Competition flies high at X Games

Brent Gardner-Smith
Aspen Times Staff Writer
Daniel Bayer photo.Blair Morgan sails past D.J. Eckstrom en route to winning the X Games snocross at Buttermilk Thursday.

Blair Morgan of Prince Albert, Canada, is the king of snocross.

On Thursday, the opening day of the 2003 ESPN Winter X Games at Buttermilk, Morgan made a high-flying, last-lap pass to capture the X Games snowmobile snocross crown for a third-straight year.

Roaring and soaring around the motocross-style course on Panda Peak, Morgan saw an opening and took full advantage during the last stretch of the race, beating out D.J. Eckstrom and Tucker Hibbert.

“[D.J. Eckstrom] made a mistake, and I was traveling really hard and I took my shot,” said Morgan. “I fought beside him, and when he made the mistake I got by him. This was the hardest one I’ve had to work for.”

For Eckstrom, it was a tough pill to swallow.

“I messed up on a line, and Blair took advantage of it,” he said. “I overshot the double and it cost me on the next one. I knew he was behind me the whole time. But I’m still happy to be on the podium.”

Being at the top of the podium is a familiar spot for Morgan, and it’s certainly the place that archrival Hibbert wanted to be.

“The last race I took some pretty stupid lines, and it cost me,” said Hibbert. “It was pretty disappointing.

“I took some strong lines and was feeling fast and took two stupid lines in one lap and got passed.”

In other action around the X Games Thursday, it was a tough day for some local competitors. No locals made it to the podium, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.

Steele Spence of Snowmass Village came closest, ending up in fourth place in the skiing slopestyle contest (see related story on page A1).

In the men’s boardercross event, Basalt resident Jason Smith finished in ninth place, and Christian Mosiman of Snowmass Village placed 21st.

Smith had the third-fastest qualifying time of the day at 58.21 seconds, just behind Xavier Delerue, who ended up in second, and Seth Wescott, who finished fifth.

The winner of Thursday’s boardercross was Ueli Kestenholz of Switzerland, a bronze medal winner at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan.

“It was my first race this year, and I didn’t know what to expect,” said Kestenholz. “So I just went for it. Olympic training really didn’t even come into play at all. I just went for it. It was my race.”

Kestenholz held off a charge by France’s Xavier Delerue, who bettered his seventh-place finish during last year’s X Games.

“It was a big fight,” said Delerue. “We were going back and forth from the beginning. But [Kestenholz] was just faster.”

Mosiman said it was not his day on the Buttermilk course.

“My run was not my best boardercross run ever,” he said. “I didn’t have a good qualifying run so I ended up with bad lane choices as well, so it was over before it started. But I tried to stay in there and fight through what I could, but it just didn’t happen today.”

He was also not thrilled with the boardercross course. “It’s good, but not great as far as boardercross courses go,” he said.

It does provide plenty of action for spectators, however, as the racers wind through a tight portion of the course just beside the halfpipe.

“It is pretty skinny through there,” Mosiman said. “The halfpipe sort of encroached on the boardercross course more than last year so they didn’t have a lot to work with there. It sort of resembles a GS course rather than a boardercross through there. It is really fast and really skinny.”

That may suit some of the skiers who will be competing in today’s skiercross event, including Aspenites Casey Puckett, Tyler Williams and Gwen Abbott.

The skiercross practice time today is from 8 to 9:30 a.m., qualifying runs are from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. and then the finals are from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Also taking place today are the snowboard halfpipe events (see related story on page A1) and the Moto X big air practice.

In the women’s boardercross event on Thursday, local favorite Erin Simmons came in fifth after finishing second at the last two X Games. The winner of the event was 17-year-old Lindsey Jacobellis of Stratton, Vt., who held off Tanja Frieden of Switzerland to capture her first-ever X Games gold medal.

“Oh my gosh. I don’t know how I pulled it off,” said Jacobellis, whose previous X Games best was 20th place in 2001. “It went back and forth the whole time. I had a great feeling when I left the gates. There was so much adrenaline.”

Frieden improved on her third-place finish from last year.

“I wasn’t too happy with the course,” said Frieden. “I was hoping for more jumps but it was more of a racing course. I got off to a bad start. But I started fighting and loved the competition. [Jacobellis] is a great rider. But that’s the game. [This year] I got second. Next year I will get first.”