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Preps: Aspen High boys basketball team rallies to win fourth straight game

Coachability is an important skill set to have for any basketball team, and it’s a trait Alex Schrempf is excited to see with his young players. Needing to adapt on the fly Saturday against visiting Middle Park, Aspen High School rallied from a 10-point halftime deficit to win 61-54 inside the AHS gymnasium for its fourth straight win.

“There was a stretch in the first half where we were doing a lot of individual stuff,” said Schrempf, Aspen’s fourth-year head coach. “It was really impressive from a coach’s standpoint to see a group of young men like that that just adapted.”

Middle Park (4-2) came out swinging against Aspen in the non-league game. The Panthers led 7-0 only to have AHS pull within a point on two occasions, but did end the first quarter with a 20-13 lead. Middle Park’s lead was 35-25 at halftime but by the end of the third quarter the Skiers were within 41-37.

“They came out and stuck to our guns, they started playing Aspen basketball at our pace instead of at theirs,” Schrempf said of the second half. “They are very coachable; they are adaptable. We have our tendencies, but they are coachable to the point where we are able to make adjustments and these guys are retaining it.”

Aspen tied the game at 41-all with 7:19 to play and took its first lead at 45-43 shortly after. The game was tied 53-all with just under three minutes to play, but it was all AHS from there, a basket by senior Aidan Ledingham with about 44 seconds remaining making it a five-point game and all but icing it.

Ledingham and freshman Taylor Akin each finished with 20 points, while sophomore Braden Korpela added 10.

Only the night before, in a 66-45 win over Cedaredge in their league opener, Aspen sophomore Lucas Lee finished with 24 points, Korpela and Ledingham each scoring 10. While Lee, Korpela and Akin stand out among the current underclassmen, Schrempf is thrilled about the potential of that entire group.

“Both those two classes are made of kids that are so bought in,” Schrempf said. “They love basketball and they want to keep getting better and they are students of the game. Having that, it just raises the ceiling so high.”

With Saturday’s win, Aspen improved to 6-3 overall and 1-0 in WSL play. The Skiers have won four straight games, all coming since the holiday break. Next up, AHS will host Vail Mountain on Tuesday in a league game.

The Aspen girls (2-4) did not play Saturday after a 58-3 loss to Cedaredge on Friday.

BASALT basketball FALLS TWICE AT DELTA on Saturday

The Basalt High School basketball teams played Saturday at Delta. The BHS girls lost 64-42 after the Panthers (7-3, 2-0) jumped out to an 18-4 lead after a quarter. The loss dropped Basalt to 3-4 overall and 0-2 in league play.

The Longhorn boys lost 83-31 to fall to 1-8 overall and 0-2 in league play. Delta improved to 5-5 and 3-0 in WSL play.

Both the Basalt boys and girls are scheduled to host Vail Christian on Wednesday.

ASPEN HOCKEY TIES, LOSES ON weekend ROAD TRIP

The Aspen High School hockey team played to a 2-2 tie Friday at Steamboat Springs before falling 6-2 at Summit on Saturday. The road trip results lead to a 3-5-2 overall record for the Skiers, who are set to host Battle Mountain on Friday and Doherty on Saturday in their next games.

Aspen high ALPINE TEAM GOES 1-2 AT LOVELAND

The Aspen High School alpine ski teams competed Friday at Loveland, with the boys team winning and the girls finishing second. AHS junior Tyler Thomas won the boys giant slalom, while junior teammate Charlie Olson was second and junior Thomas Morris fourth. Max Godomsky, Nick Godomsky, Hank Sweeney and Dyer Hunting finished seventh through 10th, respectively.

Evergreen won the girls side of things with 174 points, while Aspen tied for second with Lake County with 165 points. Lake County’s Taylor Duel won the girls race, while Aspen’s top finisher was junior Annika Nichols in fifth. Macy Hopkinson (sixth), Summer McSwain (seventh), Ronnie Bedford (eighth) and Gemma Hill (ninth) all finished in the top 10 for the Skiers.

The Aspen High Nordic team did not compete this weekend.

acolbert@aspentimes.com

Coming off first World Cup points, Swirbul continues to rise as cross-country skier

For a few brief moments, Hailey Swirbul was the star of the U.S. cross-country ski team. Sure, she was far off the standard set by American teammate Sophie Caldwell that day — in fact, she was only fifth among all U.S. women in the race — but her 30th-place finish was what stood out.

“I keep saying the most exciting part of that day was how excited my teammates were. I think they understand that they are part of that little step — or to me a big step — that I made,” Swirbul recently told The Aspen Times. “They see that and they celebrate that and that’s special to have the team supporting me and be that happy for me. Meanwhile, Sophie Caldwell is third on the day and she gets a normal congratulations.”

The day was Dec. 14 at a World Cup sprint in Davos, Switzerland. Swirbul, a 2016 Basalt High School graduate and former Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club athlete, was getting a rare and surprising World Cup start in only her second season with the U.S. ski team. More of a distance athlete, by no means did Swirbul believe her first World Cup points would come in a sprint.

Then again, she brought extra clothes with her that day just in case she needed them, should she get past the qualifying rounds.

“There is definitely something to be said about that,” Swirbul pondered. “I kind of threw in a change of clothes as an afterthought in case I made it. So I don’t know if I fully believed I was going to pull that off. Part of me did, obviously, because I brought a change of clothes in the end and I ended up needing them to go onto the heats.”

Swirbul started four World Cup races last winter, her first on that stage. Her best finish was 41st, the spot she finished in three of her four races. She opened the 2019-20 season on the World Cup, getting three starts in Ruka, Finland, with underwhelming results. She had been slated to compete in Lillehammer, Norway, a week later, but fell ill and had to sit out.

“The period started off a little rough for me,” Swirbul said. “I definitely got served a big slice of humble pie and that was what I expected, so it wasn’t a huge defeated feeling.”

Then came Davos. She hadn’t planned on starting that Dec. 14 sprint, but when a few of her teammates fell ill and couldn’t compete, a spot opened and she decided to give it a go. Somehow, on a whim, she finished 30th, which is the cutoff for scoring World Cup points. Her first World Cup point was exactly that, a single point in a sprint race she wasn’t even suppose to be in.

The next day, she finished 21st in a 10-kilometer freestyle for the first distance points of her World Cup career.

“That was really, really exciting,” Swirbul said. “I was really glad I was able to make that jump and prove to myself that I can do it again after a little bit of tough World Cup races in the past I’ve had. It’s no joke over there. If you are off in one race, if you are not 100% feeling it, then you are going to be way off the back.”

Following Davos, Swirbul returned home for a while over the holidays before she competed in the U.S. Cross Country Ski Championships at the Michigan Tech Nordic Skiing Center in Houghton, Michigan. Fresh off the World Cup starts, Swirbul was simply dominant in Michigan, taking home national championships in the freestyle sprint, classic sprint and 20-kilometer classic. She was fourth in the 10k freestyle.

A nice bonus, her attention will certainly be back on the international stage the remainder of this winter. She hopes for more World Cup starts, but said her main races will be at the U23 world championships held Feb. 28 to March 8 in Oberwiesenthal, Germany.

“I’m going to try and not let it add extra pressure to me for anything. Belief is different than pressure,” Swirbul said of having World Cup points on her resume now. “For me I think it took believing in myself and focusing on what I do well and my strengths instead of trying to ski like someone else. I think it’s easiest to get caught up in trying to do what other people do really well and kind of lose what you can do well yourself.”

Like the rest of her teammates, the 21-year-old Swirbul aspires to make the 2022 Winter Olympics roster. And despite being one of the most inexperienced members of the current U.S. squad, she looks to be in a good position to make that happen. Scoring her first World Cup points have certainly helped her standing, all part of the journey she’s had in finding her role on the national team.

“If anything they have made me feel like an insider. Everyone on the team has included me and brought me and helped build me up,” Swirbul said. “It feels less weird to have dinner with all these incredible Olympians and athletes, but it’s also important for me to remember and take a step back sometimes. I’m so lucky to be able to be part of it in whatever way I can. I think I’m finding my place more in the group and they’ve been amazing.”

acolbert@aspentimes.com

Aspen skimo athlete George Beck wraps up competition at Youth Olympic Games

Aspen’s George Beck wrapped up his time at the Winter Youth Olympic Games on Tuesday with the final of his three ski mountaineering events.

The third and final event was the mixed team relay, won by Switzerland in 35 minutes, 7 seconds. France was second and Spain was third, each about two minutes behind. Just missing the podium was Italy in fourth, followed by Germany in fifth and the United States in sixth.

The U.S. team included all four of its skimo athletes: Beck, Dillon’s Jeremiah Vaille, Silverthorne’s Grace Staberg and Utah’s Samantha Paisley.

On Monday, the athletes competed in the sprint races. Beck finished fifth out of six in his quarterfinal, with only the top three advancing to the semifinals. Vaille also finished fifth in his quarterfinal heat and did not advance. Italy’s Rocco Baldini eventually won sprint gold for the boys, while Spain’s Maria Costa Diez won for the girls. Neither of the U.S. girls made it past the quarterfinals.

The skimo events started Friday with the individual distance races. Beck finished 12th in 53:51.21, about six minutes behind winner Thomas Bussard of Switzerland. Vaille was 17th, just over nine minutes back of first. Switzerland’s Caroline Ulrich won gold for the girls, with Staberg finishing seventh and Paisley 20th.

This was ski mountaineering’s Youth Olympic Games debut; the sport has hopes of making its Olympic debut in 2026. All of the YOG skimo events were held at Villars Winter Park in Switzerland. Nearby Lausanne, home of the International Olympic Committee, is the main hub for the Winter Youth Olympic Games this month.

The Games will go through Jan. 22, with the snowboarding and freestyle skiing events scheduled for the next week. Basalt’s Hanna Faulhaber will compete in halfpipe skiing on Monday.

acolbert@aspentimes.com

Olympic gold medalist snowboarder Torah Bright in Aspen to host free mini shred

Torah Bright claims she never cared much about winning. Yes, the Australian superstar made an entire career out of winning in the halfpipe, but for her snowboarding was about the joy of the act, not about a medal count.

“I didn’t care if somebody else beat me,” Bright said. “I was never there to beat anybody. It was just I loved snowboarding. I loved progressing. I loved to see what I could do and what was physically possible.”

Bright has channeled this passion for the sport into her “mini shred” events, a free skills clinic for kids. The clinics started in Australia five years ago, and for the first time she’s bringing one to this side of the world with Saturday’s event in Snowmass.

Her main goal is to inspire the children to love snowboarding — skiers are also welcome — as much as she does.

“The mini shred for me is all about the grassroots, giving back in that way, but it’s about connecting them, too, as a little community and maybe making new friends and learning new tricks,” Bright said. “You miss that fun sometimes. So for me the mini shred is making sure they get a start in the right place. It’s about the joy and the fun.”

Bright, 33, is a two-time Olympic medalist, having won gold in 2010 and silver in 2014, both in the halfpipe. She also twice won X Games Aspen gold (2007, 2009) and twice won silver (2006, 2008) to go with a bronze in 2015.

On top of the mini shred, which goes from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at Low Down Park in Snowmass for ages 7 to 17, Bright is making various other stops during her time in Aspen, including her visit to the Aspen Youth Center on Thursday.

“I’ve been coming to Aspen probably since the early 2000s for X Games, so it’s been a regular stop on the calendar,” Bright said. “This trip with Aspen, I guess it’s a big time of year for the Australian audience and community in town.”

Australia Day, as it’s celebrated in the United States, is Jan. 26, the final day of X Games Aspen. The Aussies are likely to be on a lot of extra minds this month with the country’s ongoing wildfire issues, which have ravaged much of the continent. Bright, who now lives in Sydney, grew up in the Snowy Mountains near Thredbo Resort, one of many areas currently threatened by the fires.

Aspen Skiing Co. recently launched an Australia Wildfire Relief Fund and is collecting donations through Jan. 26, and has said it will match the first $12,500 it receives. Donations can be made through www.aspensnowmass.com.

“Livelihoods are all being lost and absolutely devastated,” Bright said of the Australian wildfires. “To see the Aspen community, and the U.S. community, want to support and raise some funds is pretty beautiful, to be honest.”

THE NEXT CHAPTER

While Bright no longer competes in the halfpipe, she stays plenty busy on a snowboard. Among her latest projects was the IMAX film called “Out of Bounds: Mountain Adventure” that includes big mountain snowboard icon Jeremy Jones and freeskiing star Sammy Carlson.

The recently released film follows the group from Antarctica, through the Andes of South America, the Rockies of North America and eventually into Alaska. Along the way they encounter wildlife and talk with various scientists and environmentalists “to uncover a deeper understanding of our mountain ecosystems.”

The film was produced by Wild Pacific Media and Definition Films, in association with K2 Studios and Havoc TV.

“It’s fun and exciting,” Bright said. “Jeremy brings the extreme, Sammy brings the rad, and I’m me, shredding with the boys.”

Bright’s life is about to change even more, as she and husband Angus Thomson are expecting their first child in July. As far as the halfpipe goes, she does miss dropping in from time to time, but she’s happy having left the competitions behind.

“I much prefer to cheer people on than to compete myself,” Bright said. “It’s way less stressful. So it’s been fun to know the people who are still competing and love them and cheer them on and watch them do their best.”

acolbert@aspentimes.com

Beck, Faulhaber to represent Roaring Fork Valley at Youth Olympic Games

Both Aspen’s George Beck and Basalt’s Hanna Faulhaber can look to the future and realistically dream of one day competing in the Winter Olympics. For Faulhaber, a halfpipe skier, the 2022 Games in Beijing are reasonably within reach. Beck, who competes in ski mountaineering, might have to wait until the 2026 Games in Italy.

Either way, the local teenagers can see the path forward. And that next step will take place this month when they represent the Roaring Fork Valley at the Winter Youth Olympic Games in Lausanne, Switzerland, which is home to the International Olympic Committee. This is only the third time the event has been held, dating back to the first Winter YOG in 2012. Held every four years, YOG athletes range from 14 to 18 years.

“It’s very exciting,” Beck said. “It makes the event a lot more meaningful when you have to qualify to get into something and it’s only a very small group. Just getting there is a large accomplishment, compared to a race where you can just sign up.”

Beck, a 17-year-old junior at Aspen High School, is one of only four Americans competing in skimo at the Youth Olympic Games, and one of only two boys. He and Jeremiah Vaille of Dillon will represent the Red, White and Blue, as will Utah’s Samantha Paisley and Silverthorne’s Grace Staberg. The athletes qualified for the YOG team in November at a competition at Eldora Mountain Resort.

Ski mountaineering is making its Youth Olympic Games debut in Switzerland. It’s not yet an Olympic sport and won’t be part of the 2022 Games, but there is hope it will make its way into the fold for 2026. Beck sees this month’s event as a way to showcase one of the world’s top up-and-coming winter sports.

“Hopefully it will go over well with the spectators because if it does then it will become an Olympic sport,” Beck said. “In the U.S. it’s just kind of starting. So I see the Youth Olympics and hopefully the real Olympics bringing it to the attention of more people in America and hopefully it will grow.”

Halfpipe skiing made its Olympic debut in 2014, which included the valley’s own Torin Yater-Wallace competing on the inaugural U.S. team. Faulhaber, a 15-year-old sophomore at Basalt High School, has had a meteoric rise over the past year, going from an unknown to a member of the U.S. rookie team this winter.

“The girls are amazing and they are all super supportive. So are the boys. It’s just a really close and tight team to be a part of,” Faulhaber said. “Going into the Rev Tour, I wasn’t really expecting anything at all. Then I got invited to junior worlds and was able to go and come back and compete in more Rev Tours and then got invited to the team, which was crazy.”

Faulhaber only started competing in FIS — International Ski Federation — events last winter, as athletes need to be at least 14. She mostly competed on the U.S. Revolution Tour, a stepping stone to bigger events such as the World Cup, and started winning right away. Her 2018-19 season was highlighted by winning the USASA national championship in April, paving the way for her selection to the U.S. team.

Faulhaber was one of only two girls named to the Youth Olympic Games team for the U.S. in halfpipe skiing, the other being Winter Park’s Svea Irving. Irving, however, hurt her knee at a recent World Cup in China and won’t make the trip. She’s been replaced on the YOG roster by Riley Jacobs of Steamboat Springs.

Winter Park’s Hunter Carey and Lakewood’s Connor Ladd will represent the U.S. boys in halfpipe skiing.

The halfpipe contests will be held in Leysin, which also hosted the 2019 FIS Junior World Ski Championships last January, where Faulhaber finished sixth.

“Going into that Rev Tour I would have never thought I would be in the place I am right now. It’s pretty amazing,” Faulhaber said. “I feel like this will be a little different because it will just be younger athletes. It will be a really cool experience.”

Beck was one of roughly three dozen Americans who were selected to compete in the 2019 World Ski Mountaineering Championships last March in Villars-sur-Ollon, Switzerland, which also is staging all the skimo events for the Youth Olympic Games this month. Also on that team last year was Aspen teenager Caden Klein, who partnered with Beck to win the Audi Power of Two skimo race here in Aspen the past two winters.

“That event was almost like testing out the venue for Youth Olympics. I’m very excited because this is the first time that skimo will be in the Youth Olympics,” Beck said of returning to Villars-sur-Ollon. “The Youth Olympics this year is really important because it brings it back to the U.S. In Europe it’s a very, very large sport.”

This year’s Youth Olympic Games officially get underway with the opening ceremony Thursday; it runs through Jan. 22. Beck and the skimo athletes will be among the first to compete, with the individual races scheduled for Friday. After two days off, they return with a sprint Monday before wrapping it up with a four-person co-ed relay Tuesday.

Faulhaber won’t compete until Jan. 20. The men’s and women’s halfpipe skiing qualifications and finals are all held on the same day. Faulhaber, who has two World Cup starts to her name, hopes to get a couple more starts this winter after the Youth Olympic Games conclude. She’s also holding out hope of being named an alternate for X Games Aspen later this month.

“Hopefully next year I do a little better in the World Cups and different bigger events like that and possibly get an invite, which has always been a dream of mine,” Faulhaber said of X Games. “It kind of depends on if I continue to progress at the rate that I am, which hopefully I do.”

Also competing at the Youth Olympic Games this month is Silverthorne-based snowboarder Jake Canter. The slopestyle and big air rider previously trained with the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club before joining the U.S. national team.

acolbert@aspentimes.com

Aspen skier Galena Wardle overcomes injuries, persists as U.S. ski team member

For more than two years Galena Wardle had to stare at the letters “DNF” on her official International Ski Federation page, the result of the last time she competed. To add insult to literal injury, that “did not finish” came at Aspen Highlands on basically her home course.

“That last race on my FIS profile has been haunting me a little bit,” Wardle said. “The last two months have been really good. It’s definitely been a progression of just trusting my knee and my body and trusting myself. It’s definitely frustrating at times, but I think when I look back from a month ago, I’ve come a long way.”

Wardle, 21, is an Aspen native and fifth-year member of the U.S. ski team. However, few probably know this anymore as she’s missed the past two race seasons recovering from a pair of 2017 knee injuries that have somewhat derailed her promising young career as a ski racer.

Now in her fourth season on the C team, Wardle competed in a Nor-Am Cup race on Dec. 17 in Canada, her first official FIS race since that fateful DNF in a giant slalom at Highlands on April 8, 2017, the day she tore her right anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) to bring an early end to her season.

“I feel good,” Wardle said while visiting home for the holidays. “Every time I step into the start gate I’m still figuring it out. I haven’t quite found it yet — the confidence — but it’s definitely coming.”

That first ACL was only the beginning of a long two years for Wardle. She spent the summer of 2017 recovering and only six days back on snow while training at Copper Mountain she had a small crash and re-tore that same ACL in her right knee, ending her season. She was more or less healed again by spring 2018, but lingering issues — she’s had a total of four knee surgeries — led to her pulling the plug on her 2018-19 race season as well.

“It was pretty brutal,” Wardle said. “I’ve missed two race seasons, but I’ve had skiing in between, just not been able to show it.”

Wardle, who grew up with the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club, was 17 when she was first named to the U.S. ski team for the 2015-16 season. Among her breakthrough moments was winning the Alpine combined national championship that spring at the U.S. Alpine Ski Championships in Sun Valley, Idaho.

A developmental team member her rookie season, she moved up to the C team for the next winter, which included a third straight trip to the Junior World Ski Championships.

Unfortunately, thanks in large part to a pair of ACL injuries, Wardle’s career has seemingly plateaued. But getting back in the starting gate last month in Canada was a big step forward.

“I was so happy to find that I didn’t feel anything,” Wardle said of her most recent return to snow experience. “I had power, which was the biggest thing. I just felt that snappiness in my skis and that was the biggest thing for me. If I couldn’t ski — just ski — that would have broken my heart.”

Wardle finished 10th in that Dec. 17 Nor-Am Cup GS, her first FIS race in 32 months. She finished 17th in a slalom two days later, and 28th in a second slalom on Dec. 20.

This past weekend, she competed in three Nor-Am Cup races in Burke Mountain, Vermont, recording a pair of DNFs in two GSs before taking 32nd in Saturday’s slalom.

It’s all part of putting the injuries behind her, although Wardle claims fear of more injury is far from the front of her mind. Mostly, her fears are about struggling to find speed on the course.

“We are just trying to make it through this season successfully,” she said. “I’ve had to have some perspective a little bit. But it’s helped me grow, too. It’s given me some experience in other things and taught me how to recover, take care of my body, take care of myself, know what I want to do.”

Wardle plans to spend the rest of the season competing in various Nor-Ams and college races, mostly here in Colorado, including Aspen. Ideally, she’d also make a return to competition at Highlands when it hosts the U.S. Alpine Tech Championships in March.

After that, Wardle still dreams big. She continues to aim for her first World Cup start and doesn’t think making a run at the 2022 Winter Olympics is all that farfetched. The injuries may have shaken her confidence somewhat, something she plans to get back, but it hasn’t taken away her love of skiing.

“I just hope to keep building every race,” Wardle said. “Hopefully by the end of the season I’ll feel normal again. Feel natural. But what was really cool to see was when I raced last week, instantly after my first run I remembered that this was really fun and I really enjoyed that. It’s different from just training to actually racing. You forget that.”

acolbert@aspentimes.com

Alex Ferreira, Jimmie Johnson win first Ajax Cup championship on the final race

Jimmie Johnson has been chasing a record eighth NASCAR championship for a few years. Now, thanks in large part to Aspen Olympian Alex Ferreira, he can pretty much call it a career.

Johnson, a part-time Aspen resident who is without question one of the greatest drivers of all time, got the biggest win of his amateur skiing career Monday when his team, the “West Side Hillbillies,” won the 10th annual Audi Ajax Cup on Aspen Mountain. Ferreira, the team’s pro, won the Gorsuch Cup on the final race of the afternoon.

“I did not expect to win anything this morning and we ended up winning the Ajax Cup and it’s really awesome,” Ferreira said. “To partner with Jimmie was absolutely fantastic. He is a wonderful human being and he is very much a part of this community by doing this event. He just wants to give back, and so do I, so I think just that energy, maybe that was the missing piece to the puzzle for us to win it?”

The Ajax Cup is the largest fundraiser for the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club. The event raised $800,000 for the club a year ago and there was hope of pushing for $1 million this winter. The money helps support the roughly 2,400 athletes who take part in AVSC programming.

Ferreira himself grew up in the club, and Johnson’s own daughters have spent time on snow with AVSC, as well. In fact, Johnson’s oldest daughter, 9-year-old Evie, was part of the Ajax Cup team again this season and had to win a couple of races in finals to get the team to victory lane. Johnson’s West Side Hillbillies had twice been the Ajax Cup runner-up, but had never won before Monday.

“She did great. Every year it gets a little better, but something happened three or four days ago where she really found her edges and she’s been flying ever since,” Johnson said of Evie. “But then to see Alex, it was all on his shoulders at the end. For Alex to pull it off, and for the AVSC, it’s so cool.”

The Ajax Cup began with 16 teams of six skiers, each with a professional of which most were randomly assigned, competing in a dual giant slalom format set of races. Ferreira, who is a halfpipe skier by trade and has essentially no background in ski racing, was taking part in the Ajax Cup for only the second time. He was randomly paired with Johnson’s group during the team draw Saturday night.

Racing began early Monday morning, the field being whittled down to just two teams for the finals: the West Side Hillbillies and Alpine Bank, led by pro skier Nolan Kasper. The champion is simply which team wins more head-to-head races, and it all came down to the final race, Kasper against Ferreira in a winner-take-all situation.

“I’ll be honest, I was just as nervous as dropping into a pipe comp. I heard the announcers in the background,” Ferreira said. “It was super tight. I could feel him breathing down my neck, I swear. But I don’t know. Blinders on and gave it my all.”

Because of the Ajax Cup’s handicapping system designed to level the playing field, Ferreira was given a slight head start and simply had to hold off Kasper down the Little Nell run at the base of Aspen Mountain.

Johnson was the first to greet and hug Ferreira after he crossed the finish line in victory.

“He can do it all. What a nice and humble, down-to-earth guy,” Johnson said of Ferreira. “Was really cool getting to know him today. I’ve known the name, but to get to know him a little bit more today was special and I look forward to spending more time with him.”

Johnson recently announced the upcoming NASCAR season would be his final as a full-time racer, and his last chance to win that record eighth championship. His seven current titles are tied with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr. for the most ever. Should he not get to eight, finally winning the Ajax Cup is a decent consolation.

“Resume builder,” he joked. “It feels great winning and to have this experience with my daughter and with Adam Lewis, who is on our team and his two sons, to watch our kids work through the challenges of the day, dealing with nervousness, is so special.”

Ferreira, who is in the prime of his career, can put the Ajax Cup next to his Olympic silver medal and his X Games gold medal. Ferreira will look to defend that gold medal a month from now at Buttermilk during X Games Aspen 2020.

“It’s right up there. It’s right in the trifecta of things,” Ferreira said of winning the Ajax Cup. “I am super grateful to be on a great team and be giving back to the club. That’s what it’s all about.”

acolbert@aspentimes.com

Pro skiers are at the heart of what makes AVSC’s annual Ajax Cup so special

Wendy Fisher is feeling the pressure. Like it or not, she takes over as the professional for team “Super G,” the two-time reigning Audi Ajax Cup champion, and doesn’t want to be the one to end the streak.

“Everyone is going to be looking at our team tomorrow and be in the spotlight,” Fisher told The Aspen Times on Sunday. “Am I the one that is going to break their reign? But I’m going to be optimistic. I’m going to try my hardest. It is a team effort. I think last year I won most of my pro races, so I think I actually did pretty decent as a whole.”

Fisher, a 1992 Winter Olympian and two-time World Extreme Skiing champion who now lives in Crested Butte, said this is her ninth time taking part in the Ajax Cup, the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club’s largest fundraiser and ski race that is celebrating its 10th anniversary. Monday at the base of Aspen Mountain, 16 teams will square off in a dual giant slalom tournament with the Gorsuch Cup on the line.

“The reason I started coming is just the group of people,” Fisher said. “In the ski world, you are all kind of buddies and you try and help support each other. And it’s a mini reunion. So that is an easy yes.”

Last year, the Ajax Cup raised around $800,000 for the club, that money helping support the roughly 2,400 athletes who take part in AVSC programming. Co-race director Chris Davenport, a big mountain skiing icon and Aspen resident, hopes to see that number top $1 million this time around.

“Unfortunately, skiing is a really tough sport to afford for a lot of families, and this is a good way to kind of give back, pump some money into the ski club,” said former World Cup ski racer Daron Rahlves, one of the 16 pros taking part in this year’s Ajax Cup. “It gets together the community. It is building culture and it’s a fun time.”

Rahlves, the 2001 super-G world champion from California, is competing in the Ajax Cup for the second time. A 12-time winner on the World Cup, Rahlves has a soft spot for Aspen as he said this is where his parents met and where he mostly learned to ski while on Christmas vacations as a child.

“My first taste of skiing really was coming here,” Rahlves said. “It’s just one of those feel-good places.”

The list of Ajax Cup pros — assigned to teams mostly at random — this season isn’t short of World Cup or Olympic talent, with many coming from the same era that included Rahlves, such as Marco Sullivan, A.J. Kitt and Casey Puckett, a five-time Olympian and AVSC coach who co-directs the races with Davenport. The pro list also includes some homegrown products, such as Katie Ryan, Jake Zamansky and Alex Ferreira, the reigning X Games Aspen gold medalist in halfpipe skiing.

Last year, it was two-time Olympian Megan McJames who led team “Super G” to the repeat crown. McJames was a late scratch for this year’s competition, opening the door for Jonas Nyberg’s return. The former Swedish ski racer and brief AVSC coach was the pro for team “Super G” when it won in 2017.

“It’s so amazing to come back. This Aspen community is a special little bubble,” Nyberg said. “I haven’t raced for three years, but when you get in the gate and put your poles out, then the horns grow out. You are going for it, always, trying to find the fastest line. It’s just so much fun every time you get back into the gates.”

This time around, Nyberg is competing with “Chicks on Sticks” and will get to wear the team’s special speed suit during Monday’s race, which depicts a piece of women’s swimwear on both the front and back. Nyberg admitted it fit a little snug for his taste but was happy to represent nonetheless.

Davenport, who usually races as a pro, opted to sit this one out and gave his spot to Nyberg’s friend Calle Lindh, another former Swedish ski racer who saw some success on the World Cup and even competed in the 2015 World Championships at Beaver Creek. Davenport will step in to help as a commentator instead.

“He is one of my best friends, so I wanted to bring him here just to show him the Aspen thing,” Nyberg said of Lindh, who didn’t know he was going to be racing until Saturday night’s team draw at 7908. “That’s the great thing about it. Everyone is here having fun, having a good time, and then we are helping kids get on skis. It’s awesome.”

The 16 teams are divided into four groups, with the winner of each group making it into the semifinals. A dual giant slalom setup means racers will compete side-by-side, the winner being the first to cross the finish line. A handicap system is in place to keep races competitive.

Racing starts around 9 a.m. Monday with the finals set to go down early- to mid-afternoon on The Little Nell run. General viewing from the side of the course and the base is free, although a ticket will be required to access the VIP viewing area or to get into the after-party at Scarlett’s Aspen.

Going until Monday afternoon is an online auction, with many unique prizes that include a VIP experience with NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson and a ski trip to Chile with Davenport. The auction can be found at charityauction.bid/audiajaxcup.

Again, that money goes back to the club and its 2,400 athletes.

“The clubs are what made skiing fun. I fell in love with skiing, showing up and being with a bunch of kids, ripping around with fun coaches,” said Fisher, who grew up skiing at Squaw Valley Resort in California. “To not be able to access the mountain and the freedom of it is a shame. So I definitely support kids out on the hill. I just think it’s for your livelihood and to be able to feel that experience of adventure.”

acolbert@aspentimes.com

Richard Mille holds off U.S. Polo Assn. to repeat as Aspen snow polo champions

A World Cup downhill ski race can be decided by less than a second. Not too often, if ever, does the same apply to a polo match.

“How appropriate that in Aspen a snow polo tournament is decided by a ski racer’s margin. It was pretty cool,” Marc Ganzi told The Aspen Times. “I cannot believe the game we witnessed, the final. We’ve been playing this tournament for seven years. We’ve never seen a final like that. I can’t remember a polo match that we had to go to video to figure out the ending.”

Friday at Rio Grande Park in Aspen, the seventh annual St. Regis World Snow Polo Championship came down to the bitter end, a goal coming less than a second too late in Richard Mille’s 7-6 win over U.S. Polo Assn. It was the second straight snow polo title for Richard Mille, a luxury Swiss watch brand and the tournament’s official timekeeper.

The winning threesome included 10-goal superstar Pablo MacDonough, who only last weekend won a record seventh Argentine Open with La Dolfina. MacDonough was the only returning player from last year’s championship team. This winter, he played alongside 3-goaler Louis Jarrige and 4-goaler Edouard Pan, both of France.

While MacDonough was the big name for Richard Mille, it was snow polo newcomer Jarrige who stole the show and was named most valuable player.

“It was amazing to play with a 10-goaler like Pablo,” Jarrige told The Aspen Times through a translator. “To control the horse on the snow is not the same, because you have to let the horse move the way he wants not to slip and the control of the ball is different because the ball is lighter and it is smaller.”

Unlike its full-sized cousin, snow polo is played on a small field with a much lighter ball. The sport has roots back to 1985 when it was first played in St. Moritz, Switzerland. Aspen is the only place in the United States that currently hosts snow polo events of any kind.

In its seventh year, the World Snow Polo Championship is hosted by Marc and Melissa Ganzi, who co-founded and run the Aspen Valley Polo Club, which is based out of Carbondale. The unique event brings in some of the top polo players in the world each year, including polo ambassador Nacho Figueras, who co-hosts the event with the Ganzis.

“I thank Marc and Melissa for putting this incredible event together,” Figueras said in a press release. “Thank you to the sponsors and public for coming to see us and supporting us. We love this game and hope you love it, too.”

The tournament started Tuesday night with the team draw at St. Regis Aspen, followed by Wednesday’s qualifying round robin among the six teams at the AVPC headquarters in Carbondale. Richard Mille and U.S. Polo Assn. each won their respective bracket to make Friday’s final at Rio Grande Park.

Led by American superstar and 8-goaler Nic Roldan, U.S. Polo Assn. had won the Aspen snow polo title twice before, both in 2015 and 2017. The threesome was the same for each: Roldan, Juancito Bollini and Grant Ganzi, the son of Marc and Melissa.

U.S. Polo Assn. was given a 2-0 lead to start Friday’s final against Richard Mille because of the tournament’s handicapping. That lead didn’t last long as Jarrige scored two early goals to make it 2-2, although Ganzi scored the first of his three 15-yard penalty conversions soon after to make it 3-2.

Tied 5-5 late in the contest, it was again Jarrige who led the charge, scoring back-to-back goals to make it 7-5 with just over three minutes remaining in the final chukker (or period). Ganzi scored on another conversion to make it 7-6 and thought he had tied it up at the final buzzer, but video review confirmed his shot was just after the clock hit all zeroes and therefore did not count.

“He’s heartbroken. I had to go to the tent and console him a little bit,” Marc Ganzi said of his son, Grant. “But he played great. I thought Grant showed a lot of class today. He really emerged as an adult player today. It’s fun to watch your kid play and maybe that’s the silver lining for me, is I get to sit here and watch my son play and cheer for him.”

Grant Ganzi seemed to get over the defeat quick enough.

“It was tough. It could have gone either way in the end,” he said. “The ball didn’t really bounce our way. It is what it is. That’s polo.”

This was only the second time in the seven years that Marc Ganzi did not compete in the Aspen snow polo tournament. He played for Richard Mille last winter when they won the championship — Martin Pepa was the third player, along with MacDonough — and he also won the title in 2014 with Piaget, alongside Roldan and Jeff Hall.

“It feels great to win two years in a row,” MacDonough said in a press release. “We are so happy to win again. It was a tough game and the field of teams this year was better than last year. I can’t say enough about this great event.”

Melissa Ganzi played for Flexjet, the 2016 snow polo champion, taking fifth overall — alongside teammates Alejandro Novillo Astrada and Juan Bollini — after winning the “High Alpine Cup” on Thursday over snow polo newcomer Royal Salute (Pierre Henri Ngoumou, Malcolm Borwick, Horacio Heguy). Flexjet led 6-1 at the half before winning, 9-7.

Aspen Valley Polo Club (Sarah Siegel Magness, Jesse Bray, Patrick Uretz) beat St. Regis (Julien Reynes, Jason Crowder, Figueras) in the third-place “Aspen Cup” game on Friday afternoon, 9-5. Bray scored six goals and was the match’s MVP.

Richard Mille also won the Celebrity Chukker match on Thursday over St. Regis. Richard Mille players included Sterling Jones, Gary Magness and MacDonough, while the St. Regis lineup included Figueras, his son Hilario Figueras, and Saye Yabandeh. The match included a cameo appearance by “Pitch Perfect” actress Rebel Wilson.

Delicioso, a 15-year-old bay gelding played by MacDonough, was named the Polo Today Best Playing Pony. Barata, played by Grant Ganzi, was the American Polo Horse Association Best Playing Pony.

The festivities ended late Friday night with a party at the W Aspen Hotel that benefited the Aspen Valley Hospital Foundation.

“The event has grown. The town has embraced it. I think we had record crowds. We had 1,900 people come the last two days,” Marc Ganzi said. “It’s just an amazing way to kickoff Christmas. As people funnel back into town, especially for me growing up here and seeing the people I grew up with, it just feels correct. It feels like home and it feels good to come back home and do something that we think is good for the town and obviously good to give back to the community.”

acolbert@aspentimes.com

Vail Christian takes two from Aspen boys and girls basketball in AHS home openers

The Aspen High School basketball teams played at home for the first time this season, falling in a pair of games to Vail Christian on Thursday night inside the AHS gymnasium. The boys played a nail-biter that went to overtime, while the shorthanded girls couldn’t quite keep up with the Saints.

VC BOYS 63, ASPEN 60

This was close throughout. The Skiers trailed 18-14 at the end of the first quarter but led 27-24 at halftime behind a stellar first-half performance from sophomore Braden Korpela, who scored all 10 of his points before the break.

The Saints outscored the Skiers 20-11 in the third quarter to take a 44-38 lead into the fourth. Vail Christian had a chance to shut the door on AHS, but the home team rallied over the final five minutes. Aspen eventually took a 53-52 lead with 55 seconds to play after a drive and basket by Taylor Akin, but Vail Christian would split a pair of free throws only 20 seconds later to make it 53-53.

The Saints were called for a charge on a made basket with less than a second to play in regulation — negating what would have been the game-winner — and the teams went to overtime in the 53-all deadlock.

A quick basket only seconds into the extra period gave the Saints a 55-53 lead. AHS would retake the lead at 58-57 after a Jon Haisfield free throw, but other missed opportunities, including from the line, allowed Vail Christian to build a 62-58 lead with only 15 seconds to play.

Down 63-60, Aspen had the ball in the final seconds but a missed 3-pointer by Korpela at the buzzer allowed the Saints to sneak away with the win.

Aspen’s Jonathan Woodrow led the team with 23 points.

Vail Christian stayed unbeaten, moving to 4-0 overall as it heads into winter break. The Saints are ranked No. 9 in Class 2A this week.

Aspen fell to 2-3 overall in its final game before the winter break. The loss snapped a two-game win streak for the Skiers.

VC GIRLS 48, ASPEN 26

The Aspen girls played without some key players who were out with injury and couldn’t keep up with Vail Christian in a 48-26 loss. The Saints, while not ranked, have finished with double-digit wins each of the past five seasons.

“It was what it was. They had a good ball handler and they had a couple of people that could put up quick shots, accurate shots,” AHS coach James Aldridge said. “That’s what I always tell the girls, is you have to do that dirty work to win these games.”

The Saints improved to 2-2 overall with the win, while Aspen fell to 1-3. AHS hadn’t played since a 35-21 loss to Lotus on Dec. 7 in Meeker. Last week’s game with Hotchkiss had been cancelled because of the weather.

Aldridge likes where the team is heading into the break, especially with so many players expected back in the lineup come January. He pointed out their 37-35 comeback win over Dolores on Dec. 6 as reason to be excited.

“They know what it feels like to fight,” Aldridge said. “They go out there and they try hard and that’s all I can truthfully ask.”

Both teams are now off until the second week of January.

acolbert@aspentimes.com