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X Games Aspen 2020 preview: Scotty James, Mark McMorris back for more in men’s snowboarding

The waiting game is about over. Back for the 19th consecutive year at Aspen’s Buttermilk Ski Area, ESPN’s annual Winter X Games will get underway next week with the best skiers and snowboarders set to strut their stuff.

Even without legend Shaun White and rising Japanese sensation Ayumu Hirano, the contests should be a smorgasbord of raw talent. Here’s what to look for in the men’s snowboarding competitions at X Games Aspen 2020:

SUPERPIPE

Finals: Thursday, 8 p.m.

2019 podium: Scotty James (gold), Yuto Totsuka (silver), Danny Davis (bronze)

The 15-man field will be about one guy, who is the unquestioned favorite coming in: Scotty James. The likeable Australian is dominating the sport like few have. The last time he lost a meaningful competition? Go back to the 2018 Winter Olympics, won by White with Hirano finishing second and James third. James has won everything under the sun since then, from the U.S. Open to the world championship to, yes, X Games.

He’s the reigning champ here in Aspen, that gold going with the one he won here in 2017. Hirano won X Games Aspen gold in 2018, when James finished second. White, as expected, is not here in 2020, nor is Hirano, who hasn’t competed in Aspen since winning gold two years ago. Quite frankly, James might not have much competition to keep him from a third Aspen gold medal on Thursday night.

His closest challenger is likely to be Japan’s Yuto Totsuka, the rising 18-year-old star who won silver last year behind James. With wins last spring at the Mammoth Grand Prix and a World Cup in Calgary — James didn’t compete in either — Totsuka has firmly established himself as the second-best halfpipe snowboarder over the past two years. Certainly if and when Hirano, who at 21 already has a pair of Olympic silver medals, and White decide to show up again, the hierarchy will be reset.

Steamboat’s Taylor Gold, who won X Games bronze in 2017, and two-time gold medalist Danny Davis are back, as is White’s protégé, the 19-year-old Toby Miller out of California. But in reality, it’ll be a showdown between James and Totsuka this week in Aspen for that gold medal. Everyone else is competing for bronze.

SLOPESTYLE

Finals: Saturday, Jan. 25, 1:45 p.m.

2019 podium: Mark McMorris (gold), Rene Rinnekangas (silver), Mons Roisland (bronze)

Unlike the superpipe, this is a competition that has a handful of potential winners. At the top of the list has to be Canadian superstar Mark McMorris, whose 17 combined Winter X Games medals are tied for second behind only White’s 18. McMorris has won X gold eight times, including slopestyle gold in 2019.

His toughest competition might be fellow Canadian Max Parrot, a 10-time X Games medalist (six gold) who overcame a bout with cancer last year to return to Aspen. Also competing is reigning Olympic gold medalist Red Gerard. The Summit County teen seems to be the future of the sport, although he’s yet to snag an X Games medal in three tries. His best finish in Aspen was fourth in 2018.

Norway’s Marcus Kleveland is a contender as well. He’s twice won X Games Aspen gold in slopestyle (2017, 2018) before sitting out last year after shattering his kneecap. He’s back, healthy and obviously knows how to win here.

There are plenty of other household names competing, like Rene Rinnekangas (silver in 2019), Mons Roisland, Stale Sandbech and Sebastien Toutant. And don’t forget about Silverthorne’s Chris Corning, a former Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club athlete. More of a big air specialist, this will be Corning’s third trip to X Games Aspen.

BIG AIR

Finals: Saturday, Jan. 25, 8 p.m.

2019 podium: Takeru Otsuka (gold), Mark McMorris (silver), Sven Thorgren (bronze)

Like in slopestyle, McMorris and Parrot have to be the favorites. They’ve dominated this event far too long not to be. Not to mention, last year’s champ, Japan’s Takeru Otsuka, isn’t competing. Toutant, Kleveland, Rinnekangas, Thorgren and Roisland all are, however, so it should be a good show.

All eyes should be on Corning, though. Health issues derailed his first two X Games Aspen competitions, so maybe his luck will change this year. He also struggled at the 2018 Olympics, but has otherwise dominated big air competitions everywhere else. His quad cork 1800 has become his staple, and if he lands that here at X Games he’ll likely win gold. Only 20, Corning will have has day in the sun soon enough.

BONUS EVENTS

On top of bringing back knuckle huck (Sunday, Jan. 26, 6:30 p.m.) for a second year, X Games has added two new snowboarding events for 2020 in superpipe best trick and a rail jam. Knuckle huck, which is where the riders toss themselves off the “knuckle,” or rounded part, of the big air jump, was a big hit last year. It was won by Fridtjof “Fridge” Tischendorf. He’s back, as is Kleveland, who will compete in the event he inspired for the first time.

The superpipe session (Friday, 9:30 p.m.) currently has eight riders, including James, Davis and Totsuka, so it should be stellar. The competition will be a 20-minute jam session with the riders getting to throw down their best single trick.

The rail jam (Sunday, Jan. 26, 1:30 p.m.) isn’t quite as star-studded, but does currently include Thorgren, Rinnekangas and Craig McMorris, Mark’s older brother and current X Games TV personality. Another jam session, riders will take to the rails on the slopestyle course and skip the jumps.

Of course, X Games wouldn’t be complete without the Special Olympics Unified snowboarding and skiing races Thursday morning that get everything started. Aspen’s own Chris Klug, an Olympic bronze medalist in alpine snowboarding, is always a contender.

acolbert@aspentimes.com

Another modified superpipe coming to Burton U.S. Open next month in Vail

FRISCO — Continuing the trend of modified man-made snow structures for elite snowboarding and freeski competitions, the Burton U.S. Open at Vail Mountain next month will feature a modified superpipe and a revamped slopestyle course.

Earlier this week, Burton Snowboards announced the changes to this year’s superpipe and slopestyle courses for the annual men’s and women’s snowboard event scheduled for Feb. 24-29. For the superpipe, Burton has opted for a modified design that will split two halfpipes with roller transitions in the middle.

After dropping into the course, snowboarders will be able to get about three hits in a 13-foot mini-pipe featuring six-foot tombstones before transitioning to a standard 22-foot superpipe via a pair of roller transition jumps on skier’s right and left. Once in the 22-foot pipe portion, Burton officials said snowboarders should be able to land three to four more hits.

The course design is similar to last year’s Dew Tour modified superpipe at Breckenridge Ski Resort. U.S. Olympic gold medalist and freeski legend David Wise described that course as “pipestyle” — an homage to the modified superpipe course with transition features more commonly seen in slopestyle.

As for this year’s Burton U.S. Open slopestyle competition, the course is going heavy on flowy, choose-your-line transition jumps over one big booter jump after another. The course also will feature choose-your-line rail sections up top that mimic the kind of urban riding many snowboarders — including Silverthorne resident and Olympic big air silver medalist Kyle Mack — love to spend time on.

The slopestyle course will have two urban features up top, including one that includes a rail next to stairs and a second that includes a wall ride. After those two features, snowboarders will get to the transition portion of the course, where 13-foot and 22-foot radius transition jump features will allow for snowboarders to carve efficiently into and off of angled jumps. These are the kind of transition jumps that Red Gerard mastered to win gold at the Pyeongchang Olympics and at last year’s Burton Open.

Then the course will include a more traditional high-speed rail feature, the kind Summit County’s Chris Corning has mastered with his advanced version of a rodeo flip.

It all leads to the traditional booter jump at the bottom of the course, where riders like Corning, Gerard and Mack will send their biggest tricks as each of their run’s exclamation points, sliding to a stop in the corral where the fans will be in a frenzy.

aolivero@summitdaily.com

Summit snowboarder Red Gerard runner-up in Laax Open slopestyle final to Toutant

FRISCO — Red Gerard will ride into next week’s X Games in Aspen snowboarding at his best.

On Friday in Switzerland, Gerard was the top-scoring American and the runner-up in the men’s snowboard slopestyle final at the Laax Open. Under clear skies and in ideal riding conditions, Gerard laced together the most inventive line through the course.

On his first and highest-scoring run, Gerard earned a score of 85.45 with a run through the course that consisted of a rock ‘n roll, a backside nose-press 270, a cab-on backside 360 melon off of a rail feature, a frontside 1080, a backside 1260 with a melon grab, a switch backside 1440 with a mute grab and a cab-on to backside 720 off the butter knuckle feature.

Gerard tried to up his score on his second run through the course but wasn’t as clean with his line while riding through the softening snow later in the competition. That opened the door for Canadian star Sebastien “Seb Toots” Toutant to best Gerard with a score of 87.45.

Toutant’s run, which he pieced together after a hard crash in training, consisted of a 50/50 stall to a frontside 270 out of a rail feature, a hardway switch backside 270 lipslide, a switch lipslide underflip off of a feature, a frontside double cork 900, a cab 1260 with a nose grab, a backside 1440 with a mute grab and a frontside double cork 1080 with a mute grab.

Other top American finishers at Friday’s slopestyle competition included third-place finisher and rising Californian Judd Henkes (82.33), another rising teen star in Gerard’s close friend and North Carolina native Luke Winkelmann (sixth, 75.00), Ryan Stassel (eighth, 56.13), Dusty Henricksen (ninth, 39.63) Lyon Farrell (11th, 28.56) and Michigan native and Silverthorne resident Kyle Mack (12th, 26.81).

After the competition, the first FIS snowboard slopestyle competition of the World Cup season, Gerard ranks in second place in the 2019-20 men’s snowboard slopestyle season standings, with 800 points, only behind Toutant’s 1,000 points.

As for the overall park-and-pipe season standings — which combine results from slopestyle, halfpipe and big air competitions — Gerard’s 800 points from Friday catapult him to fourth place with 1,880 total points, behind fellow Summit County snowboarder and two-time reigning park-and-pipe season champion Chris Corning (first, 3,250), Canadian teen phenom Nicolas LaFramboise (second, 2,316) and Australian halfpipe juggernaut Scotty James (2,000).

On Thursday, another batch of Summit County residents and locals performed well in the Laax Open halfpipe semifinals. Steamboat Springs native and Breckenridge resident Taylor Gold soared to a third-place qualifying score of 84.00, only behind expected heavy-hitters in the dominant Australian champion James (92.50) and Japanese star Yuto Totsuka (84.50).

Behind Gold, Frisco resident Jason Wolle qualified in fifth place (78.50) and Dillon resident Chase Blackwell qualified through in ninth (74.25).

The fifth-place score was huge for Wolle, who is on the U.S. Rookie Team and working to break into the highest-level of competitors. Wolle did so with a run that included a frontside 900 with a tail grab, a backside double Michalchuk with an Indy grab, a frontside double 1080 with an Indy grab, a cab double 1080 with a switch Indy grab and a crippler double nose grab.

“For qualifiers, making sure I was well-rested was a big one for me, as well as taking training seriously and working closely with my coaches on a good game plan,” Wolle said.

Wolle, Blackwell and Gold will compete in Saturday’s final round, which will take place at 9:30 a.m. mountain time Saturday.

aolivero@summitdaily.com

Speed racing returns to Highlands with annual Wilder Dwight ski races

Johno McBride believes the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club has the potential to produce elite speed skiers at a higher rate than maybe any other club in the country. This isn’t him bragging about having better coaches or better athletes, but simply better opportunities to train and race in downhill and super-G.

“If there aren’t people who are passionate about speed and understand speed, it will disappear, and that’s what is happening in a lot of clubs,” said McBride, who runs AVSC’s alpine program. “We have the ability in this club to really train kids up to be good speed skiers. There is no reason in my mind we can’t develop kids out of this program and put them on the national team to be speed skiers.”

McBride would know. He spent years coaching with the U.S. ski team and helped guide American legend Bode Miller to a couple of overall World Cup titles. He was with the U.S. as its main speed coach the past few seasons, including through the 2018 Winter Olympics, before returning to his roots in Aspen.

What the club has that others don’t is Aspen Highlands and the Stapleton Training Center, which is hosting the annual Wilder Dwight Memorial Speed Series this week. The races include both downhill and super-G for FIS and USSA athletes alike, one of the few opportunities athletes below the national team get to compete in speed.

“We are one of a few. Not that many do it anymore,” McBride said. “Primarily nobody wants to take on the liability. And the other piece of the puzzle is the reality is it’s a lot of work to put on a speed series. If you look up the hill and see the amount of protection — there are 250 nets up there that we all have to put in the snow.”

The Stapleton Training Center at Highlands opened in 2014 and has been a game changer for the club. While the terrain is technically that of Aspen Skiing Co., the race venue is managed by AVSC and its staff. It’s quickly become a highly sought after spot for training and has hosted the world’s best in recent years, including Mikaela Shiffrin, Lindsey Vonn and the Norwegian national team.

This week, it’s all about the younger athletes and allowing them a chance to experience the thrill of a downhill ski race.

“That’s one of the greatest assets we have in this club right now, is we have a venue we can manage the way we want,” McBride said. “We are really lucky that the ski company is giving us enough width to really set that however we see fit, which makes it not only safe — it keeps us away from the woods — but it keeps us from setting up wall-to-wall protection along the whole mountain.”

The annual race series has been going on for three decades. It’s named after Wilder Dwight, a promising young Aspen ski racer who died in a tragic skiing accident in 1986. It’s become one of the most popular and well-attended alpine events AVSC hosts each year.

The first of two days of downhill races was held Thursday, with a trio of AVSC athletes sweeping the men’s downhill podium in the FIS race. Tanner Perkins, Kristopher Westman and Wyatt Palmer finished 1-2-3, respectively, while Elle Murphy, another AVSC product, was third in the FIS women’s downhill.

A second day of downhill racing is scheduled for Friday, weather permitting. With snow in the forecast, those races could be moved to Saturday, which otherwise is intended to be a training day for super-G. The super-G races are scheduled for Sunday and Monday.

“There should be a lot more speed opportunities … taking that out of the developmental piece because potentially it’s dangerous is a bummer. It’s like any sport that has danger — there is a progression and there is a way to learn,” McBride said. “More importantly, there are a lot of kids out there having a really good time and learning and excited about it, and to me that’s really what this event is about. It’s keeping kids interested in speed and wanting to do it and learning, because it’s pretty exhilarating. It’s a lot different than skiing down a slalom course.”

The venue will be front and center on the national stage later this spring when it hosts the U.S. Alpine Tech Championships in late March.

acolbert@aspentimes.com

X Games skier and Aspen hero Alex Ferreira on making ‘The Scenic Route’ film

Like many young skiers growing up in Aspen, Alex Ferreira was a movie-mad kid. He and his friends would go to the annual ski movie premieres at the Wheeler Opera House, to festivals like 5Point and The Meeting, they’d beg their parents to drive them to screenings around Colorado.

“We always watched Poor Boys Productions, Level One, Matchstick — we couldn’t get our hands on enough content being kids wanting to watch skiing,” Ferreira, the Olympic silver medalist and four-time X Games medalist halfpipe skier, recalled last week between training sessions in Aspen.

He and his buddies, Ferreira recalled, would pass around YouTube parts and later, share Instagram and Vine ski edits. Skiing in the park, he and his crew would constantly shoot GoPro footage — with some like his Aspen High classmate Kyler Sciarrone shooting on a camera — and make short edits of their own.

“It was fun, for one, because we all wanted to see our trick and perfect it,” Ferreira said. “And then we’d have fun doing a little edit on iMovie, just kids trying new stuff.”

But his immersion in ski flicks also gave him discerning taste as he matured.

“These ski films are amazing and so much goes into them,” Ferreira said. “But while the tricks might not be the same, the overall feel of the film is very much the same year after year after year. You get a little jaded as you notice that. As I got older I said, ‘Wow, it’d be great to do a ski film that means a little bit more to me, that is a little bit deeper.’ ”

That mindset bred “The Scenic Route,” Ferreira’s first professional film project. The 22-minute film premiered in a nationwide broadcast in November on ABC’s “World of X Games” series.

It gets its big screen Aspen premiere Saturday on the second night of 5Point Film’s annual two-night presentation at the Wheeler, among 10 short adventure films. “The Scenic Route” also will screen Jan. 25 at Studio X in the X Games Buttermilk venue as part of a weekend-long film festival.

With introspective narration written and read by Ferreria, the film follows Ferreira around Japan immersing himself in local culture and doing some skiing. Filmed over six weeks last winter, following his ski season, it’s directed and produced by Matt Hobbs of the Aspen-based Vital Films.

They had originally planned to make a film built around nighttime ski shoots in Japan’s famously deep powder, using a light-up suit.

“The suit fell through, it didn’t snow at all when we got there, and Matt and I said, ‘We are going to make a travel and culture piece!’” Ferreira, 25, recalled with a laugh. “It just naturally unfolded that way.”

Ferreira began his relationship with Vital Films as a fan, following their releases in his childhood days watching ski flicks in Aspen.

“I’d been aware of Matt and of Vital Films’ work since I was a young kid,” Ferreira said. “But we didn’t know each other at all.”

Ferreira simply dropped Hobbs a line awhile back and asked if he’d be interested in working together. With funding from Columbia Sportswear, one of Ferreira’s sponsors, they went to work on “The Scenic Route” with an Aspen-based creative team.

The result is a nontraditional ski movie, an unexpected self-portrait of an athlete and a lively travel story. It’s not the ego-stroking, myth-building fare of many solo ski films, not the quick-cutting barrage of high-flying hucks you might expect. It’s not driven by adrenaline, but instead by Ferreira’s genuine curiosity about the world and how to live in it.

“It’s not always about the medals or glory,” Ferreira says in the film. “Sometimes it’s about the breath, the view, the people, the life we want to live.”

Ferreira has emerged as a global sports figure since earning his first X Games superpipe medal at age 19. He’s succeeded on the biggest stages in snowsports, winning X Games gold and Olympic silver and making a case to be the action sports crossover star who might finally fill the void left by Shaun White.

In competition, Ferreira performs with evident fearlessness, propelling himself into series of death-defying flips and spins two stories above the 22-foot-tall halfpipes.

And yet, taking the stage at the Wheeler in Aspen and being on-screen in his hometown with “The Scenic Route” is intimidating for Ferreira.

“It’s an amazing experience and a little nerve-racking,” Ferreira said, “because Matt and I are putting our hearts on the line. This film, it’s about who we are. It’s really deep into our lives and that can be a little scary. I’m a little nervous, for sure, but maybe it’s a good thing to let people in in other ways. It’s a new avenue to let people into my life and also to let somebody into the world of Japan.”

The film opens with Ferreira talking about cutting school to go watch Candide Thovex and Tanner Hall at X Games practice at Buttermilk, discussing his love for his sport and for X Games (“the Super Bowl of skiing”). It then cuts to his epic 2019 gold medal run in the Buttermilk superpipe before hopping to a neon-lit street scene in Japan.

“As I jump from one chaos to another, from competition to city, I find my next adventure in the heart of Tokyo,” Ferreria narrates. “The X Games lights share a similarity to this electric city. Bright, exciting, nerve-racking and, most importantly, mesmerizing. But I am not here for the chaos. I am here for the exact opposite.”

We then follow Ferreira on a trip to Hokkaido, where he skis its famously deep powder and meets up with a local friend, Yohei Maruyama, who he met at a comp in Europe. Ferreira, with his signature enthusiasm and wide smile, milks cows on Maruyama’s family farm, and samples the family cow tongue recipe while immersing himself in the local culture. He later spends time banging metal with a swordsmith, making a traditional Katana sword in the samurai style.

Ferreira draws comparisons between the swordsmith’s diligent practice and his own as a skier — the commitment to quiet work on mastering a craft and the eventual emergence of something beautiful, whether it’s a sword or a ski run.

The film closes with Ferreira returning to Aspen in a gorgeously shot slow-motion drone sequence, following him on a slopestyle run at Buttermilk. Over the spellbinding footage, an introspective Ferreira offers some lessons from Japan and his commitment to being “an eternal learner.”

“Traveling is such a phenomenal outlet to learn, not only to learn about the country but about yourself and how you fit into this jigsaw puzzle we call Earth,” he says. “Every time I leave home, I know I am in for a treat, new places to explore, new people to meet and, above all, a chance to take the scenic route.”

Ferreira is hoping to continue his work with Hobbs and perhaps to make a series of travelogue films. They’re still exploring funding options to make a second installment.

“I’d love to do as many of these as I can, all over the world,” Ferreira said. “It’s an amazing experience being able to go to a new country like that, absorb the culture and be immersed in everything.”

atravers@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

Lacking confidence, Mikaela Shiffrin beaten in her second straight slalom

FLACHAU, Austria — After her rare second straight defeat in a women’s World Cup slalom on Tuesday, Mikaela Shiffrin admitted to lacking confidence.

Not that she felt overly confident when she was winning almost every slalom race in recent years.

“I am not somebody who really believes in myself,” the American four-time world champion said after Petra Vlhova won a night race by 0.10 seconds over Anna Swenn Larsson of Sweden, 10 days after the Slovakian skier had also triumphed in a slalom in Zagreb.

Shiffrin, who was second after the opening run, came 0.43 behind in third for her worst result in the discipline in two years, when she failed to finish in the final race before the Pyeongchang Olympics.

“The way that I have been able to be on the top for so long, is I always did more work, harder work and better work than everybody else did,” said Shiffrin, who has a record 43 World Cup wins and six season titles in the discipline, and has won four straight world championships and Olympic gold in 2014 in skiing’s most technically demanding event.

“So I could come to race day and I didn’t have to be confident,” she added. “I could just ski, I could just ski really hard and it would be enough sometimes. On the rare days when I was confident, then you could see these really big, spectacular margins.”

Shiffrin won a record 17 races last season. And while many started to take her wins for granted, Shiffrin never did.

“I have said this so many times when I am winning and (the media) ask, ‘Is it so easy?’ and ‘Are you unbeatable?’ And I am always saying, that these big margins, these wins, they can disappear so easily,” she said.

The wins have disappeared. Shiffrin convincingly won two races in two days in Lienz just after Christmas but is yet to win an event in 2020.

“Look at someone like Petra, who has just been getting better and better and better,” she said. “Her technique is nearly perfect and the way that she is working is like she is doing what I have been able to do, better than I can do it right now. So that’s motivation for me.”

Vlhova positioned herself for the win by building a lead of six tenths of a second in the opening run. Though she lost some time on Shiffrin and Larsson in the final run, she had done enough for her 12th career win, and seventh in slalom.

“Both of us, we had a lot of emotions. I have really big respect for her, for me she is a champion. It’s a really good battle,” Vlhova said about her American rival, who gave her a hug after the race to congratulate her on the victory.

“I know she is angry because she wants to always win,” Vlhova said. “It’s good to have Miki close to me because she pushes me. It’s good for our sport to have two girls like this. We are both on the top.”

Vlhova closed the gap to Shiffrin in the slalom standings to 80 points, but she still trails the American by 273 in the overall rankings.

Vlhova had beaten Shiffrin by a margin of 1.31 seconds in Zagreb, which ended the American’s winning streak in slaloms after nearly a year.

The previous time that Shiffrin lost back-to-back slaloms in a single season was more than five years ago.

In three races in November and December 2014, she placed 11th, fifth and fourth, respectively, and parted ways with long-term coach Roland Pfeifer shortly afterward.

“I am happy to be on the podium again. I am disappointed with my skiing. But that’s ski racing,” Shiffrin said. “After Zagreb, I knew I had to get some training and fix some things with my slalom skiing. I feel like I accomplished a lot in my training but it’s also another race, it’s a different race, it’s a different day, and I didn’t quite put it out there in the race today.”

Shiffrin failed to make up her deficit in the final run even though she was 0.17 seconds faster than Vlhova on a course with more sharp turns than the first leg.

Her head coach, Mike Day, placed the gates for the final run but Shiffrin denied it was set against Vlhova, who favors more straightforward courses.

“You can’t set a course against her right now because her skiing is the best,” Shiffrin said. “So she is able to do any course and handle it the way she needs to.”

All 25 World Cup slaloms since January 2017, when Sweden’s Frida Hansdotter triumphed here, have been won by either Shiffrin — with 19 — or Vlhova.

Runner-up Swenn Larsson matched her career best result and came just one-tenth short of her first win.

“Of course I really wanted to win. Hopefully it will come one day but I am super happy with second place,” said the Swede, who finished third here last season but was disqualified shortly after the race as she had straddled a gate.

The floodlit race in Austria with 14,800 spectators had the highest prize fund on the women’s World Cup this season, with Vlhova receiving 70,000 euros ($77,900) for the win.

The women’s World Cup continues in Sestriere, Italy, this weekend for a giant slalom and parallel GS, followed by several weeks of speed racing.

The next slalom is scheduled for Maribor, Slovenia, on Feb. 16.

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

Clubhouse Chronicles: A NASCAR champ and X Games champ walk into a ski race…

On Dec. 30, Aspen Valley Ski & Snowboard Club hosted our 10th annual Audi Ajax Cup on the face of Aspen Mountain. Sixteen teams battled it out in the morning to secure a spot in the finals and a shot at winning the coveted Gorsuch Cup and a silver belt buckle. Teams were led by team captains and professional skiers ranging from renowned speed skier and Hahnenkamm winner Daron Rahlves to AVSC head U16 Alpine coach Casey Puckett to AVSC and U.S. Ski Team alumna Katie Ryan.

The race came down to team Alpine Bank and team West End Hillbillies — an even match until the final race between the team’s pros: U.S. Alpine ski team alumnus Nolan Kasper and U.S. freestyle team member, X Games champion and Olympic silver medalist Alex Ferreira, also an AVSC alumnus and board member.

While this is my fourth Ajax Cup as AVSC’s executive director, it was my first in the finish corral during the final round of racing. The excitement was palpable, the crowd falling quiet as they grew more and more focused on the impending result. When Alex crossed the finish line just a hair ahead of Nolan, spectators erupted with excitement as the West End Hillbillies’ team captain Jimmie Johnson rushed toward Alex for a congratulatory and celebratory hug.

Watching this scene unfold epitomized both the magnitude and uniqueness of this event. Here we are at the base of Aspen Mountain — a place steeped in ski racing history from the start. We are surrounded by caring and compassionate community members, many of whom are Audi Ajax Cup team captains, assembling their own communities to rally behind ours. We are surrounded by businesses, families, community members, and others who, through both gestures large and small, show their commitment to local kids and their growth. We are surrounded by a culture of passion, competition, excellence, and overall, fun.

Across the world, the Roaring Fork Valley is known for many things. To us, it is a caring and compassionate community that we’re incredibly lucky to call home. It is a playground in which to grow and learn respect for ourselves and for others. A place to experience failure and success. A place to develop our passions, challenge ourselves, and pursue excellence.

Maybe that’s why the Audi Ajax Cup is such a fun event year after year: it emulates many of the lessons that our athletes are learning on a daily basis. Plus, where else in the world do you find yourself in the finish corral of a ski race with a seven-time NASCAR champion and an Olympic silver medalist, who after spending a day together are fast friends?

Thank you to our incredible Audi Ajax Cup team captains, race chairs, event chairs, business sponsors, staff, pros, racers, spectators, volunteers, and more. Without each and every one of you, we would not have raised nearly $900,000 to continue to provide local kids access to the mountains. A special thank you to Aspen Skiing Co., who generously allows us to run the race on Little Nell during the busiest week of the year!

Clubhouse Chronicles is a behind-the-scenes column written by the Aspen Valley Ski & Snowboard Club that runs periodically in the Outdoors section.