it all she’s remained world-class, starting at age 15 with a silver X-Games medal. A bronze came in Big Air at X-Games Norway 2017; she earned gold in Slopestyle at X-Games Aspen in 2018; then took home a gold (Slopestyle) and silver (Big Air) from X-Games Norway 2020.

Voisin has seven X-Games medals overall, but the 23-year-old didn’t compete much at all in 2021. In a story at montanasports.com she spoke of losing her brother Michael to suicide, a devastating loss that kept her off the slopes.

She competed once that year, but on Jan. 22, wearing Michael’s Army dog tags, she placed sixth in Slopestyle and fourth in Big Air at the X-Games Aspen.

Voisin and Darian Stevens had their Big Air qualifying on Sunday. The Slopestyle qualifying and finals are Feb. 12-13.

THE 25-YEAR-OLD Stevens has no X-Games medals, but has matched Voisin with her second trip to the Olympics — and surpassed her in ACL tears, with the third coming shortly after Pyeongchang in 2018.

World rankings helped both make Team USA; Stevens, a Missoula Sentinel alum, said “it was a little bit of a surprise to make the team,” to 406mtsports.com.

The third freestyle qualifier is Brad Wilson, a 2011 Butte Central grad who made it in his event — men’s moguls — for a third time, a record for U.S. men.

Wilson had a tough run Thursday in the qualifying, losing his balance after a solid first jump and not finishing the course. He skied again Saturday for another chance to reach the finals, but ended up 25th. The top 20 moved on.

Wilson has also had his trials. He spoke to 406mtsports.com of an altitude-induced panic attack that first had him taken off the Swiss Alps by helicopter, then kept him off the slopes for two months. This was in 2019; he returned to competition when pandemic rules allowed the season to start.

This is apparently Wilson’s last hurrah.

“You can’t ski forever and when we do ski, we don’t really have much time for anything else,” the 29-year-old said. The five-time U.S. champion, who twice was silver medalist at the World Championships in 2017 and 2019, had his brother Bryan, a U.S. coach, watching him compete.

SANDERSON HAD a whirlwind 2021 between captaining the U.S. to a World Junior Hockey championship to being drafted fifth overall by the Ottawa Senators at the NHL Draft.

Then, after the NHL announced in December that it would not be sending players to the Beijing Olympics, Sanderson jumped to the top of the list of potential players for Team USA.

He was indeed the first player asked to join the team, and jumped at the chance to represent his country. Though he told the Associated Press in a January interview that he initially felt bad that he would miss several games at the University of North Dakota while in Beijing, the decision was easy.

“It was kind of a no-brainer,” Sanderson told the AP. “It’s kind of something you can’t really pass up. It’s the Olympics. You don’t know if you’ll ever be able to play in the Olympics in your lifetime.”

Now he’s one of five teenagers playing for a U.S. team headlined by college hockey players.

The 6’2”, 189-pound defenseman is the son of former NHLer Geoff Sanderson, and got his start playing youth hockey in Whitefish.

At North Dakota, Sanderson has scored seven goals and has 17 assists in 21 games for the Fighting Hawks, leads the team in points per game, and was nominated for the prestigious Hobey Baker Award, which is named for a World War I fighter pilot.

Currently in Covid protocols, Sanderson is cooling his heels in Los Angeles, but USA Hockey remains confident he will join the rest of the team this week.

Time is certainly on his side, as Team USA doesn’t begin its slate of games until Thursday, Feb. 10, against host nation China, at 6:10 a.m. Mountain time on USA Network. On Feb. 11, the U.S. takes on a familiar rival — Canada — at 9:10 p.m. Mountain time.

The men’s hockey tournament medal rounds are scheduled for Saturday, Feb. 19.

The Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) is the defending Olympic champion and are heavily favored to make a run for the gold again. Canada won bronze in 2018 and seem most likely to challenge ROC for gold. Sweden finished out of the medals in 2018 but are also contenders, as is Finland.

The Americans have long odds for a medal in this tournament but are looking to win a medal at the Olympic games for the first time since Vancouver in 2010; the last time they won gold was 1980 in Lake Placid.