Aspen Times Weekly: Winter X Games — coming of age

by Dale Strode

X Games

Thursday-Sunday, Jan. 23-26

Buttermilk Mountain


X Fest

Located at the base of Buttermilk, X Fest is the place to go for product demos, giveaways, live entertainment, athlete autograph signings, award ceremonies and more. Open Thursday-Sunday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.

X music

Saturday-Sunday, Jan. 25-26

Wagner Park, downtown Aspen

X. Winter X.

Winter X marks the spot — and it’s not a sitzmark.

The most dynamic experiment ever in alternative generation-based marketing through extreme winter sports is a teenager for just one more year.

Next year, the Winter X Games will turn 20 — no longer a teenager. Old enough to vote; old enough to serve in the Navy; almost old enough to drink beer. And certainly old enough to drink Red Bull.

“The (Winter) X Games played a huge role
in adding new events to the Olympics.”
– Casey Puckett

The Winter X Games are coming of age, right before our very eyes.

The 13th edition of Aspen Winter X, sponsored in part by the U.S. Navy, will launch this week at the base of Buttermilk, bringing the high-flying skiers, snowboarders and snowmobilers back to the live television sound stage that is created every year at what usually is a modest Bumps in the road.

Lower Buttermilk, once again, has been transformed into a multi-venue winter competition park of Disney proportions, including a giant finish pagoda-superstructure that towers over the anticipated crowds, who flock annually to the free Winter X Games in Aspen.

What will we see this year at Aspen Winter X, the last of the teenage X Games?

More extreme sports history in the making, if past years are any indication.

More firsts, no doubt. And more future Olympic events.

“The (Winter) X Games played a huge role in adding new events to the Olympics,” said Aspen’s Casey Puckett, who participated in five different Olympic Games as a skier.

On four occasions, Puckett represented the U.S. Alpine Ski Team.

For his fifth Olympic appearance at Vancouver in 2010, Puckett went to the Games as a skicross freeskier — something that was unimaginable without the influence of the Winter X Games.

“I’ve been blessed and fortunate to participate in the X Games,” Puckett said, adding that he reinvented his ski career as a skicross racer. “It was perfect timing. I wasn’t necessarily finished with my hunger for competition. But I had retired as an alpine racer” — after a distinguished World Cup career and four Olympic appearances.

“With the X Games right here in my backyard, I went to Skier X (skicross),” said Puckett, who had moved to Aspen. “And I discovered that’s an event I should have been doing my whole life.”

Skier X, or skicross, involves alpine skiers racing together, side by side, on the same downhill course that features jumps, bumps, turns and tricky, bumpy transitions — four skiers at a time in an elimination format. Just like Boarder X, only with skiers.

“The event combined motocross with fundamental ski racing elements,” said Puckett, an alpine ski racer who conveniently grew up as a motocross racer.

“I loved it. It’s a great sport,” he said. “No. 1, it’s not judged.”

No style points; no subjective selections. It’s winner takes gold. No. 2 takes silver. No. 3 takes bronze.

“The (Winter) X Games provided a ton of exposure. It was a reinvention for me,” said the Aspen freeskier who went on to win a handful of X Games medals, including a Skier X gold. “It exposed me to a different fan base.”

The invaluable Winter X Games exposure eventually elevated skicross to Olympic status; it’s on the calendar again for the Sochi Winter Games next month.

Ironically, in the ever-evolving culture of the Winter X Games, the Skier X event was scrapped for this year in Aspen. Boarder X still will be held.

“Hopefully, we’ll bring (Skier X) back next year,” Puckett said, adding that X Games organizers are constantly tweaking events and trying new ones in the rapid-fire world of action sports and sponsors.

“The (Winter) X Games … they are always experimenting. They try something, and see what the response is. It’s a blank slate for them,” said Puckett, now a respected skicross coach who works with the top Skier X racers in the country.

“It’s so cool the X Games have been in Aspen for more than a decade,” Puckett said. “It’s a perfect venue.”

The Winter X Games also provided a tangible goal for local athletes, too.

“It’s very cool to see local athletes — like Torin Yater-Wallace and Alex Ferreira — excel at the X Games,” Puckett said of Aspen-area superpipe skiers.

Their sport, like Puckett’s previously, now is an Olympic event. The freeskier halfpipe will make its Olympic debut at the Sochi Winter Games.

It make its big-time international debut at the Winter X Games in Aspen.

Another valley athlete from a half-decade ago literally launched an entire career with his remarkable, record-setting (and televised) performance at the 2007 Winter X Games in Aspen.

Peter Olenick, who grew up in Carbondale as an outstanding all-around athlete, put the superpipe at Buttermilk on the international map when he executed the first double-flip in competition at the Winter X Games.

He would forever be known for his maneuver — christened the Whiskey Flip. It’s so significant in the sport, it’s a proper noun. It’s a part of Winter X lore — one of many firsts at Aspen Winter X.

“Doing that double at the X Games … being the first one to do it definitely changed my whole career,” said Olenick. “It put me on the map as one of the guys to beat.”

He said he had borrowed the concept from a slopestyle trick, adapting it to the halfpipe.

It also opened competitive doors to Olenick all over the world.

“It helped change the sport. Now, they do multiple doubles (on the same pass), and they do them better than I did,” said Olenick, the modest freeskiing legend who retired from competition last summer.

“Now, I’m coaching at AVSC, and it’s awesome,” he said.

As a youngster, he said he first saw the X Games on television from Mount Snow, Vt.

When they were relocated to Aspen, Olenick said he couldn’t believe his good fortune.

He went to Buttermilk and he watched. He worked on his skiing. He worked on his tricks.

Eventually, he qualified for a coveted spot in Aspen Winter X.

“The X Games have given our sport so much,” Olenick said. “It puts it in a broader view … for people who don’t even ski.”

He said he’s amazed at the reach of the X Games exposure, the kind of publicity that gets a Winter X Games gold medalist from Carbondale recognized by a bartender at the Charlotte, N.C., airport.

“He said, ‘I’ve been watching you on the X Games for years,” Olenick said.

The saturation television coverage that accompanies the ESPN production of the Winter X Games makes X Games athletes like Olenick recognizable figures all over the world.

His first Whiskey Flip started a new phase of halfpipe and slopestyle tricks and paved the way for X Games athletes like Levi LaVallee, who attempted the first snowmobile double backflip at the Aspen Winter X Games, and snowboard superstar Kelly Clark, the first woman to pull a 1080 in the superpipe at Buttermilk.

Of late, there have been even more Winter X Games firsts.

Norwegian Torstein Horgmo executed the first triple cork in the Snowboard Big Air event at the 2011 Winter X Games.

A year later, Heath Frisby pulled off the first front flip on a snowmobile at Winter X in Aspen.

Then, last year, a horrifying first for the Winter X Games in Aspen — a fatal accident.

Caleb Moore, a shining star in the world of snowmobile tricks, became the first Winter X Games fatality on Jan. 31, 2013. He had been injured a week earlier when his machine fell on top of him after a missed jump. The accident prompted changes in safety procedures for snowmobile events at the Winter X Games.

All along the way, the Winter X Games stars became even bigger and brighter — witness Shaun White and Gretchen Bleiler, among others.

White, of course, has been the overriding face of the Winter X Games from his days of long, flowing locks to his current streamlined hairstyle.

He won his sixth consecutive gold in the Winter X superpipe last year — an unprecedented streak of dominance that is replayed year after year as the ESPN/ABC networks rerun Aspen Winter X programs.

This year, even more television is planned. ESPN and ABC will televise a combined 16 hours of live X Games Aspen competition. An additional 13-plus hours of competition from Aspen will be carried on ESPN3. All of the programming will be available on mobile devices.

That translates into television coverage to more than 61 countries and nearly 500 million homes.

The 19-year-old Winter X Games are coming of age, indeed.

Will they continue in Aspen?

Will they continue to impact athletes like Casey Puckett, Peter Olenick and Shaun White?

The current ESPN/Winter X Games contract with the Aspen Skiing Co. will end after this year’s games at Buttermilk.

The Skico already has bid to bring the Winter X Games back to Aspen in 2015 and beyond … with even more new Olympic sports.

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