High-flying X Games stunts under scrutiny
Special to The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
ASPEN – Roy Leckonby grew up ski racing in the Northeast and joined the ski team when he came to the University of Colorado as a student in the 1990s.
“I remember on that first day of training at Eldora, looking up at the mountains of the Indian Peaks Wilderness and thinking that I could be up there skiing in all that powder instead of doing the same run all day,” he said.
What followed was a decade-long, adrenaline-fueled, sometimes insanely wild ride to the very edge of the sport’s limits.
With the X Games beginning at Buttermilk in Aspen Thursday just days after the death of freestyle skiing celebrity Sarah Burke, who suffered a fatal injury during practice on the Eagle Superpipe at Park City, Utah, on Jan. 10, the inevitable question echoes across the Rockies: Have extreme sports gone too far?
Spokesmen for ESPN, sponsors of the games, declined to comment “out of respect for the Burke family.” But the loss of Burke casts a shadow over the competition and focuses attention on extreme terrain, the adequacy of protective gear and the risks of a sport whose popularity is growing rapidly among children and adults here and around the world.
In the mid-’90s, extreme skiing and snowboarding were such new sports, few coaches or teams existed. Leckonby and his college roommate taught themselves the stunts: cliff-skiing, catching air, doing flips – creating what would become the now familiar, jaw-dropping moves in extreme sports competitions.
In the winter of 1995-96, Leckonby entered his first extreme competition, a three-day championship at Crested Butte.
There were about 125 skiers participating in the men’s competition, he said. “Each day they cut the field by one-half and those remaining moved to progressively more difficult terrain.”
He placed 22nd – “I had a bit of a knack for it,” he said – and he was hooked.
Not only was the skiing intoxicating, Leckonby said the parties were awesome.
“I loved the atmosphere, the parties at night, the camaraderie,” he said. “You’ve got the competitive side, but not only were you competing against each other, but we all were competing against ourselves.”
They all knew how to ski a tight line on a wicked-steep slope, Leckonby said, “but the competition always was to do it more aggressively, to bring it all together and to look good.”
With the rise of the X Games, extreme sport competitions in the Olympics and TV coverage of the spectacles, growth in freeskiing and snowboarding has exploded in the last 15 years.
Jennifer Rudolph, communications director for Colorado Ski Country USA, the nonprofit trade association for the ski industry, said that ski resorts across the West have worked hard to meet the demand for bigger halfpipes, more elaborate terrain parks and access to more advanced terrain.
Colorado has 46 terrain parks in the 22 Ski Country-member resorts. They include eight halfpipes and two superpipes with 22-foot-high ice walls like the Eagle Superpipe at Park City. One of the superpipes is at Copper Mountain; the other is at Buttermilk.
The designs of terrain parks often take cues from skateboard parks with high walls, rails, bumps and pipes. Some use snow-covered logs and woodpiles for the elements, Rudolph said. Others even recycle things like satellite dishes and worn-out lift equipment to create new challenges.
Each resort enforces its own rules on access to the parks, with some requiring users to complete a safety course, some mandating protective gear, and all of them posting signs and warnings to prevent skiers from accidentally entering the parks and finding themselves in terrain well beyond their ability.
“Keeping the guests safe is our No. 1 priority,” Rudolph said. But ultimately, it’s up to the skiers to use good judgment. “What it really boils down to is the safety of the individual rider is that person’s responsibility.”
The National Ski Areas Responsibility Code tries to remind skiers that, while the ski patrol is there to help injured skiers, it’s up to the skiers to keep the sport safe.
The legal system formally recognizes the inherent risk in the sport as well by limiting the liability of ski areas under state statutes.
Among those urging the use of helmets by all skiers and snowboarders is Kevin Pearce, who credits his helmet for saving his life when he took a catastrophic fall on the Eagle Superpipe while training for the Olympics in 2009.
Pearce, who is still recovering from a traumatic brain injury, said with the “level snowboarding is going to,” helmets are essential equipment.
Few in the industry dare suggest that they be mandatory, however.
It’s “the age-old question of using regulation and enforcement or relying on common sense,” said Bruce Evans, associate professor and vice-chair of the Department of Emergency Medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and senior medical director of emergency services at the University of Colorado Hospital.
While he leans toward common sense, he suggests that those who want to participate in extreme sports absolutely should wear helmets.
“I don’t think anyone in the ski industry or the state legislature – at least in the U.S. – is ready to mandate things like helmets at this point,” he said. But athletes increasingly are getting the message.
“The reality is that helmets reduce the number of traumatic brain injuries for recreational skiers, snowboarders and bicycle riders,” he said. “Those are just the hard numbers.”
Helmets are hardly a panacea, however.
“A helmet has important but limited protective capability,” said Dr. James Kelly, an expert on concussions and director of the National Intrepid Center of Excellence of the Defense Centers of Excellence. He is on leave from his position as professor of neurosurgery at the CU School of Medicine.
A long-time advocate for the use of helmets in sports, Kelly recognizes their limitations.
After all, Sarah Burke was wearing one when she was fatally injured. Her death was caused by “extraordinarily low-frequency injury” more often associated with whiplash, Kelly said.
Burke, 29, fell while practicing on the superpipe, hitting her head on impact. She lost consciousness and was not breathing when rescuers reached her. She died Jan. 19 , reportedly of complications from a torn vertebral artery.
Still, Kelly supports ski resorts that require children in ski school to wear helmets. (Kelly has been a consultant to the Aspen Ski Co. for a decade, teaching ski patrol members how to treat concussions.)
The incidents with Burke and Pearce also have drawn attention to the terrain park designs and the superpipes in particular.
“If an athlete is 25 feet off the deck (above the top of the 22-foot-high halfpipe) and lands on his or her head, some would argue that a helmet might not make any difference,” said Evans. “You can’t build body protection that will prevent every injury.”
It’s one reason why some Colorado ski resorts require guests to demonstrate a certain skill level and undergo safety training to gain admittance to the most challenging terrain.
Leckonby said that skiers and snowboarders who don’t wear helmets are “idiots,” and that the sports are moving toward finesse – not just speed, height and danger – in competitions.
“In the freeskiing movement for a long time people thought the best ones were those who went off the biggest cliffs,” he said. “In recent years, more style has come into the sport, with more flips, spins and grabs.
“We don’t need 22-foot walls to make a jump look good or to be 20 feet out of the pipe to show your skills, talent and how much style you can put in a jump,” he said.
“Bigger is not necessarily better.”
There will always be those who are drawn to extreme risks, however, said Evans. “That’s always been part of the game. It’s been called the ‘Gladiator Effect.'”
Realizing that, Evans said he works hard to help his 8-year-old son learn to compete safely. If he chooses to become an extreme athlete, he’ll have his father’s support.
“My responsibility as a parent is to help him understand how to do it by providing him with good training and with the safety equipment he needs, and trust that he makes good choices.”
All through college and beyond, Leckonby kept skiing harder, more and more aggressively, and competing across the West.
For a long time, his only real injuries were torn anterior cruciate ligaments, one in each knee. They were the kind of injuries any weekend athlete might experience on an ordinary ski slope or tennis court.
Then he was skiing in a competition in Taos in 2008. He was on a heinous mountainside – steep with exposed rock faces with narrow strips of snow cutting between them. He spotted his line, shoved off, made one turn and launched himself into the air. He tumbled on his landing, coming to an abrupt stop when he smashed his head on a rock.
He was airlifted to a hospital in Albuquerque in a coma, where doctors found he had multiple fractures in his C5, C6 and C7 vertebrae and contusions on his brain. He survived, though it took a year to recover.
“I was a pretty lucky dude to be alive,” he said.
The crash marked his retirement from active participation in the sport.
Now 34, he still has the urge to compete. “It’s a mental struggle,” he said.
A frequent judge at ski competitions, he said he visualizes himself skiing those tight lines, making the jumps, and in his mind he always nails the landings. “I’m convincing myself I can do it.”
It’s just a head trip, though. He said he had a great powder day skiing in-bounds last weekend, but he doesn’t jump off cliffs anymore.
On the night after Sarah Burke died, Leckonby and dozens of other freestyle ski enthusiasts were at the Boulder Theatre for a benefit screening of “Winter,” a documentary featuring Burke and her husband, Rory Bushfield. Tears were shed as the stunned audience watched the beautiful, iconic figure on the screen.
“Her death is a huge loss to the sport and to women and to the progress that happened because of her leadership in sports,” said Leckonby, senior director of operations at RealD in Boulder. “It was very emotional. We all were just trying to make sense of it.”
So the question begs to be asked. Given his near-death experience, was it worth it?
“It was absolutely worth it,” said Leckonby.
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