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Locals to internationals, who to watch at X Games

Brent Gardner-Smith
Aspen Times Staff Writer

The ESPN Winter X Games is an invitation-only event that mixes up-and-comers with the biggest names of the sport.

And there are local riders and skiers going up against Olympic medalists and ski and snowboard industry stars. More than $500,000 in prize money will be split between some 250 athletes, including some of the best snowmobile racers and freestyle motorcycle riders.

The skiercross and boardercross events boast three locals in each field. Aspenites Casey Puckett, a four-time Olympian, Tyler Williams and Gwyn Abbott are all the mix for the skiercross, while Christian Mosiman, Jason Smith and Erin Simmons are in the boardercross hunt.

Meanwhile, Gretchen Bleiler of Snowmass Village is a real threat to win the snowboarding superpipe competition, and Steele Spence could go big in skier slopestyle.

The three snowboarders who swept the podium at the 2002 Olympics in halfpipe ? Ross Powers, Danny Kass and J.J. Thomas ? will be competing in Aspen, as will Kelly Clark, the defending Olympic and X Games women’s champion.

In all, there are 20 Olympians competing in the men’s and women’s halfpipe competition, which is the biggest event of the X Games.

Here’s a rundown by event of who to watch for. Of course, there’s bound to be a Cinderella story or two.

Today in the boardercross event Seth Wescott of Maine and Berti Denervaud of Switzerland are back to see if they can best their second- and third-place finishes last year.

Christian Mosiman, 20, of Snowmass Village, has potential to do well in his first X Games boardercross. He’s good friends with fellow local boardercross racers Jason Smith of Basalt and Erin Simmons, now of Steamboat Springs, and really tight with buddy Steele Spence, also of Snowmass Village.

Jason Smith, 21, is back for a second X Games appearance. “It was the dopest,” Smith of last year’s X Games. “It was super fun and all the athletes that were there were the best in the world. I was so proud to be a part of it.”

He finished 20th in boardercross last year and took 12th in the ultracross event, which is a two-person event that pairs the top 16 skiercross and boardercross finishers at random in a tag-team-style race.

Smith works at Snowmass Sports as a ski rental tech, studies at Fort Lewis College in Durango, surfs in his spare time and has this message for young riders: “Train like your race, race like your train.”

In women’s boardercross, Erin Simmons, 26, is a serious contender. She has won silver medals in the last two X Games and wants to win this year.

She used to live and train in Aspen with the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club, and spent last summer in Aspen dirt biking and skateboarding to stay in the groove.

Over on the slopestyle course on Thursday, it’s going to be a battle of the big names. The top three performers from last year ? Tanner Hall, C.R. Johnson and Jon Olsson ? are back to see who’s got the goods this year.

And Spence, who finished seventh last year, managed to qualify again at the last-chance event on Saturday in Breckenridge. His fan base is sure to be out in force this year.

In the snocross arena, all eyes will be on Blair Morgan, 27, of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. He’s the dominant rider in the snowmobile racing circuit, evidenced by X Games gold the last two years.

“The X Games is an all or nothing race,” Morgan said. He’s also a champion motocross rider and expert paintballer. And he grew up on a pig farm and used snowmobiles everyday, including to drag dead pigs out to where the coyotes could eat them.

Friday

The absolute epicenter of the snowboarding universe on Friday, Jan. 31, will be the superpipe at Buttermilk.

The men’s 2002 X Games podium will be there ? J.J. Thomas, Shaun White and Keir Dillon ? as will the men’s 2002 Olympic podium from the Salt Lake halfpipe competition: Powers, Kass and Thomas, who obviously had a pretty good year.

The men’s halfpipe competition should be fierce as this is the biggest event for the discipline since last year’s Olympics.

In the women’s halfpipe competition, every local fan should be pulling for Gretchen Bleiler, 20, of Snowmass Village. She was eighth last year in her first X Games, which came right on the heels of a heartbreaking bid to make the Olympic team. She tied with Tricia Byrnes in the qualifying criteria, but lost out based on tie-breaking minutiae.

“I wanted to do really well in the Winter X Games, one because I feel it’s the biggest competition of the year, and two because they’re held in Aspen,” Bleiler said. “But, last year my heart just wasn’t in it.”

But Bleiler ended up having a good year anyway, wining the Vans Triple Crown competition. And she also had a decent Olympics, at least in the sense that she got to see fellow local Chris Klug win a bronze medal and Kelly Clark, her best friend, won the gold medal.

The skiercross competition is also on Friday and it will be a locals’ affair.

In the men’s race, Casey Puckett, 30, of Old Snowmass will be competing for the first time in the X Games. The former World Cup racer and current coach for the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club has four Olympics under his belt, as well as last month’s 24 Hours of Aspen race, which he led wire to wire in the debut of the solo format.

Puckett has got be considered a contender given his skiing experience and his natural abilities. He’d probably also like to win on his home turf.

“I don’t know exactly what the strategy is for this event, but I have a feeling I will do OK,” Puckett said.

The 5-foot-10, 195-pound skier was downplaying his conditioning and training before the 24 Hours of Aspen, and then went out and crushed the field. Don’t be surprised to see him dominate at Buttermilk.

Also competing is Tyler Williams, 32, of Aspen, who will be back for his second X Games. Williams, who is a manager at Surefoot in Snowmass Village, is a two-time 24 Hours of Aspen champion and a five-time competitor. The guy can ski.

On the women’s side of skiercross, another 24 Hours of Aspen champ will be a big favorite.

Aleisha Cline, 32, of Whistler, B.C., won the 24 Hours last month. And she’s got a habit of winning at the X Games, and in Aspen. She’s won the last two 24 Hours of Aspen, and last year at Buttermilk captured her third straight skiercross gold in the X Games.

“I guess I just glide really well,” Cline said.

And a hometown girl will be trying to best Cline. Gwyn Abbott, who grew up in Aspen is seen as a strong contender. She was ninth in last year’s skiercross event and was given a wild card spot this year on the roster. Her brother is Olympic hopeful ice skater Jeremy Abbott.

Saturday

Yet another fun day at the X Games. And it’s Moto X big air day. Last year, Brian Deegan, Mike Jones, Tommy Clowers took the top three spots.

This year, all eyes will be on Mike Metzger of Menifee, Calif., who did two back flips in a row to win gold at the Summer X Games in the freestyle competition. Then, in the big air competition, he did it again and also took gold, getting himself named the best athlete at the summer games. Look for him to go up and over to pull the first X Games motorcycle back flip on snow.

In the skiing halfpipe competition, defending champ Jon Olsson of Sweden will be the main attraction. Freeskier magazine dubbed 2002 the “Year of Jon Olsson” for his consistent performances all year. Last year, he took gold in the pipe and bronze in the slopestyle.

Sunday

Last year’s top three finishers in snowboard slopestyle will be back.

Travis Rice of Jackson Hole, Shaun White of Carlsbad, Calif., and Todd Richards of Breckenridge will battle it out again.

Rice, 20, burst onto the X Games scene out of nowhere last year to grab the gold. “I was just trying to ride as hard as I could,” said Rice, whose dad is a former patroller at Jackson Hole.

The women slopestylers will be looking to unseat last year’s champ, Tara Dakides. It won’t be easy as she has won three X Games gold medals in the event. Last year’s silver medalist Janna Meyen, 25, of Bend, Ore., will be back to defend.

And competing for the first time will be 15-year-old Torah Bright of Cama, Australia. She’s already something of an international darling on the snowboard scene.

In the hillcross event, look for Carl Kuster, 27 of Westlock, Alberta, to be a factor. He’s won the last two X Games hillcrosses.


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