X Games athletes missing vibe Aspen fans give, but happy to hang at Buttermilk

With just 500 people allowed in, 2021 event goes off with a quiet calm

David Krause and Austin Colbert
The Aspen Times
Media and athlete support stand in an otherwise empty spectator corral during the women’s ski big air final at the base of the course during the 2021 X Games Aspen at Buttermilk on Friday, Jan. 29, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

For the past few days, excitement has returned to the air around Buttermilk Ski Area, but the Winter X Games Aspen venue is lacking that added buzz.

The pandemic version of X Games this week has been different — from the top of the superpipe and slopestyle course to the landing area for the big air jump. All of the athletes are amped to be at a competition, but know there is something missing.

“I actually can’t believe we are all here in the middle of a global pandemic,” veteran snowboarder Jaime Anderson said after winning gold Friday in the slopestyle to open the weekend. “But I’m so happy it all worked out. We definitely missed the fans, but it was also a little bit more chill, which I kind of liked.”

For the past few years, by this time in the week tens of thousands of fans have trekked to the amphitheater-like setting that lights up the sky just a few hundred yards from the Aspen airport.

Last year, more than 111,000 fans went to the venue over the week, including a single-day Winter X Games record 49,500 on that Saturday. In 2019, about 117,000 made the trip, according to the stats from ESPN, which produces the event.

Canadian skier Cassie Sharpe said Friday night after winning superpipe silver that her sixth trip to Aspen has been “a little strange.”

“It was hard to get into contest mode because you’re usually down here and the fans are yelling at you, and it’s a totally different energy,” said Sharpe, who was still smiling despite injuring her knee trying to land a 1260, which she did in her previous run. “But I’m just grateful that they were able to do a contest. If it’s the only contest to happen this year, it’s a good one to happen.”

This is the 20th consecutive year Aspen has hosted the world’s top winter athletes. For the first year, there were 36,500 fans for the 2002 X Games debut at Buttermilk.

New Zealand snowboarder Zoi Sadowski-Synnott hits the fin feature during the women’s snowboard slopestyle finals as a group of skiers watch the bottom of the course during the 2021 X Games Aspen at Buttermilk on Friday, Jan. 29, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

But this year there was no jockeying for space at the bottom of the superpipe. No sharp elbows to get a spot on the deck. Gone are the masses at the bottom of the big air/knuck huck jump waiting to burst into spontaneous excitement at the sight of a trick never seen before.

The huck has become a fan favorite event in the past couple of years, so it would make sense that an X Games without fans would make a palpable impact on the anything-goes event. Without a crowd at the base wildly reacting to every hit off the knuckle and cheering loudly for each competitor to go bigger than the next, the snowboard knuckle huck event Friday under the lights seemed to lose some of its luster.

While the athletes in the event remain impressive as ever, a lack of fans seems to take away from the what made knuckle huck a must-see X Games event.

Meanwhile, the only sounds coming from the Panda Peak area at Buttermilk the past two days are the excitement of beginners learning to ski and ride, not the beats and lyrics from the likes of Snoop Dogg, Twenty One Pilots, Kygo and other musical acts who brought another element to the X weekend.

Instead, the business plan organizers submitted to Piktin County as well as Colorado public health officials calls for no more than 500 people inside the tall blue fence that’s created a sort of “bubble” effect. Each person gets a COVID-19 test every day, ESPN has limited the movement of its staff and athletes were limited to just one coach or representative.

Since X Games is a professional sports event, the plans also had to be approved by the Colorado Department of Health and Environment for review of the event’s COVID-19 mitigation plan.

Skiers on Buttermilk Ski Area stop on the other side of the boundary fence to watch the slopestyle finals during the 2021 X Games at Buttermilk on Sunday, Jan. 31, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

“For it to be different, it really felt like there was a lot less pressure and you could really focus on your own skiing,” Nico Porteous said after winning the superpipe Friday night. “Because the crowd obviously does add pressure and for there to be no crowd and for it to just be you in a halfpipe, it’s pretty cool.”

Devin Logan has been competing in the Buttermilk superpipe since 2011. She misses the fans, but with the social-distancing and gathering rules that came as part of the event’s business plan, inside the fenced-off venue is different, as well.

Many times, athletes are doing their fine-tuning and working on details with their coach in the start house before they drop in. As well as getting that extra boost or motivation.

This year, not so much.

“It was definitely strange,” Logan said after Friday night’s event. “Our coaches were down at the bottom. Usually they’re up there talking us through it. So I kind of felt obligated to pump the girls up and each one like, ‘Let’s go. Let’s go. You got this.’ It was cool.”

Anderson, whose first X Games event was the 2004 boardercross, said the top of the slopestyle course Friday was a bit different — she described it as “stagnant” — but it kind of matches the week that has no parties and no sponsor events to attend.

“Eat, sleep and snowboard,” Anderson said of the quiet nature of this year’s event and not much else to do. “It was a little bit stagnant up there because we didn’t have the TV screens.”

X Games rookie Eileen Gu has been watching the X Games for years and dreamed of attending. In her first trip this year, the 17-year-old from San Francisco said it was more about being here then hearing the roar of the crowds.

Gu’s X Games coming out party the past two days culminated with two gold medals, including Saturday’s win in the slopestyle, and a bronze medal.

“When I compete I get very much into my own zone. I’m always in my own head. I’m naturally more introverted so I really turn inward and focus. So in terms of not having fans at the bottom, I was OK with that,” Gu said Friday after winning the pipe event and then hanging out in a sparsely populated area that in a typical year usually resembles a mosh pit. “And also, I knew that my friends were watching me back home. I actually called one of my best friends at the top because they were livestreaming, and she was saying she was so proud of me.

“So, I knew that the people that I really want to have by my side were really there in spirit. Being able to have that was really nice.”