Matt Ladley reflects on X Games gold, looks to another
The details remain with Matt Ladley, colorful and bright on a day when the visibility was measured in feet and when confusion reigned.
He remembers the “on top of his game” feeling he carried into the 2016 Winter X Games in Aspen, and he remembers his first and, as it were, only run of the superpipe competition — one that took place in heavy, blinding snowfall. He nailed his first big trick that night, a backside 900, but dragged a hand as he landed his last trick at the bottom of the pipe.
He remembers waiting at the top of the pipe for his second run, and he remembers hearing it would never come, that the event was being canceled after one run, and despite not laying down the perfect run, he was in for the perfect night.
Everyone had struggled with the heavy snow, but Ladley had struggled the least and recorded the best first-run score.
“I remember it being surreal,” he said Wednesday. “Someone comes up and says, ‘All right, it’s over.’ What does that mean? It was crazy.”
It meant he was an X Games champion. It meant he had a career-defining win in the biggest event in his sport. It meant in ways obvious and subtle, his life wouldn’t ever be the same.
Dreams comes true
Ladley long dreamed of winning X Games, of course. All halfpipe snowboarders do.
When that dream actually came true, however, it didn’t look much at all like he’d dreamed.
No question, he won against an elite field. Eight-time X Games superpipe champ Shaun White wasn’t there — a dispute with ESPN causing him to miss the event — but 2014 Winter Olympic gold medalist Iouri Podladtchikov was, as was reigning two-time defending champ Danny Davis.
Beating competition like that always happens in the dream. Doing it in a weather-shortened event, on the other hand, does not.
Ladley was good on his first run, but certainly not great. That hand coming down on his last hit was the most obvious mistake, but when he looks back, he sees plenty that could have been tightened up.
His run scored in at 82.33.
“I don’t think that run would have held up or even been on the podium,” he said. “I don’t think it should have.”
If history’s any indication, he’s right. The lowest gold-medal winning run of the past decade was nearly 10 points higher, 92.00, in both 2007 and 2008.
Davis won with a score of 93.66 the year prior.
It usually takes near perfection to claim X Games gold, and at least once, it took literal perfection. White scored 100.00 in 2012.
Ladley’s 2016 score wouldn’t have even gotten him on the X Games podium in the past decade.
“The way I won, it was weird,” Ladley said. “It’s not the gold medal I would have dreamed of, and I don’t mean that in a negative way.”
It was a strange night, a strange event, and he was the benefactor of that strangeness. He considers that often but hasn’t gotten caught up in it.
While the other riders didn’t get second or third chances to unseat him, he also didn’t get those chances to better his own score, to fix that trick where his hand brushed or to hit his other tricks harder.
“That wasn’t the best I could have done that night,” he said. “I could have done better, and I would have. I’m not going to say I would have definitely won, but it was anyone’s game.”
The results from the rest of the season bolster the idea that he belonged. He won a Grand Prix World Cup event a week after X Games, besting many of the same riders. This time he scored 95.50 in beautiful weather. He was later fourth at the U.S. Open.
Even without the X Games, it was the best season of his career.
“I’m sure there are plenty of people who think, ‘He didn’t actually win,’” Ladley said. “That’s fine. I try not to worry about what other people think about my riding. My job is to do what I do and sometimes the judges come into play. Sometimes the weather comes into play, and it’s not something I have any control over.”
Life since has been great, Ladley said.
He took some extra time off in the summer, even more than he expected when a training trip to Mount Hood in Oregon was ruined by a week of rainy weather. A trip to New Zealand went only a little better.
Still, he was able to mentally and physically recharge.
“I’ve been competing for so long at this point, for me it’s about working smarter, not harder,” he said. “I want to keep my body healthy and my mind sharp. That’s what works for me.”
He doesn’t plan any big changes to his run. He credited a big backside 900 on his opening hit as one of the reasons he leaped from the crowd a year ago, and it’s back. Even he’s not sure how well that run will stack up against the competition this year. White’s back in Aspen this year, as are the usual elite contenders, like Podladtchikov and Davis.
Steamboat Springs’ Taylor Gold, a 2014 Olympian and U.S. Open champion, also will be back in the mix after missing most of last winter’s competitive season with a knee injury.
Ladley was seventh last week at the Laax Open in Switzerland, laying down a run he said he felt pretty comfortable with. He scored an 84.00, and Chase Josey won the event at 97.75.
“The Laax Open, that was probably the highest level of halfpipe snowboarding I’ve ever seen,” he said. “Some of these young kids are riding so well. It’s really cool to watch, and it’s definitely hard to keep up. I was really happy with my riding and ended up seventh, deservedly. The guys in front of me killed it. It’s extremely competitive and staying on top will be tough.”
Ready to ride again
Ladley remembers that night, the night he won X Games. He remembers being on the podium with two of his closest friends in the sport, Ben Ferguson, who was second at 79.00, and Scotty James, third at 76.00.
He remembers the parties afterward, joining up with his buddies and going on a wide tour of the town, from the top of Aspen Mountain back down into town and through various clubs and bars.
“Everyone was celebrating,” Ladley said. “Everyone was happy.”
It was a night he’ll never forget. It was weird, flukey even, and certainly surreal. But for Ladley, it was great. He’s back in Aspen now, ready to compete again, hopefully for a full three runs this time.
He’d love nothing more than to make it another unforgettable experience.
“I’m always nervous. That never goes away, but I’m in a good spot,” he said. “I feel good about my riding. I’m where I want to be. I’m feeling very confident.”
To reach Joel Reichenberger, call 970-871-4253, email jreichenberger@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @JReich9
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While Lindsey Vonn remains the most successful female skier in World Cup history with 82 victories (the 25-year-old Mikaela Shiffrin has 68 wins and counting), her haul already pales in comparison to Shiffrin.