Village Voices: Learn more about X Games, freestyle judging from Snowmass local Andrew Wickes
For this week’s Village Voices, the Snowmass Sun has a special local spotlight: Andrew Wickes, who spent over 10 years judging skiing and snowboarding competitions, predominantly freestyle, in Aspen and around the world. Those competitions included X Games, so the Sun sat down with Wickes to learn more about what it takes to be a freestyle judge and what his experiences at high-level competitions like X Games Aspen were like:
Snowmass Sun: So first, how did get into being an judge?
Andrew Wickes: I grew up competing, went through the whole AVSC (Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club) program and started as early as I could and did alpine racing until I was 11 I think at which point I switched to freestyle, which back then was still predominately moguls. If you wanted to do freestyle you just kind of did moguls, terrain parks were still in their early stages. For example, the Snowmass park was just on a random run and wasn’t even open to skiers when I wanted to do it. Then the natural progression for a lot of people was we grew with the expansion of terrain parks and slopestyle and half-pipe and that was just what drove me, it’s what I was passionate about, the tricks and everything.
So yeah, I just competed my whole childhood and competed in my college years, too. I went to CU and took winters off and I would come up here and work at restaurants at night and would ski during the day and travel to competitions so it was a nice way to ski and make money and then I went to school in the summer and fall. And then, because of my judging experience, there’s another local named Steele Spence and he was really our first professional terrain park skier that came out of Aspen. We’ve had tons of pro skiers and athletes but he’s the first that did the freestyle stuff. He’s a legend and I never got as far in my career as he did but I always chalked it up against him, he was a role model growing up and fortunately enough a friend, too, but he was a little bit older. When I was finishing competing, Steele was being really instrumental in ushering the new era of freestyle skiing from the judging perspective. It was at a point where there was kind of multiple agencies and something needed to bridge the gap between FIS, which is the traditional race world, mogul world and all that, and what was going on with the new school. There needed to be consistency. Steele was really instrumental in setting up how modern judging works, he was a part of orchestrating the Association of Freeskiing Professionals, which is now defunct this year, but it did dictate rankings for the past decade and it also set up how judging was done for the sport. So Steele still travels a lot, he goes to China and Europe and South America and holds clinics to get the rest of the world having an ample amount of qualified judges.
Over a decade ago, I wasn’t going to compete in the Aspen Open anymore and he asked me to judge so last year I judged the Aspen Open for my 10th time and for me it just felt like a good wrap up.
SS: Through hanging around Steele and what he was teaching, how did you discover judging freestyle was something you wanted to do?
AW: I didn’t know I wanted to judge, it never even crossed my mind. I think for a lot of athletes, going into judging for some may be like giving up trying to attain a high level of sport. So yeah I never thought about it, even when Steele started, but when I was given the opportunity I liked it, I think I had a knack for it and you know you grow up, as you’re skiing you’re already judging because you’re trying to analyze and assume what’s going to put you in a podium position, so just by being an athlete you’re working on your judging skills and you’re constantly watching film and critiquing and so it’s very natural. It’s too bad more athletes don’t choose to get into it. Most judges have a background in it, but it’d be cool to see more of the high level athletes pick it up more.
SS: What was the first year you judged X Games?
AW: The first X Games I judged was actually in Europe in Tignes in France. So I’d come back here for two months and judge and then I would judge in the Alps for two months. It probably was in 2012. Our local boys were kids, I judged Torin (Yater-Wallace) and Alex (Ferreira) in probably every X Games they were in here in Aspen, which was cool. So I started judging X Games Aspen in 2015 I guess. I think I did five years of X Games, maybe six.
SS: How did judging X Games compare to the other competitions that you judged? What about it was different, and did you have a different approach to judging (X Games)?
AW: Same way with the athletes, it is the big stage. X Games is always a huge honor for athletes, you can kind of whittle your way into other events like world cups as long as you do the trainings, but X Games felt pretty prestigious to be asked to do it. The difference too is that the timing is quick, it’s a TV show in essence so there’s a lot of pressure to do your work quickly. On the other hand, because it is ESPN and it is a TV show, we have all sorts of (view) angles, more than world cup events, so going from Aspen Open, which is still done old school where you judge from towers with a bunch of layers and blankets, to stuff like X Games where you’re in a trailer and dedicated TV guys are calling out things you want to see as soon as it’s done and then you are trying to do the best job you can because you don’t want to screw it up. The pressure is there with X Games; it’s definitely the highest pressure event from every angle.
SS: What is the set up, how many judges are there and are you just in a room full of TVs or what was your experience?
AW: The first X Games I did five or six years ago, we were still in the tents right at the bottom of the half pipe and big air and stuff. Five years ago they moved us into TV trailers in the Buttermilk parking. This year is a little different, there used to be five scoring judges and one head judge and we would judge off of a 100-point system but you just use the points to create a ranking. This year they’re doing away with points and just letting people rank, which is kind of nice because in the end you’re just giving a rank, and this year there’s only one head judge and three scoring judges.
SS: Is there anything you guys to specifically do to make sure you stay objective in your judging?
AW: You would get snuffed out pretty quickly if you weren’t being objective. I’ve been in booths where people are probably subconsciously voting for someone whether they know it or not and you can kind of see that come out and that’s why there’s multiple judges. But I feel like if you’re going to put in the effort to judge that’s just something that better be true to your heart and there’s no one throwing around bribes or anything, if you wanted to be a sheisty non-objective judge you don’t have the opportunity anyway, no one is throwing around money (laughs).
SS: Did you ever run into struggles where there was an athlete you knew, like maybe one of the hometown people, and you felt like you had a connection to them? How did you separate the personal connections from judging?
AW: For me, letting any sort of personal connection overtake my personal judging responsibility would be more of a let down to me than letting down any of the athletes, so for me that wasn’t ever an option because you need to have integrity in that role and if you don’t have integrity, you really have nothing.
SS: What are the things that you were taught to look for when judging?
AW: I have a very easy acronym for you that we came up with in the beginning days: PAVED. It stands for progression, amplitude, variety, execution and difficulty. And so, it’s an overall impression including those five things. Each event is different, weather conditions are different, skill levels are different, so you always set a range on what you think is going to be average and an average score was like 60 to 65 when we were using the 100-point score range. And so you use those five pieces to really make an assessment.
For example, if someone has all of the tricks, like they’re in the half pipe and they’re doing all of the really great tricks but they’re not grabbing their ski, you end up in a bad place. And that often has created a really hard struggle in sort of making cohesive the judging scores and the athlete. It’s not timing, it’s not world cup racing where the first person is first. In the end, you need to come together as a team to make the score.
Traditionally it’s been even more difficult with women, too, because there are some women really pushing the trick level and because they’re pushing those tricks, they may not have as many grabs and such. Then you have the girls who are doing really clean runs though a little more conservative. But wherever you end up with your scoring, the other side has so much issue with it.
That was part of why I stopped looking forward to it honestly. Every event you know there’s only going to be one group of people who is happy and that’s first place, unless it’s super obvious, which happens occasionally but rarely, at this level. So typically second place wants to know why they didn’t get first, third place wants to know why they didn’t get second or first, fourth wants to know why they weren’t on the podium and it goes all the way down the list. It takes thick skin that involves holding your own and saying why you believed what you did to coaches, athletes, parents, at this level (X Games) to agents, to federation people. And you usually start every event in a good place, you’re happy to see old friends but by the end you’re crossing your fingers hoping you don’t see anybody.
SS: What did ultimately led you to not want to judge anymore?
AW: A really cool part of judging was the opportunity to travel. I used to be able to sneak a world cup in early season, I would do X Games while it was here but being here in this business (Sundance Liquor & Gifts) all winter, I felt kind of like I was neglecting the store. So just having a full-time job that you really rely on in the winter and not being able to do that traveling component which really made it exciting.
And like I said to be honest, I just wasn’t looking forward to it anymore, the conversations that you have to have every single event wore on me. I realized I wasn’t excited like I used to be with the honor to judge, it was a little bit more of something I felt like I should do because I was experienced and I think once I realized that excitement had faded, 10 years seemed like a great place to call it.
SS: What do you think you’ll miss about judging the most?
AW: The travel and also the camaraderie. I’ve met some really lovely people. Getting together and working hard in something that’s just really out of the ordinary, something not many people get the chance to do. Typically it’s really good-hearted and fun people, whether it’s in Colorado or around the globe I’ve just met some of the coolest people and what’s really unique is that ski communities, doesn’t matter if you’re in Aspen or South America or Europe or whatever, ski people end up being very similar. Being outside and being fortunate enough to do a sport like that kind of creates a certain person, so it’s really easy to click very quickly. It made me realize that any skier who loves it around here, traveling around Europe a bit and being able to ski there is idyllic, that’s where skiing is really fun.
SS: Is there anything you feel like spectators or athletes even should understand about judging that maybe they don’t grasp about that role and what you guys do?
AW: It’s so different from the average spectator. You’ll hear the average person say, ‘Wow, I don’t know how they decide who gets first, they’re all doing the same thing.’ Right? But then if you sit someone down who is a layperson who doesn’t know anything and they watch an event I guarantee you, for whatever reason, they develop some method of their own for it. Let them watch the whole program, the whole event and when the announcers are talking about where people are coming in they’ll say that person should be first or third. There are reasons that get built in, they may like the person’s smile or their effort or their story and so I think people should realize we as judges try to shove all of that sort of stuff aside. There’s a really big difference between crowd pleasing and meeting the criteria.
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Riders must transfer buses to get from Aspen to Snowmass this week; uphill travel closes at Aspen Mountain and reopens at Aspen Highlands.