In the last ten years or more, action sports have evolved to not only define young men and women whose tricks and flips have reinvented the word “extreme,” but they’ve gone on to transform outcasts to heroes, resulting in a billion dollar industry.
Skateboarding and snowboarding in particular have invaded the cultural foundation of our youth, and brought these underground sports to the mainstream. At competitions, groupies scream for their idols, and those idols appear in many forms of entertainment, from soda pop and chip commercials to video games and Hollywood movies.
On January 29th, the 2003 ESPN Winter X Games VII invaded the town of Aspen and the mountains of Buttermilk, coming back to Colorado for the second year in a row. David Perry, the Senior Vice President of the Aspen Skiing Company reflects on last year’s games, “When the Winter X Games came to Aspen last year for the first year, I was there as a visitor.” Aspen drew close to 40,000 spectators over the four-day event – the biggest winter sporting event Aspen has ever hosted. “The town received an automatic vibe plant – the atmosphere was electric for the entire weekend.”
For seven years this annual event has showcased the continuing evolution of sports that defy gravity. These games have been fueled by women and men who push themselves to the edge for the love of snowboarding, skiing, snowmobiling, and Moto X – from racing down a 3,200 foot-long course filled with tabletop jumps, rollers, and gaps to this year’s event, where Mike Metzger pulled the first ever Moto X backflip on snow at a Winter X.
When it comes to the actual evolution of the games themselves, ESPN takes their direction from the athletes, “and where they’re taking their sports,” says Ron Semiao, the senior vice president of ESPN and the creator of the X Games concept. “The big change that we made last year in the Winter X Games was in the skiing area where we added the skiers in the Superpipe and on the Slopestyle course and replaced the Big Air. That’s the direction the kids were going. We try to follow the progression of the athletes.”
THE GAMES X-PLODE
At this year’s Winter X Games VII, 250 action sports athletes competed for medals and more than $500,000 in prize money in the sports of Snowboard (Slopestyle, Snowboarder X and SuperPipe, men and women); Ski (Skier X – men and women, Slopestyle and SuperPipe), Snowmobile (HillCross and SnoCross), Moto X (Big Air) and UltraCross (ski and snowboard combined event).
The warmer weather has people in high spirits to see the athletes soar on the sunny slopes. People were actually running around in short sleeves and tank tops as the thermometer rose to the low 70’s.
Ross Powers, a snowboard competitor since the first Winter X Games, was psyched to do his thing in Buttermilk again, “I like the venue ’cause you can watch all the other events when you’re practicing and when you’re done.”
I have watched a number of X Games on ESPN, but there’s nothing like the experience of being in right in front of the men and women, or in some cases, girls and boys, while they’re breaking down all logic of what a body can or cannot do with a pair of skis, snowboard, or a motocross bike.
Observing the events was a sport in itself. As I viewed the map that laid out where each competition was taking place, I couldn’t help but wonder, “Just how does one get up the hill to the Superpipe?” I soon found out. There was no lift. Instead you had to climb, in shoes not exactly made for snow climbing. The grade of the hill was another matter. It felt like a climb to Mount Everest sans the oxygen masks, which were badly needed by the time we made it to the top.
Getting down was just a comedy of errors. Although the organizers tried to lesson the law of gravity by making a zig zag trail from the bottom to the top, it was a lawsuit waiting to happen. Cameramen and observers alike slid down on their asses, some on purpose…and some not. Ski poles were handed out to help avoid total disaster, but it was like putting a steering wheel on a car that was careening on a bed of ice.
But it was so worth it to make it to the lip of the Women’s Snowboard SuperPipe. Seeing an X Games favorite, Barrett Christy from Vail, pull a 900 a foot away from you and hearing her shout, “Wooo!” at her realization that the trick was nailed with the finesse she’s known for. Because of the weather, the pipe’s condition wasn’t at its peak. This did cause a number of falls, including Christy’s spills that cost her and placed her fifth in the finals.
It was Aspen’s own Gretchen Bleiler who grabbed the Gold. With her patented Crippler trick and back-to-back 540s, she more than pleased her hometown crowd and herself, “I’m so psyched I can’t even believe it,” said Bleiler, whose previous best-ever Winter X Games finish was seventh place in the SuperPipe in 2001.
Bleiler also beat out Olympic Gold medallist and reigning SuperPipe Gold medallist Kelly Clark from West Dover, VT, who placed second. Hannah Teter from Belmont, VT, a new competitor to the X Games, took bronze, “It was so awesome being here for the first time at the X Games,” said Teter. “The crowd was going off.”
The crowd was also going off for the Moto X finals, where the athletes were expected to pull off tricks never before seen at the Winter X games.
One such trick was the Backflip made famous by “The Godfather” of Moto X, Mike Metzger from Menifee, CA, who used this trick to take the Gold at last year’s X Games in Philadelphia.
Chuck Carothers, who got into this year’s competitions when Mike Jones suffered an injury and had to pull himself out of the games. Carothers got the girls and boys screaming when he pulled his signature trick, the Sideshow Bob, a variation of the Super Can where he lets go of the bars and jumps back on. This guy pulled this particular trick at a demo in Asia, and it freaked the promoter out so much he was asked not to do it again. But it wasn’t enough, and Carothers finished last.
Doug “Punk Rock” Parsons, requesting a little “Bro Hymn” by Pennywise, pulled a Kiss A Death, where he basically flips to a handstand on the bars and is straight up and over the bike.
When all was said and jumped, it was Metzger who made all the predictions of Gold for Moto X come true. In the second to the last run, he barrels out to the ramp in a wheely, then pulls a variation of the Backflip with a no-footer. The sun was shining big on Metzger as he landed it, but the warmth wasn’t so good for snow, “The run on the 50 foot popper lip’s getting a little crazy, so it’s pretty difficult to do a Backflip right now,” he says.
But he wasn’t done amazing the crowd and the judges, “I’m coming out with my new trick, the McFritz. I’m going over the 90 footer and I’m throwing a big, whipped one-footed knack foot grab.” Translation: something fucking crazy. Final word was Gold.
Australian Dayne Kinnaird had a different strategy than doing backflips to win him the Silver, instead, pulling off wild combinations like the McMetz See-Grab Indian Air. “I’ve always been confident that placing is just a matter of landing combos,” Kinnaird said. He was confident that it was those unique combos would at least land him in second place and his first X Games medal, “even though I didn’t flip.”
Although Caleb Wyatt was the first to ever land a Backflip on his 250CC, landing it on snow was new to him and he came in third with the Bronze.
When the finals ended, the crowd stampeded the athletes, who hadn’t even made it off their bikes yet. But they gleamed at the attention, and more than welcomed the appreciation of their skills by everyone.
The Ultracross brought some US and European competitors together in the way of teams made up of one snowboarder and one skier (essentially pulled from a hat when they arrive at the Games). The snowboarders leave the shoot first, and when they get to the finish line, the skiers follow in a pseudo tag team formula.
The snowboarder/skier teams that nabbed the medals included Xavier Delerue from France/Kaj Zackrisson from Sweden with the gold, Seth Wescott from ME/ Peter Lind from Sweden took silver, and the bronze went to Ben Jacobellis from VT/Lars Lewen from Sweden.
In SnowCross, the competition was fierce as the line up included nine former medallist and two possible three-peat gold medallists. The guy who did it? Blaire Morgan from Canada, now a three time gold winner at Winter X.
Morgan took the lead from D.J. Eckstrom from Dulth, MN, who was in first throughout the majority of the run. But Eckstrom lost his edge enough for Morgan to grab first, hitting a jump high enough and long enough to get ahead. “I fought beside him and when he made the mistake I got by him,” said Morgan. “This was the hardest one I’ve had to work for.”
After they crossed the finish line, it was Eckstrom with a silver and Tucker Hibbert from Goodridge, MN with a Bronze. Eckstrom hugged his bud Morgan after the race, then shook his head his head in anguish realizing how close he came to Gold. “I messed up on a line and Blair took advantage of it,” Eckstrom said. “I overshot the double and it cost me on the next one. I knew he was behind me the whole time. But I’m still happy to be on the podium.”
HillCross was just plain crazy. Picture snowmobiles at full throttle, going uphill as fast and as hard as their machines will carry them, and you could hear those engines scream from all points on the mountain. Carl Kuster from Canada has taken the Gold for the last two years. But not this year. It was T.J. Gulla from South Hero, VT, who was the SnowCross hero in first place at X Games VII.
Although Kuster did place to get a Silver, he wasn’t content with being second, “I had nothing in mind but a Gold. I really wanted to win.”
Steve Martin from Evanston, WY, who won Silver in HillCross last year, came in third to win Bronze.
Shaun White was the miracle kid, taking the Gold not only in the SuperPipe, but in the Slopestyle as well. As a result, this 16-year-old was named Outstanding Athlete of the Winter X Games, along with a cool ride, 2004 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon, although he hasn’t gotten around to getting his license yet.
White joins Ross Powers, the only other snowboarder in Winter X history to win Gold in both competitions. “This is amazing,” White said. “I’ve been boarding since I was six-years-old. I’ve always wanted to come to the X Games and do well. This is my year. I’m having so much fun. I’m way into this.”
In the last day of competition, the warm weather gave way to more traditional bouts of snow. This was an unfortunate circumstance for Women’s Slopestyle, making for brutal conditions of poor visibility and slow snow on the course.
That didn’t stop Janna Meyen, who was pulling switch when the others weren’t taking on the rails, and ending her run with a Backside 360 and a score of 92.00. After this first run, Meyen was in first. And she stayed there after the athletes voted to eliminate the second run due to the effects of the snowstorm.
Hana Beaman from Big Bear, CA, got the Silver and Lindsey Jacobellis from Stratton, VT, placed third, winning a Bronze for her first-ever Slopestyle competition.
THE SIDELINES, THE CLUB LINES
When you’re kind of behind the scenes of an event like this, you get a chance to observe the sports in their rawest form. You see the athletes having to walk up the pipe, which is it’s own workout. You see the cameramen huddled in front of the mega camera to review a gnarly trick by Shaun White. And at the bottom of the mountain, the awards stage has pit in front, packed with kids who fight to see their heroes and heroines crowned in glory, or win stuff from Coolio, who happened to be in town for the event.
Burton, ESPN Skatepark, local radio stations, and other companies had booths set up at the games as well, as did Boarding for Breast Cancer (BBC). Friday night they held a fund raising event where breast molds of Pro-Riders Tina Basich, Barrett Christy, Megan Pischke, and other pros made by local Colorado artist Jill Stephens, were auctioned off. “It went really great,” says Lisa Hudson, one of BBC’s founders. Almost all of the art pieces were bought, “Everyone just rallied,” and all proceeds went to the support of breast cancer awareness and the BBC cause.
The organization plans to participate in more events nationwide to spread the word, and may change the local of their annual events, which combine snowboarding demos with live concerts from Sierra Tahoe to another location yet to be announced. To check out some of those past events, which included shows from Beastie Boys and Foo Fighers, and check on a BBC appearance in your area, go to their web site at www.b4bc.org.
Other causes arose at the X Games, from nude women running crazy down the mountain with “No Fur” signs, to anti-war demonstrations and the handing out of bibs that said, “Make Turns, Not War.” The Colorado Coalition for Peace took the opportunity to get some recognition and possibly some X Games airtime by handing out these bibs in a quiet protest against the war – not wanting to make a scene, just a stand. Later that day, well known “Gonzo” author Hunter S. Thompson took the stage in his hometown of Aspen for a PEACE rally and march through town.
The X Games also provide a chance for these busy athletes to meet up with their friends, mingle with some of the people cheering them on from the side lines, and join in the many festivities that take place beyond the competition, from watching rail slide demos to nighttime concerts.
After a full day of climbing up and down mountains, and experiencing the adrenaline rush of watching these competitions, there wasn’t a lot of energy left to “get our freak on.” Instead, we and the crew from Collegian Magazine all piled into our three story pad at Resort Quest in Snowmass. With a full bathroom and bedrooms on each level, a stylin’ kitchen, stereo, and large living room with a wide window view of the mountains, life was good. The cocktails were flowing along with the music, and since this was Colorado, out came the hacky sack.
Then it was time to hit downtown for a good meal. Keep in mind, between Kaffeine Buzz and Collegian, we’ve got a gang of writers, photographers, video crew, staff, boyfriends, girlfriends, and new friends. Thankfully, in a town filled with close strangers from the snow sport scene, we fit right into the crowd at the Cantina Restaurant, who served up some righteous Mexican food and ‘ritas. As we stuffed and drank ourselves into oblivion, a parade of multi-colored lights beamed through the restaurant’s large windows. Was it the tequila or something else? No, it was a mobile institution of Aspen, an ass-shaking club for five – it was the Ultimate Taxi. Complete with 3-D glasses, psychedelic lights, Internet service, and a driver who plays an electronic keyboard and horn to Steve Wonder classics, all while keeping the car on the road. Wild.
We attended a little press gathering at the historic Hotel Jarome, but by the time we made it there, the only thing happening was the cheese platter and some free beer. No complaints. As we took a look the room loaded with enough dead animals on the wall to cause a PETA riot, there was just one topic permeating throughout, “Do you know what’s going on after this?”
Since everyone came up empty handed, we decided to find out on our own. We stumbled across what seemed to be one of the more popular gigs in town, Eric’s Place. As we were almost run over by a crowd of snobby club kids and a lack of line waiting etiquette, I couldn’t help but think of a something I heard on a local radio station, “Trustafarians.” Once we made it in, we felt at ease in the more modern bar, took a look at the expansive room with pool table, and decided we found our place for the night.
THE EVOLUTION OF ACTION SPORTS
This year the skiers blew up the Ski SuperPipe with Big Air and wild flips that made everyone scream in amazement. We watched X Games history in the making, smashing the traditional persona of a typical two-planker.
In the finals, it was Candide Thovex from France who soared above the pipe in his final run, taking the Gold. Tanner Hall from Kalispell, MT, earned Silver and added that winning to his previous two Gold Winter X medals. “More and more kids are now seeing that Pipe is where it’s at,” says Tanner.
Jon Olsson took his Bronze home to Sweden, winning his third Winter X Games medal. “I got lucky and it just worked out in the finals,” said Olsson. “I’m just happy to be a part of this crazy competition. It was amazing, especially since I don’t have a Pipe at home.”
We ran into Joe Vallone, a judge for the competition, who was bummed that he wasn’t able to compete himself due to an injury, but was stoked to see the evolution of skiing take place at these games. “Weren’t they amazing? Skiing is taking it back I tell ya. It’s been snowboarding, snowboarding for a while now. It’s great to see skiers getting attention again,” says Vallone.
A new snow toy has begun to permeate throughout the Colorado Mountains, and Buttermilk is keeping up with Jones’ with their snowdeck terrain park, which was set up at the bottom of the mountain. Snowboarders and skateboarders alike were test-driving this hybrid board that made its way into the scene about three years ago. Two years ago, Aspen Skiing Co. became the first Colorado resort to build a snowdeck park. Crested Butte followed, as did Copper Mountain, keeping the park open for the kids after the lifts close and the sun sets.
The mini park was packed with riders from 8 to 18, sliding down a slope without bindings and pulling tricks they pull in the street, but without wheels. Checking out the snowdecks themselves, there are simplistic ones like the single deck demos they lent out to the riders, which go for $50 to $75. But it’s the double deckers, which have a smaller edged board beneath the main deck, which allows riders to carve the snow. Those are more in the $100 to $175 range.
Seeing this snowdeck park swamped with kids, fueled by the excitement of learning something new that is also familiar, I couldn’t help but think of Ron Semiao from ESPN, and his statement, “We try to follow the progression of the athletes,” to help them decide what sports to include in their competition.
Two years ago, did anyone expect to see Moto X backflips on snow or skiers ripping up the Superpipe? So how long will it be before Summer X medallists like Rodil de Araujo Jr. or Wagner Ramos have to don some winter clothing to compete in the X Games year round?
One thing’s for sure. At the rate these sports are headed, the only thing to expect is the unexpected. History is being made as each Winter X Game goes by – new athletes are pulling new tricks, and are hopping from one type of competition to another. We can only expect that every X Game, there will be a new game in whatever town they happen to invade.