Olivero: Competitions continue to evolve skiing, riding with Winter X Games

Antonio Olivero
Summit Daily

One of the most interesting developments of last winter’s X Games Aspen was Colorado teen snowboarder Jake Canter’s inclusion in the first-ever snowboard “Knuckle Huck” competition.

Inspired in many ways by Norwegian snowboard star Marcus Kleveland’s viral social media videos of inventive tricks off the knuckle, the Knuckle Huck contest was a divergent addition to the X Games competition slate last winter. Rather than watching snowboarders launch off the normal big air ramp, X Games fans watched snowboarders get creative with their tricks off of the “knuckle,” or rollover, of the big air jump, before finishing in the same landing area as the big air competition.

The open-jam format pitted the firecracker 5-foot-4-inch, 115-pound athlete and Evergreen native Canter as the first to drop in under the lights at Buttermilk Mountain. He looked down at his line — the first-ever Knuckle Huck line in formal X Games competition — before riders he looked up to, such as U.S. Olympic slopestyle gold medalists Red Gerard and Sage Kotsenburg.

To add to the sudden nerves, Silverthorne resident Canter competed as a late addition, not originally signed up to compete at the event. When the 15-year-old’s father, Carl, had originally dropped him off in Aspen, Canter — a U.S. Snowboard Rookie Team rider — didn’t even have the requisite paperwork to compete. Once he donned his competition bib, though, Canter fulfilled the dream of a lifetime in competing at X Games.

“It was definitely the best contest I could have ever done to debut at X Games,” said Canter, who has previously trained with the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club.

An avid park skateboarder, Canter is one of many up-and-coming American and international snowboarders who aren’t driven by a specific discipline. An accomplished halfpipe snowboarder at the highest youth levels, Canter is currently training with the U.S. slopestyle/big air snowboard rookie team in Saas Fee, Switzerland, after transitioning from the halfpipe to the slopestyle course this past season.

But if recent and ongoing developments in freestyle skiing and snowboarding competitions are a hint of the future, at the highest levels it seems top riders like Canter, Gerard and their fellow young American star Chris Corning won’t be limited to the pipe or a standard slopestyle course in the coming years.

After debuting Snowboard Knuckle Huck last January, X Games announced earlier this week an even more imaginative expansion of its competitions for this coming January’s X Games Aspen at Buttermilk (Jan. 23-26). In addition to Snowboard Knuckle Huck, X Games will feature new competitions including a Ski Knuckle Huck, a Snowboard Rail Jam and a Snowboard Superpipe Best Trick competition. The Knuckle Huck and Superpipe Best Trick comps will take place in jam formats.

The boldest approach to competition formats to date was the modified superpipe at last December’s Dew Tour at Breckenridge Ski Resort, an event that blended a condensed pipe with slopestyle-like features transitioning into and out of the pipe. Along with the superpipe competition, the manifestation of these new formats continue a trend of winter action sports events like X Games and Dew Tour trying new settings and stipulations for the grandest stages of snowboarding and freeskiing.

The competitions have added a fresh approach to the sports since the pressure and climax of the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in South Korea, where so many American snowboarders and freeskiers — quite literally — carried the medal load for the country. With Pyeongchang in the past, the young sports have almost eagerly embraced an ongoing progression of their nature. The curiosity to continue to seek what’s possible is something us mountain winter sports fans should not take for granted.

It’s not often a community of fans can almost grow up with a sport as it finds its way in the history of American sports. That’s been the case for snowboarding and freeskiing since the sports have risen in popularity in the past few decades. We are in an interesting era for the sports where, after mainstream acceptance, they are blossoming further and wider.

They are blossoming because of boundary-pushing individuals such as Gerard and Corning. In one instance, Gerard, 19, just premiered a film about taking his elite terrain park talent into the challenge of the backcountry — mere months after cementing his place at the top of the competition scene with a win at the Burton U.S. Open slopestyle competition. In another instance Corning, 20, continues to push the physics of tricks further than anyone on the heels of two consecutive FIS World Cup season titles, his laser-focused eyes with crosshairs of the 2022 Winter Olympics.

Chatting with Gerard on the chairlift up Peak 8 at last year’s Dew Tour, when musing on life and snowboarding after winning Olympic gold at 17, there was a common refrain of “I don’t know,” or “I’m not sure,” from Gerard. But it wasn’t an “IDK” in the spirit of “I’m not interested.” Rather, it was a curious ponder of “I’m thinking about it.”

For a snowboarder like Gerard, there’s almost too many possibilities to ponder. You not only get the chance to ride as creatively as possible some of the most beautiful of winter wonderslopes with your best friends — filming it all for a documentary dubbed “Joy” — but you also have the opportunity to influence and inspire terrain park riding and contests. His new “Red’s Backyard” hike-to-jib park and Danny Davis’ new Woodward Peace Park at Copper Mountain Resort are examples of that.

Taking a step back and looking down from the greater sporting balcony, do we properly put into perspective just how cool that is? Growing up a basketball fan in New York City, I would never think even Michael Jordan could be talented enough to change the rules of play or dimensions of the playing surface. The closest example to that, of course, was the outlawing of dunking by the NCAA before Lew Alcindor stepped foot on a UCLA court.

And when X Games Aspen adds new competitions, that’s effectively what snowboarders like Gerard, Kleveland and Kotsenburg are doing: dunking on the game and making it respond.

In that spirit, and in the spirit of the great game of basketball, the question for snowboarding and freeskiing is this: “Who’s got next?”