Aspen Journalism: X Games bus ridership rebounds but still lagging pre-COVID years

The new operator of Winter X Games is not releasing estimated attendance totals from last month’s event, although other data indicates that crowds were up from last year but are still lagging the massive numbers seen during the pre-COVID-19 years. 

The Winter X Games, which have been held in Aspen since 2002, took place under frigid temperatures and snowfall at Buttermilk Ski Area on Jan. 27-29.

“We saw a bigger crowd than we were expecting,” said Gabriel Muething, who is with the Aspen Ambulance District and was one of two co-commanders for the incident-management team set up by local public safety agencies during X Games. “People are excited to get back out and excited to see an event like this (after the pandemic’s shutdown), so it was great to see the crowds back.”

ESPN had been the owner and operator of X Games until last fall, when it sold a majority stake in the event to New York-based private equity firm MSP Sports Capital. A X Games spokesperson said this week that they would not be releasing attendance estimates for 2023 because the new operator is working to get a better handle on all the variables that make up the attendance to ensure the accuracy of the totals. 

However, officials with the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority shared ridership totals for this year’s event. Those numbers showed an uptick from last year, but a 45% drop from 2020. This year, RFTA reported a total of 17,939 rides coming to and from the venue over the three-day event, up from 10,732 last year when buses had limited capacity, but down from 2020’s 32,756 and 2019’s 36,163. 

RFTA ridership over the more recent seasons, including the COVID era.
Laurine Lassalle/Aspen Journalism

The last big Winter X Games goes back to January 2020, when the event welcomed roughly 111,500 people over a four-day-weekend at the base of Buttermilk about six weeks before the state’s first reported COVID cases.

In 2021, the event still took place but without any spectators.

Last year, in-person attendance was back, but only 35,700 people showed up at the 2022 X Games, which were scaled back to three days and no longer included snowmobile competitions. The attendance marked a 68% drop from 2020.

Last month’s event also was only three days long and also did not include snowmobile competitions.

RFTA’s numbers differ from prior years’ ESPN-reported totals because they do not include riders on transit services contracted by X Games to supplement the capacity of the local bus system. In the past, that supplemental transit has been provided by Rocky Mountain Express, Ramblin’ Express, and others. This year, according to RFTA, it worked with Hermes International to help move people to and from X Games.

Other attendance variables include ride-share services providing access to the games, private vehicles, and pedestrians.  

Aspen Skiing Co. Senior Vice President John Rigney, who oversees events, said he had always taken previous attendance estimates with a grain of salt, as he does with all non-ticketed events. “But I think the crowds this year were comparable to pre-COVID attendance levels,” he said. He added that the event went well.

“The caliber of competition was exceptional; there was good energy in town, and we got a fantastic three-day snow commercial for Aspen/Snowmass,” he said.

The X Games this year featured three competition courses, the on-snow X Fest with food and music, an outdoor patio, and the newly-renovated Buttermilk base lodge.  

Coordinated community response 

Pitkin County Undersheriff Alex Burchetta, co-incident commander at the 2023 Winter X Games, supervises the incident management team at the Mountain Rescue Aspen station. The team recorded a total of 136 public safety contacts over the three-day event this year.
Laurine Lassalle/Aspen Journalism

Roughly a mile down Highway 82 from Buttermilk, representatives of Pitkin County’s incident-management team were based at the Mountain Rescue Aspen station for the duration of X Games. The team consists of 25 agencies called upon when community events require a heightened response. 

For the first time since the start of the pandemic, the team — which includes the Pitkin County Sheriff Office, Aspen Fire Protection District, Aspen and Snowmass Village police, Aspen Ambulance District, and Colorado State Patrol — was fully-staffed for the X Games.

Among its responsibilities is ensuring the safety of the public in collaboration with the private security firm hired by the X Games. The event is particularly complex to manage because it is set up in the dead of winter with structures being built on snow. 

On average, 67 personnel worked for the incident-management team each day of the event. The team reported 136 public-safety contacts, ranging from 25 to 60 contacts each day. Public-safety contacts typically range from somebody needing medical attention after an injury to breaking up a fight between two people who had too much to drink.

This year, the medical tent was busy attending to people with weather-related injuries, accounting for a total of 34 contacts on Friday and Saturday, Muething said, including people who slipped and fell due to icy conditions. SkiCo received reports from people at the venue who saw 5 inches of snow on the ground in the venue on one day. During the first two days of the event, temperatures ranged from 8 to 26 degrees, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data, and the team recorded 51 contacts on Friday of the event and 60 on Saturday.

Icy road conditions and multiple car crashes Saturday night caused the Highway 82 downvalley lanes to close west of Service Center Road near the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport.

“I didn’t envision Shale Bluffs shutting down Saturday night during egress, but these things happen when snowfall is abundant, and the fans were great,” Rigney said.

On the law-enforcement side, dealing with people who had too much to drink was one of the most common situations officers had to face as they reported a total of 15 contacts with an intoxicated person Friday and Saturday, but no arrests were made this year. They also recorded 19 traffic stops and 13 motorist assists during the first two days of the event. (The Sunday data was unavailable.)

As the X Games were scaled back in the past couple of years, it’s difficult to compare the number of contacts with past events. Muething said this year’s contacts were close to average or even a little below. 

At the 2015 X Games — which had an attendance of about 115,000 fans, according to ESPN — public-safety contacts topped 500, and 23 people were arrested. 2019’s event saw just as many fans but fewer law-enforcement issues as 2015’s. In 2020, the Aspen Daily News reported that the team received between 75 and 140 calls each day.

One of the reasons for the smaller numbers this year is the size of the X Games, which were spread over three days instead of four as they were pre-COVID. Before the pandemic, the X Games also hosted large-scale concerts — featuring artists such as Lil Wayne, The Chainsmokers and LCD Soundsystem — that packed a concert venue that could hold more than 7,000 spectators adjacent to the action-sports festivities. 

“Typically, there have been many thousands of people at a concert in the afternoon and evenings,” Muething said. “And I think that those definitely draw a crowd, and with any large crowd, we typically see a little bit more public safety contacts.”

MSP Sports Capital announced in December that they would downsize the concerts, cutting the big nighttime events in favor of smaller stagings between competitions. This year’s concerts were shorter and attracted a smaller but “well-behaved crowd,” Muething said.

The incident-management team celebrates its 10-year anniversary this year. The Winter X Games came to Aspen in 2002, so for the first decade, the event’s safety was handled internally between the Sheriff’s Office and X Games security.

“I won’t say it’s a well-oiled machine, but it’s pretty close to well-oiled as you get,” said Pitkin County Undersheriff Alex Burchetta, who is also an incident commander. 

Burchetta, who has been supervising the event for 15 years, launched in 2013 the incident-management team, a first on the Western Slope. 

Over the years, the team evolved beyond the X Games and has been activated for other major planned and unplanned events, including the pandemic response and the 2018 Lake Christine Fire.

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Choi, 14, soars in X Games Aspen halfpipe with mentorship from superstar Chloe Kim

The tale of how a 14-year-old snowboarder from South Korea turned into one of the world’s rising halfpipe riders involves tears, tenacity and the encouragement of the best in the business, Chloe Kim.

High-soaring Gaon Choi won a gold medal at X Games Aspen last month during her inaugural pro-level contest, making her X Games Aspen’s youngest women’s snowboard halfpipe winner — a title she took from Kim, the two-time reigning Olympic champion from California who’s become equal parts mentor and fan.

Kim wrote in an Instagram story shortly after Choi’s win: “She’s not so little anymore. I’ve known her for almost a decade, and now she’s doing big things. I feel like a proud Mom. The future of snowboarding’s in good hands.”

Choi’s introduction to snowboarding began with tears. Her father, Inyoung, bought snowboards for her older sister and brother but skis for her. The basic reasoning: It might be easier for Choi — 7 at the time — to learn on them.

“I cried and asked him why he only gave me skis,” Choi wrote in an email to The Associated Press.

The next day, Choi’s dad swapped the skis for a snowboard that was taller than her.

“I wanted to show him that I could ride better than my sister and brother,” wrote Choi, who’s from Seoul. “So I got into riding snowboarding to prove (to) him that I could ride better.”

Soon after, she tried out the halfpipe. It was love at first drop.

That led her to search YouTube for videos of new tricks. Not unexpectedly, she happened upon footage of Kim’s epic runs from X Games past.

South Korea’s Gaon Choi celebrates on the X Games Aspen podium after winning a gold medal in the women’s snowboard halfpipe final on Saturday, Jan. 28, 2023, at Buttermilk Ski Area.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

“I thought she was so cool and I thought I wanted to be like her,” wrote Choi, who is scheduled to compete in the halfpipe event at the Dew Tour at Copper Mountain, Colorado, on Feb. 25.

Choi and Kim have some distinct parallels in their paths: Both are young prodigies with roots in South Korea. Kim’s mom and dad immigrated to the United States and, as coincidence would have it, Kim made her Olympic debut in the country where her family was from. She won her first of two straight halfpipe gold medals at the 2018 Pyeongchang Games.

Choi said her father struck up a friendship with Kim’s dad in the build-up to the Winter Games in South Korea. He was simply looking for tips to help nurture Choi’s talent.

To launch his own daughter’s career, Jong Jin Kim famously bought Chloe a snowboard on eBay. She took lessons, and by the time she was 7, she was winning contests. The rest is history.

“Chloe’s dad did a lot of mentoring to my dad,” wrote Choi, who was approximately six months younger (14 years, 2 months) when she captured gold at X Games Aspen on Jan. 28 than when Kim won in 2015. “I didn’t know much because I was young, but Chloe’s dad gave my dad a lot of advice. It made me who I am today.”

The biggest piece of guidance: Perfect the basics.

South Korea’s Gaon Choi competes in the X Games Aspen women’s snowboard halfpipe final on Saturday, Jan. 28, 2023, at Buttermilk Ski Area.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

Choi spent most of her time working on the tiniest of details. It’s a recipe that’s worked for the 22-year-old Kim, who’s graced magazine covers (Sports Illustrated) and cereal boxes (Kellogg’s Corn Flakes).

Choi vividly remembers the times she and Kim crossed paths while training in New Zealand and Switzerland. The words Kim once uttered to Choi stay with her.

“She said, ‘You’ll have a good ride,’” recalled Choi, who has picked up sponsors like Monster Energy, Lotte and Mammoth Mountain in California, where she trains. “She was already (a) superstar when I trained with her, and I was just a little girl who dreamed of snowboarding.

“She even took pictures of me and her.”

Picture this: Choi competing next to Kim at the 2026 Winter Games in Italy, or even sooner at another contest or an X Games event.

“It is my dream, that I’ve always dreamed of it,” Choi wrote. “I’m excited just to participate in the same contest as her.”

X Games Aspen wrap-up: Looking back on my skiing predictions for 2023

Did I make a single correct skiing pick for X Games Aspen 2023? No, but after Eileen Gu and Kelly Sildaru both got hurt in slopestyle practice, it just seemed the universe wanted me to do poorly and I’m OK with that.

Thankfully Gu’s injury seems relatively minor and it sounds like she’ll be back soon enough. I feel for Sildaru, who said she tore her ACL (again) and is looking at a longer recovery. At least local star Alex Ferreira made it out in mostly one piece after two tough crashes. Anyone who says the sport is easy is completely insane.

Women’s big air

My pick: Mathilde Gremaud

Actual winner: Megan Oldham

Little did we know X Games Aspen 2023 was the Megan Oldham show. With Olympic big air champion Eileen Gu a scratch (more on that later), the door was open for anyone to step up. And Oldham did in a big way. The 21-year-old Canadian won her first Aspen gold medal after she became the first woman to land a triple cork, scoring a perfect 50 out of 50 on the trick. And it wasn’t the end of her stellar weekend.

Knuckle huck

My pick: Joona Kangas

Actual winner: Jesper Tjader

I picked Joona Kangas to win because he has an awesome name. Apparently, there is more to picking winners than name alone. Kangas did finish fourth, just behind Colby Stevenson and Matej Svancer, but knuckle huck gold went to Jesper Tjader. The 28-year-old from Sweden has been an X Games mainstay since 2015, but this was his first official medal, and win, in Aspen.

Men’s slopestyle

My pick: Birk Ruud

Actual winner: Colby Stevenson

Straight out of Park City, Utah, Colby Stevenson proved he isn’t a one-hit wonder. In his X Games debut back in 2020, he won gold in both slopestyle and knuckle huck, but didn’t touch the podium in either 2021 or 2022. The 25-year-old also won Olympic silver in big air last February, but taking down a talented slopestyle field in tough conditions at X Games this year certainly establishes Stevenson as one of the discipline’s true stars. Birk Ruud was fifth.

Utah’s Colby Stevenson waits to receive his medal for winning the men’s slopestyle skiing final at X Games Aspen on Saturday, Jan. 28, 2023, at Buttermilk Ski Area.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

Women’s halfpipe

My pick: Eileen Gu

Actual winner: Zoe Atkin

This contest was missing two superstars in Eileen Gu and Kelly Sildaru. Oddly enough, both hurt their knees during slopestyle training and had to pull out of all events. We still have yet to see the two phenoms go head-to-head at X Games. We’ll keep dreaming, though. This did open the door for someone like Basalt local Hanna Faulhaber, who finished fifth in a snowy and slow halfpipe, but it was the 20-year-old Zoe Atkin who came through. The Great Britain skier won her first X Games medal in four tries, having finished fourth twice.

Women’s slopestyle

My pick: Eileen Gu

Actual winner: Megan Oldham

Again, no Gu and no Sildaru. Those absences really took the thunder out of this competition. But there was no slowing down Oldham this week. She already had big air gold and decided to take home slopestyle gold as well, holding off Mathilde Gremaud and Kirsty Muir. We can dare call Oldham a star after that performance. She competed in her first Olympics last winter, finishing 13th in slopestyle and fourth in big air. An X Games golden sweep is a big step.

Men’s big air

My pick: Alex Hall

Actual winner: Mac Forehand

Well, an American won, it just wasn’t the one I picked. Utah’s Alex Hall finished at the bottom of the pack, but Mac Forehand made a statement. The 21-year-old rising star from Stratton Mountain School took home what is already his third X Games Aspen medal in only four contests over two years. He also took silver in slopestyle this year and silver in big air a year ago to go with a fourth in slopestyle in 2022, his debut season. A podium rate of 75 percent is pretty darn good.

From left, Birk Irving (silver), David Wise (gold) and Jon Sallinen (bronze) stand on the X Games podium for men’s halfpipe skiing on Sunday, Jan. 29, 2023, at Buttermilk Ski Area.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

Men’s halfpipe

My pick: Alex Ferreira

Actual winner: David Wise

With New Zealand’s Nico Porteous sitting out this year, the door was wide open for anyone to win. The stars seemed to be aligning for Aspen’s own Alex Ferreira, a two-time champ of the event, but two hard crashes in two runs forced him to drop out of the contest midway through. Enter David Wise, whose familiarity with winning in the Buttermilk halfpipe rivals the best. The 32-year-old from Reno held off Winter Park’s Birk Irving and Finland’s Jon Sallinen, who graduated from Colorado Rocky Mountain School in Carbondale, to win for the fifth time in Aspen. Chalk one up for the old guys.

X Games Aspen wrap-up: Looking back on my snowboarding predictions for 2023

This wasn’t my best work. I still stand by my original picks to win each of the snowboard contests at X Games Aspen 2023, but fate chose poorly.

The main lesson? Don’t pick against Mark McMorris, Marcus Kleveland or Scotty James, unless you have a very good reason. And even then, don’t do it. At least Zoi Sadowski-Synnott came through for me to get me on the scoreboard.

And Gaon Choi? She’s the real deal. Chloe Kim might finally have a real challenger.

Women’s slopestyle

My pick: Zoi Sadowski-Synnott

Actual winner: Zoi Sadowski-Synnott

The one snowboard contest I picked correctly, and only because New Zealand’s Zoi Sadowski-Synnott delivered big on her final run to jump Australian Tess Coady at the finish line. Winning is winning, though. It was the Kiwi’s third slopestyle gold in Aspen and second straight. Jamie Anderson sat this one out because of her pregnancy.

Men’s halfpipe

My pick: Ayumu Hirano

Actual winner: Scotty James

This wasn’t a great contest for the Japanese riders, including Olympic champion Ayumu Hirano, who finished sixth. It was another great day for Australia’s Scotty James, who continues to dominate the discipline more often than not. Make that five X Games Aspen gold medals for James, who has now found the halfpipe podium eight straight years at Buttermilk.

South Korea’s Gaon Choi celebrates on the X Games Aspen podium after winning a gold medal in the women’s snowboard halfpipe final on Saturday, Jan. 28, 2023, at Buttermilk Ski Area.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

Women’s halfpipe

My pick: Xuetong Cai

Actual winner: Gaon Choi

China’s Xuetong Cai did well, finishing third, while California’s Maddie Mastro earned her second career silver medal. But it was South Korean phenom Gaon Choi who made the massive jump to superstardom. Only 14, she became the youngest to ever win the event, a record previously held by California’s Chloe Kim, who was not competing.

Women’s big air

My pick: Zoi Sadowski-Synnott

Actual winner: Reira Iwabuchi

Sadowski-Synnott came to play, winning silver. But Japan’s Reira Iwabuchi decided to reset the bar, landing the first triple underfoot by a woman for her first X Games gold medal. Canada’s Laurie Blouin won bronze, the 48 (out of 50) she scored on her fifth and final run being the best of the contest. She just didn’t have that second run to match.

Men’s big air

My pick: Chris Corning

Actual winner: Marcus Kleveland

Well, Chris Corning’s X Games curse lives on. The Colorado son finished seventh of eight riders, making him 0 for 9 in podium appearances in his X Games Aspen career, including slopestyle. The win, no surprise, went to Norway’s Marcus Kleveland, who is the undisputed king of the discipline at the moment. It was his third straight big air title in Aspen.

Canada’s Mark McMorris celebrates after his final run that won him the X Games men’s snowboard slopestyle final on Sunday, Jan. 29, 2023, at Buttermilk Ski Area.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

Men’s slopestyle

My pick: Red Gerard

Actual winner: Mark McMorris

Much like Corning, Summit County’s Red Gerard seems to have an Aspen curse. He does have one career bronze in Aspen (slopestyle, 2020), but that’s it for the 2018 Olympic champion. This year, he settled for fourth, bumped off the podium by Mons Roisland (bronze), Kleveland (silver) and Mark McMorris (gold). McMorris, who jumped Kleveland on his final run, snagged his 22nd Winter X Games medal, the most all-time. He broke a tie with Jamie Anderson.

Knuckle huck

My pick: Moritz Boll

Actual winner: Marcus Kleveland

I picked Moritz Boll, an X Games rookie, for no good reason. He performed decently, but came up short of the podium. The win, again, went to Kleveland, who inspired the contest’s creation and has now won it back-to-back years in Aspen. Kleveland, only 23, now has 13 career Winter X Games medals (including the contests in his native Norway), a number that will only grow before he’s out of the game.

X Games Aspen 2023 medal designer went to extreme lengths for awards

Year after year, X Games athletes push beyond their limits, progressing the sport beyond the bounds of what athletes and spectators previously thought was possible.

This year, many left Buttermilk Ski Area having made historic breakthroughs — from 14-year-old Gaon Choi becoming the youngest person to win an X Games gold medal to Megan Oldham being the first woman to land a triple cork.

Pushing boundaries and extreme sports simply go hand in hand. This sentiment ruminated through the artistry seen in this year’s glossy, translucent X Games Aspen medals designed and fabricated by Colorado artist Lisa Issenberg.

She has been creating the X Games medals for the past four years. She is the owner and founder of a Ridgway studio, Kiitella, named after a Finnish word that translates to “thank, applaud, or praise.”

Anonymously creating awards for people who have just achieved a milestone in their life is something that Issenberg is passionate about, she said.

She has a seasoned track record of creating awards for major events, from making the American Alpine Award granted to Sally Jewell, secretary of state during the Obama administration, to creating the awards for the Birds of Prey World Cup ski races in Beaver Creek.

“The awards are so satisfying,” she said. “There’s a unique connection between you and these people doing amazing work. That feels good.”

This year, Brian Kerr — ESPN’s associate director of competitions who is in charge of the X Games medal design — challenged Issenberg, who specializes in metal materials, to create awards with a “cold and snowy” theme.

With this, X Games medals looked a little different this year, embodying cool-toned winter elements.

To achieve this aesthetic, she pushed the boundaries of her work by incorporating locally-sourced, upcycled glass, aluminum, and metal materials.

Digging for Gold

Issenberg knew she wanted to use either upcycled or recycled materials to create this year’s medals, as she’s done in the past. Last year, the X Games medals were created with sustainably harvested aspen trees.

She could have taken an easier route by sourcing recycled glass from a manufacturer. However, she wanted the materials she used this year to be even more environmentally-friendly than recycled materials.

With this, she decided on upcycling materials — or taking something that hasn’t been recycled yet and giving it a new life. To accomplish this, Issenberg took to dumpster-diving to find glass bottles and aluminum signage.

Lisa Issenberg dumpster dives for materials to upcycle to create X Games Aspen 2023 medals.
Courtesy photo

“I’ve always been concerned with where my materials come from,” she said. “The steel that I use, the sources have told me it’s 90% to 100% recycled, so I felt good about that. But I wanted to take this further.”

After sourcing used bottles from a dumpster, she went to Cimarron Art Glass in Ridgway, where glass artist Munro Deforeest helped her with testing the fusing of the glass. After several tests with unsatisfactory results, Issenberg was back to square one with sourcing her materials.

Upcycling still lingered in her mind, though. So she began to hunt for discarded window panes.

In a dumpster of a window-installation company in Ouray, she struck gold.

“I drove around to different glass installers,” she said. “The third one, one guy said, ‘Oh, I’m about to take out these giant old windows up in Cedaredge.’ And the next one said, ‘Hey, I’ve got some glass, I’m just about to throw them in the dumpster.'”

“I go out back,” Issenberg said, “and there’s a giant, thick, three-sixteenths-inch pane of glass. And I’m like ‘That’s perfect. I’ll take it.'”

From here, the glass was then cut, drilled, notched, kiln fired, sandblasted, and hand painted, she said.

“It’s something you can’t even put words to,” she said, when describing how it felt when it all came together.

The Final Design

Issenberg used various handcraft and industrial processes to create the final X Games Aspen awards. With her work, she tries to embody wabi sabi, a Japanese sentiment of finding beauty in imperfection.

While she could have just used industrial processes, for her, leaving a human touch on her art is what makes her work special.

“You can see the human touch in each one,” she said. “I feel like that’s what people deserve to know: That the piece they are receiving was made with love, sweat, blood, tears.”

The medals became streamlined with a bold gold, silver or bronze “X” rising above an abstraction of the Maroon Bells, she said. The Knuckle Huck Ring also incorporates the same materials and a design, inspired by Aspen’s iconic mountain range.

She said the front of the medal showcases a a clean, polished, riveted, and painted piece of art, and, on the backside, recipients get a “window into what the material was.”

“I’m happy to have this as the thing that is now given to these athletes who have worked hard all their lives,” said Issenberg. “I don’t know, if when they hold it, they know what goes into it — but maybe in a small way they do.”

Sallinen lands on X Games halfpipe podium in debut, Ferreira crashes out

A local kid got on the X Games Aspen podium on Sunday night, but it wasn’t the one most people expected. Even Jon Sallinen didn’t think he’d be taking home a medal.

“It was a little loose — the whole comp was a little loose — with a lot of crashes and a lot of people not landing their runs. But I got two pretty OK runs down, and I stayed in third place somehow,” he said. “I thought (Aaron) Blunck was going to take it for that last run but somehow managed to get it, and I’m super, super stoked.”

In his X Games debut, Sallinen finished third in the men’s halfpipe skiing contest that closed out the festivities at Buttermilk, behind silver medalist Birk Irving of Winter Park and Nevada’s David Wise, who won Aspen gold for the fifth time.

Aspen’s own Alex Ferreira — who won X Games gold in both 2019 and 2020 — crashed hard in both of his first two runs and ultimately withdrew from the competition, finishing in last place.

“Both looked super painful and gnarly, so I hope he’s doing fine, and I wish the best for him,” Sallinen said of Ferreira. Sallinen himself was battling through pain in his ribs from a crash he suffered recently at the World Cup competitions in Calgary. “Right now, I feel fine. Got this medal, so I’m super stoked.”

Jon Sallinen competes in the men’s halfpipe final at X Games Aspen on Sunday at Buttermilk Ski Area. (Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times)
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

Sallinen grew up ski racing in his native Finland before moving to the Roaring Fork Valley as an exchange student. He closed out his high-school education at Colorado Rocky Mountain School in Carbondale, graduating in 2020. Through his brief time working with the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club, which really got him going on the path toward becoming a professional halfpipe skier, he connected with local freeskiing icon Peter Olenick, who has become his primary coach.

Sallinen has made a rapid rise up the sport’s ladder, even competing in the 2022 Beijing Olympics for Finland, finishing 23rd. He had a breakthrough win on Jan. 19 at the Calgary World Cup — Ferreira won the second event two days later — but an X Games podium is the sort of thing that can truly change a career.

“I don’t know what’s going to go on from here, but this is the biggest achievement I’ve got so far, and I’m super happy to see what’s coming up,” Sallinen said.

Crested Butte’s Blunck, a former X Games champion, did his best to knock Sallinen off the podium with a strong final run, only to have the judges slot him into the fourth spot. Canada’s Brendan Mackay was fifth, Canada’s Simon D’Artois was sixth, and Canada’s Noah Bowman was seventh, with Ferreira in eighth.

Notably absent was New Zealand’s Nico Porteous, the reigning Olympic and X Games champion, who did not compete this year.

Old Man Wise takes charge

Wise, the 32 year old from Reno, is ancient by today’s standards, when anyone over 25 is considered a savvy veteran. But it seems the old man can still shred.

“Every X Games gold that I’ve won has been a surprise. And I kind of want to live my life that way. I don’t want to go in with this entitlement or this expectation that I’m going to win,” he said. “I’m an entertainer at the end of the day. If my entertainment for folks earns me a gold medal, great. So I’m just as surprised this time as I was the very first time I won it. It’s such an honor to still be here in the game.”

From left, Birk Irving, David Wise, and Jon Sallinen celebrate on the X Games podium for men’s halfpipe skiing Sunday. (Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times)
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

Wise, a three-time Olympic medalist (including gold in both 2014 and 2018), first competed at X Games in 2011. The first of his now five gold medals came in 2012, with others coming in 2013, 2014, and 2018.

While it may be hard to accept, he has also embraced his role as mentor and wise sage for the younger generation — as long as they know he can still keep up with them.

“I wasn’t feeling old today while skiing because I was feeling great. But I did start to feel old when they told me,” he said about being told his first medal came 11 years ago. “A lot of my younger teammates have grown up watching me ski, which makes me feel really old. But it’s also exciting. It’s like a living legend thing. Not only was I there then, but I’m still here now, and I have a lot to give those guys.”

Don’t expect Wise to slow down anytime soon. Sunday’s X Games win only fuels his fire to compete, and he already has eyes on a fourth trip to the Olympics, with the 2026 Games in Italy next up. He would be 35 if he were to go, much like Shaun White was this past winter when he competed in his final Olympics in Beijing.

“I love being able to still be out here competing but also take on this mentorship role and enjoy the ride with my peers,” Wise said. “I wouldn’t be here sending it as hard as I am if I didn’t think I was going to make a run for ’26. I love this job. I just do.”

Crested Butte’s Aaron Blunck competes in the men’s halfpipe final at X Games Aspen on Sunday. (Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times)\
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times
Jon Sallinen hugs with his coach, Peter Olenick, after competing in the men’s halfpipe final at X Games Aspen. (Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times)
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times
Jon Sallinen hugs Peter Olenick after competing in the men’s halfpipe final at X Games Aspen. (Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times)
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times
Jon Sallinen made a mark in his debut taking third in the men’s halfpipe final at X Games Aspen on Sunday at Buttermilk Ski Area. (Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times)
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times
The superpipe during the men’s halfpipe final at X Games Aspen. (Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times)
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

‘The world needs X Games in Aspen’: Energy boosted by Naka G and Brad Jay

The energy in a sports arena can change the whole atmosphere. Announcer Brad Jay (Brad J. Lilley) and Aspen local DJ Naka G (Michael Nakagawa) know how to make the outdoor arena for X Games memorable for the onsite spectators. 

In the first, full-in-person X Games Aspen event following two pandemic years, DJ Naka G had big plans for the “wild and crazy” atmosphere he wanted to create in the Buttermilk base area venue. 

“If we get a hit on the field, then I have to make sure that we ramp it up. It gets people excited,” said Nakagawa, a 1995 Aspen High School graduate. Both he and Lilley are X Games veterans and have also worked together at multiple Winter Olympic Games.

Naka G makes sure all local athletes are covered when it comes to their music choice at the bottom of the hill, as they complete their run.

“I always like to make sure that the local — I don’t want to be biased, but you know, the friends and the locals like me — so I want to make sure they’re taken care of.  Obviously, they got the whole town and the energy from the crowd behind them,” he said. 

Plenty of locals turned out Saturday night to hear him and other music spinners keep spirits high at Mi Chola in downtown Aspen. 

DJ Naka G spins music at X Games Aspen on Friday.
Madison Osberger-Low/Special to The Aspen Times

Back at the Buttermilk venue, working side by side on-site with Naka G is sports announcer Brad Jay, a veteran of nearly 20 Winter X Games. The former radio broadcaster said he loves working action sports. With up to five X Games events per day to cover, he has plenty of studying to do before he steps into the announcer’s booth.

His favorite X Games event is snowboard halfpipe for a number of reasons. Jay, a Californian, recalled watching Shaun White — whom he has known since the now-retired snowboarder was 10 years old — for decades. The pipe is also a favorite because the entire course can be seen from the announcer’s booth.

Before arriving here for the X Games Aspen, Jay brought life to the competitions at the Lake Placid 2023 Winter World University Games (FISU). His experience also includes stints with the L.A. Clippers.

He said he is glad to see the X Games starting to build back after COVID and the recent ownership change. In November, it was announced that broadcast company ESPN sold its controlling ownership stake in X Games to the private equity firm MSP Sports Capital.

“And to see it start to regain that is almost like, I mean, maybe it’s not watching your baby take its first steps, but it’s something like ‘Yes, it’s coming back and events are coming back.’ And the world needs X Games in Aspen,” he said. 

Forehand lands 2160, earns perfect score and a gold medal in men’s ski big air

Mac Forehand went into the men’s ski big air competition Sunday evening with one goal: landing the 2160. Going into his fifth run, it looked like he was going to win a silver medal just like he did in 2022.

However, everything changed for him when he landed the 2160 in his fifth run, earning a perfect score and a gold medal.

“I’ve been thinking about it for so long and to put it down means the world. I’m honestly speechless,” he said.

Forehand, out of Stratton, Vermont, nearly got a taste of the gold medal in his rookie year in 2022, but Alex Hall’s 2160 in the fifth run knocked Forehand into second place.

“I was stoked for him. He’s an insane skier,” he said of Hall, who placed seventh in this year’s big air competition.

Forehand scored a 47 in his second run, which combined with the 50 from his last run earned him a score of 97. In four out of five of his runs, he scored above a 40.

Despite having never tried landing a 2160 before, he decided to give it a go in his fourth run.

“That was my first time trying it,” he said. “I was extremely nervous.”

Even though he didn’t quite stick the landing on his first try, his second try all but made up for it and earned him the only perfect score of the men’s ski big air competition.

Forehand won the silver medal in men’s ski slopestyle on Saturday, which he described as “stress relief off his shoulders.” He said he went into the big air competition not caring how he placed, just wanting to do well and land his tricks.

“I didn’t expect to be sitting here right now with a gold medal around my neck. It feels crazy,” Forehand said.

Low scores were not an option for any athletes looking to medal. Canada’s Teal Harle, who won the bronze medal in 2022, was in first place after the first four runs with a strong score of 96. Birk Ruud, from Oslo, Norway, earned the bronze medal with a score of 92.

Alex Hall competes in the men’s big air ski event at X Games Aspen on Sunday. (Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times)
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times
Matej Svancer slides down the slope after falling after his run in the men’s big air ski event. (Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times)
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times
Birk Ruud reacts after his run in the men’s big air ski event at X Games Aspen on Sunday. (Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times)
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

McMorris clutch in slopestyle win for Winter X Games record 22nd medal

Go ahead and count them.

With his win Sunday in the men’s snowboard slopestyle final, Mark McMorris was able to break his tie with Jamie Anderson for the most Winter X Games medals ever won with 22 — and counting.

“That accolade is pretty special. I didn’t ever think that would be something that would come along with my name as a kid growing up in a small town in Canada,” said McMorris, who is from Regina, Saskatchewan. “Completely thrilled but mostly just thrilled with the way I was able to ride today and rise to the occasion. Wasn’t really just a given. It wasn’t a victory lap. It was under the pressure, and it feels better when it’s like that.”

McMorris, the last rider to compete, had already secured at least silver prior to dropping in for his final run. He had been in first only moments earlier before Norway’s Marcus Kleveland leapfrogged him and took over the top spot with his electric final run.

The medal record was already in the bag, but McMorris has always been more of a gold medal sort of rider.

“I didn’t even have time to think about it,” he said. “I wasn’t even watching the TV. I was pretty much strapped in, and then no one even told me he went into first, but I was pretty damn sure just by the reactions everyone had that he was in first. I was going to, regardless, go for that run.”

His final run, which included back-to-back 1620s on his final two jumps, proved to be enough to jump him back ahead of Kleveland at the buzzer. The two shared a hug and watched the monitor side by side from the bottom of the course while they waited for the results to be posted.

McMorris, 29, actually had the Winter X Games medal record for a few hours last year before Anderson’s medal later than night brought her up to 21, as well. Anderson — the 32-year-old Tahoe rider who, like McMorris, competes in slopestyle and big air snowboarding — did not compete at X Games this year due to her pregnancy. Two years ago, McMorris had to miss X Games after getting COVID-19, allowing Anderson to win a couple of medals without him.

He said the two don’t talk about the records until it’s brought up around X Games.

Canada’s Mark McMorris, left, and Norway’s Marcus Kleveland wait for the final results during the men’s snowboard slopestyle final at X Games Aspen on Sunday at Buttermilk Ski Area. (Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times)
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

“Now it feels real. I got it. I had COVID in 2021, and I couldn’t come, and she got a couple, and then, obviously, she is about to give birth, so congratulations to her there. I’m sure she’ll be back for more next year,” he said. “Obviously, it would be nice to take a victory lap, but people don’t really remember victory laps. They remember the clutch performances. When it does happen like it did today, it feels so damn special.”

While the win gives McMorris the most Winter X Games medals ever — a record long held by Shaun White, who had 18 — he’s still got work to do to catch the X Games greats from the summer event.

Skateboard legend Bob Burnquist is credited with the most, having won 30 medals over his career. However, McMorris did match skateboard icon Tony Hawk with his 11th X Games gold medal. McMorris is still chasing White on that front, as he finished his career with 13 Winter X Games golds — not to mention the others he won at the summer event in skateboarding.

“I was on my way home from Switzerland at the start of this week, and I got to watch ‘Until the Wheels Fall Off,’ his doc. It’s on HBO right now. And I learned a lot about him,” McMorris said of matching Tony Hawk’s gold-medal count. “I knew pretty well everything about Tony Hawk, I thought, but just to hear his story and hear that is so special. The impact he’s had on action sports as a whole and to even be in the category with Tony is amazing. He’s became somewhat of a friend over the years, so it’s pretty cool to share that with him.”

For Kleveland, who won big air gold on Saturday night, his runner-up finish on Sunday was his fifth silver medal and 12th overall at X Games. He’s won gold five times. That became six a few hours later, as Kleveland also won Sunday night’s knuckle huck contest, his second Aspen win in the discipline he inspired.

Norway’s Mons Roisland won slopestyle bronze on Sunday, while Silverthorne’s Red Gerard just missed the podium in fourth place.

Canada’s Mark McMorris celebrates after his final run that won him the X Games men’s snowboard slopestyle final Sunday. (Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times)
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times
Canada’s Mark McMorris is interviewed by Jonathan “DC” Oetken after his final run that won him the X Games men’s snowboard slopestyle final. (Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times)
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times
Canada’s Mark McMorris, left, and Norway’s Marcus Kleveland hug while waiting for the final results during the men’s snowboard slopestyle final. (Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times)
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times
Canada’s Mark McMorris reacts after his final run that won him the X Games men’s snowboard slopestyle final. (Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times)
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

Canadian freeskier Megan Oldham strikes gold — again — at X Games Aspen

One gold medal was not enough for Megan Oldham.

The Canadian first struck gold Friday in the women’s ski big air competition and Sunday put down a strong run to finish in the top spot in the women’s slopestyle skiing final on the last day of X Games Aspen at Buttermilk Ski Area.

She was able to dominate in her second slopestyle run by executing cleanly through the rails and going big on the jumps, which allowed her to top the rest of the seven-person field. Rounding out the podium were Switzerland’s Mathilde Gremaud in silver and Team Great Britain’s Kirsty Muir in bronze.

Sunday’s gold topped off a storybook experience for the 21-year-old Oldham, who now has won seven X Games medals.

“I think I’m still a little bit mind-blown because I came into X Games kind of just with one goal, which was to land the triple (which she did in Friday’s big air). And to walk away also with a gold in slopestyle is not what I expected. So I’m so happy,” she said. 

Having family cheering for her on the sidelines didn’t hurt. 

“This is something she’s been working toward for a long time,” said her brother, Bruce Oldham. “I mean, she’s consistent every day in and out, working hard all the time. This year, she really wanted to set things up and show what she was capable of and make a statement.”

In slopestyle, judges look for execution, amplitude, difficulty, and variety of maneuvers, landings, and the use of the 1,700-foot course down the frontside of Buttermilk that drops about 290 vertical feet. The seven athletes competed in a 35-minute jam format.

Second-place finisher Gremaud said she felt a little scared going into this competition but was happy with how it all turned out. 

“I didn’t feel too comfortable this week on the slopes, though, especially those shark fins,” she said. “It just feels good to learn a good run, but I was just missing something.”

This has been a successful weekend of freeskiing for women on Team Great Britain. On Saturday, Zoe Atkin won her first X Games gold medal in halfpipe skiing. Muir’s bronze was also a standout performance.

No American women competed in the slopestyle contest on Sunday. China’s Eileen Gu and Estonia’s Kelly Sildaru, who both would have been among the favorites, had to withdraw after sustaining injuries in training.

Canada’s Megan Oldham stands on top of the X Games podium after winning the women’s slopestyle skiing final on Sunday at Buttermilk Ski Area. At left is silver medalist Mathilde Gremaud and at right is bronze medalist Kirsty Muir. (Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times)
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times
Canada’s Megan Oldham walks to the podium after winning the women’s slopestyle skiing final Sunday for her second gold at the X Games (Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times)
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times
Scotland’s Kirsty Muir enjoyes her X Games podium moment after winning bronze in the women’s slopestyle skiing final on Sunday. (Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times)
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times