Athletes party, compete in Aspen |

Athletes party, compete in Aspen

Sara Burnett
Rocky Mountain News
Aspen, CO Colorado
Second-place winner Scotty Lago sprays sparkling white wine from the stage at the award ceremony for the men's snowboard slopestyle at the Winter X Games 13 at Buttermilk Ski Area, near Aspen, Colo., on Saturday, Jan., 24, 2009. (AP Photo/Nathan Bilow)
AP | FR37383 AP

ASPEN ” One was 11 years old, the other 21, and it was tough to tell who was more excited.

“That was pretty cool,” a beaming Nick Ameral said as he peered at the screen on the back of his camera, already planning to e-mail the photo his mom had just snapped to his middle-school class back home in Tulare, Calif.

Ameral had to have photographic evidence ” because otherwise, they’d never believe it.

“It’s overwhelming almost,” gushed Deven Heffer as he and a buddy stood a few feet away at the base of Buttermilk Mountain in Aspen, grasping posters with a nearly illegible autograph scrawled across them.

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The object of all the excitement? None other than Shaun White, the Olympic gold medal-winning snowboarder and skateboarder who just happened to be hanging out in between competing at the 13th Winter X Games here this week.

“The Flying Tomato,” as the gravity-defying redhead is called, has his own video game, a clothing line and, at age 22, his own Lamborghini.

But there he was, walking around like any of the other long-haired guys in baggy pants, stopping to chat with fans and signing autographs for more than an hour.

“I feel like asking, ‘Where are you going to party soon?’ ” said Heffer, who moved to Snowmass from his native South Africa to work for the season. ” ‘Come drink with us.'”

That there are celebrities or world-class athletes in Aspen should surprise no one.

But fans of the Winter X Games say the five-day event that started Wednesday and ends Sunday is different. It’s like the athletes are throwing a party, and everyone’s invited.

In the PlayStation3 tent, you could even take on the likes of snowboarder Tanner Hall ” tied with White going into these games for the most Winter X gold medals ” or superpipe skier Sarah Burke in a game of Little Big World.

Admission to the games, sponsored and broadcast by ESPN, is free. So is parking. And if you’re a little low on cash, there’s an endless supply of free pizza rolls at the Totino’s pizza tent.

Jeff Tyburski and his 13-year-old son, Luke, of Fairport, N.Y., flew in Thursday morning for their second straight games.

Just like last year, they plan to hit the slopes during the day for some skiing of their own, then walk up the hill and stand alongside the superpipe to watch each night’s final competitions.

“It’s a great deal,” Tyburski said. “It’s a ski trip, and then this is your evening activity.”

The Winter X Games and the younger crowd they attract have been a great deal for the Aspen area, as well.

After moving from California to Crested Butte to Vermont the first five years, the games landed at Buttermilk in 2002.

Winter X has been held here each January since, and earlier this week officials announced a contract extension through 2012. The previous contract was through 2010.

It was welcome news for area business, which used to slog through an otherwise uneventful January just waiting for Presidents Day weekend and spring break.

Debbie Braun, president of the Aspen Chamber Resort Association, said occupancy rates are at close to 90 percent, and the group estimates the economic impact of the games at $3 million per year.

“Certainly the X Games makes January,” Braun said.

The games are broadcast on ESPN’s international networks to 122 countries and territories in the Middle East, Latin America, Asia, Africa, the Pacific Rim, Israel and Canada.

This year the broadcasts include 15 hours of live, high-definition programming on ESPN and ABC.

The exposure has attracted a crowd that’s younger than the typical Aspen tourist, which has been a good thing, Braun said.

“We’re planting the seeds,” she said, “for our future.”

The business means even more this year, after a bomb threat shut down most bars and restaurants early on New Year’s Eve – one of the biggest money-making nights of the year.

“We have a little bit of making up to do,” said Mike Goldman, general manager of Bad Billy’s restaurant and bar, just two blocks from the stage where the Flobots played Friday night and Pennywise is scheduled to perform a free concert tonight.

Bad Billy’s is the kind of bare-bones place with Christmas lights around the bar and a shuffleboard table in back – perfect for the X Games crowd.

“For a real ‘bar’ bar like us, it’s every bit as busy as Christmas or New Year’s,” Goldman said. “It’s a crazy crowd – younger, more lively, late night.”

That means the upstairs bar is serving all weekend, the place fills up early and stays open late, and the drink specials – tailored for the crowd – are flowing.

“It’ll be a lot of Red Bull,” Goldman said.

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