Colbert: Looking back on best of Aspen sports in a pandemic-filled 2020
Mercifully, 2020 has come to an end. Typically at this time of year, journalists everywhere like to come up with their “top stories” of the past year and the main story of 2020 was, unfortunately, not up for debate: the pandemic.
The coronavirus has impacted everyone’s lives and will leave a hefty bruise long after it’s gone. This includes the sports world, both here in Aspen and across the globe. The pandemic forced us to miss out on many signature events here in the Roaring Fork Valley this past year, with the cancellation of the entire spring high school sports season, the U.S. technical national championships, NASTAR finals, Colorado Classic, Ruggerfest and MotherLode being at or near the top of that list.
That, however, doesn’t mean it was all bad. And, frankly, I’m tired of talking about the pandemic. So, for my “top stories” list of 2020, I’m only going to focus on the fun stuff, the happy stories, the tales that are actually worth remembering from this retched year.
Without further ado, here’s my list, compiled via a one-man voting pool and some Googling (March was about three decades ago, after all, so it’s difficult to remember stuff). I decided not to rank them, as they are all deserving of being No. 1 in somebody’s eyes. Instead, you’ll get them chronologically, starting at the beginning of 2020, and I promise I won’t write the word “pandemic” again.
ALEX FERREIRA REPEATS AT X GAMES
In 2019, Aspen’s own Alex Ferreira finally won that coveted X Games gold medal, becoming the first local to win ESPN’s signature winter event since Gretchen Bleiler and Peter Olenick each won in 2010. Instead of starting another dry spell, Ferreira, a halfpipe skier, decided to begin a winning streak when he successfully defended his title last January at Buttermilk.
The former Aspen Valley Ski & Snowboard Club ripper is arguably the best halfpipe skier in the world right now. Yes, Nevada’s David Wise has the only two Olympic gold medals in the sport’s history and Crested Butte’s Aaron Blunck is the two-time reigning world champion, but back-to-back X Games titles to go with a pair of recent Dew Tour wins (not to mention that 2018 Olympic silver medal) makes Ferreira a certified superstar in the sport.
As it stands, it seems Ferreira will get to go for the three-peat later this month as X Games returns to Buttermilk despite, well, the “p” word. Personally, I like his chances.
I’d be remiss here not to at least mention Aspen’s own Cassidy Jarrell as an honorable mention to this list, as he officially made his X Games debut during qualifying of the halfpipe skiing event last year. He’s unlikely to get another X Games start in 2021 as the field is being limited to maintain a safe “bubble” environment, but he remains a rising talent in the discipline.
AHS BASKETBALL RETURNS TO STATE
A few years had gone by since basketball had been relevant at Aspen High School, but the boys finally had a breakthrough toward the end of the 2019-20 campaign that could bode well for this upcoming season, should it actually happen. Under fourth-year coach Alex Schrempf, son of former NBA all-star Detlef Schrempf, the Skiers advanced to the state tournament for the first time since 2014, losing as the No. 27 seed in the first round to No. 6 seed DSST: Byers. The semifinals and final of the state tournament were ultimately canceled because of, well, you know.
That Skiers squad was led by Jon Woodrow and Aidan Ledingham, who we ultimately named our AHS senior male co-athletes of the year back in June. The other three starters during that late-season run were all underclassmen in Lucas Lee, Braden Korpela and Taylor Akin, meaning AHS could be poised to make some noise this winter.
As for this upcoming season, a lot remains unknown. The state has given CHSAA a variance to begin playing winter sports later this month, but of course a lot could happen between now and then. If a season does happen — I believe it will, in some capacity — it’ll likely be short and sweet and you won’t be able to watch much of it because it’s highly unlikely any spectators will be allowed.
NIC PEVNY MAKES AHS GOLF HISTORY
In 2018, Jack Pevny was among those to lead the AHS boys golf team to its first state championship. Two years later, his younger brother, Nic Pevny, made history of his own when he won the individual Class 3A title in October. In an awkward fall season full of masks and social distancing because of — yeah — Nic’s championship certainly made it worth playing through.
Nic, who is only a junior, shot 69 and 71 over his two rounds at Dos Rios Golf Club in Gunnison to win by three strokes, with the team finishing seventh overall. As difficult as it is to believe, considering Aspen’s long history of success in the sport, Nic was in fact the program’s first individual state champion. There had been a few runner-up finishers, including Jack Hughes in 2018, but no winner until the younger Pevny came along.
We should point out there was nothing surprising about Nic’s state title. He finished no worse than tied for first place in the regular season tournaments (he technically lost a couple via scorecard tiebreaker) and has played in many national-level junior golf tournaments over the years, so handling the big stage in Gunnison wasn’t much of a challenge for Nic.
KATELYN MALEY GIVES BHS TWO STRAIGHT IN XC
There was also nothing surprising about a Basalt Longhorn winning the individual 3A state championship in October’s state cross country meet in Colorado Springs. However, not many outside of this valley thought it would be Katelyn Maley who stole the show.
The BHS sophomore — yes, sophomore — ran away from the rest of the field to win the girls 3A state title in 18 minutes, 39 seconds, more than 34 seconds ahead of second place. It was the most dominating win in the race since, well, a different Longhorn had lapped the competition a year earlier. Maley’s title gave BHS two in a row, following in the footsteps of then-junior Sierra Bower’s win in 2019, where she finished with a girls 3A state course record time of 18:00.1. Bower, who signed with Furman this past fall, finished fifth as a senior.
With Maley and Bower both in the top five, the BHS girls finished third as a team for one of the best finishes in program history. They were only eight points back of runner-up Holy Family, although nobody came close to state champion The Classical Academy. Kudos as well go to the AHS girls, who finished fourth as a team at state, only two points back of Basalt.
Hopefully this p-word thing goes away and we get to see the BHS duo go for more state titles this spring on the track. Bower was state runner-up in the 3,200-meter run as a sophomore in 2019, the last time track and field had a season.
HAILEY SWIRBUL MAKES WORLD CUP PODIUM
Speaking of Longhorns, Hailey Swirbul, a BHS graduate and former AVSC athlete, did a thing in mid-December when she finished third in the women’s 10-kilometer freestyle cross-country ski race in Davos, Switzerland. This was significant as it was her first career World Cup podium — she’s only 22 — and a major indicator that she’ll be among those to rep the Red, White and Blue at the 2022 Winter Olympics.
Unless you’re alpine star Mikaela Shiffrin, making a podium is a rare thing in the skiing world, regardless of discipline. For example, according to his official FIS page, Aspen native and current U.S. cross-country ski team member Simi Hamilton has “only” four career World Cup podiums in a career going back a decade (this is by no means a slight, as even four podiums is a better career than most will ever have). If you’re curious, the 25-year-old Shiffrin’s FIS page says she now has 99 career World Cup podiums (in only 181 starts!) with 67 wins.
But, enough about Shiffrin (sorry, it’s easy to get carried away with how amazing she is). Swirbul, a third-year member of the U.S. national team, is a rising Nordic star. She only scored her first World Cup points last winter, her first season on the B team, before she was promoted to the A team for this season. Barring any surprises or cancellations, I’d expect Swirbul to get a start or two in the world championship later this winter in Germany.