Predicting the 2022 winners in X Games Aspen’s annual return to Buttermilk
Aspen Times sports editor Austin Colbert again plays Nostradamus ahead of this week’s contests
While it’s still January, we’re already in the thick of the Winter Olympics hysteria, with the Games officially starting Feb. 4 in Beijing. But before they begin handing out gold medals in China, the select few who earned the invite will first go for gold this week at X Games Aspen.
Many of the same athletes who will be seen at Buttermilk Ski Area Friday through Sunday will also be on their respective country’s Olympic teams next month. But they aren’t coming to Aspen just to treat it like a final training opportunity. An X Games podium can be nearly as life-changing as an Olympic podium, and those who choose to compete this week are chasing the glory here and now on Colorado snow and live on ESPN.
Like I’ve done in past years, I’m going to attempt to pick the winner of each of the 12 main competitions at X Games Aspen. Because of the pandemic, this year’s event will once again be without the motorsports, but at least the (vaccinated) fans are back.
Also part of the fun this year is the return of the Special Olympics Unified event (Friday, 2:30 p.m.), as well as knuckle huck for both snowboard (Friday, 6 p.m.) and skiing (Sunday, 5 p.m.). I’ll forgo making any knuckle huck predictions — you’ll have better luck just drawing out of a hat — but it has certainly become a fan-favorite and 2020 snowboard winner Zeb Powell is back after sitting out last year due to injury.
As for the rest, here are my best guesses. Some big names are sitting out to prepare for the Olympics, but some events will be just as loaded as in prior years. Like it always is, it’s going to be an exciting three days at Buttermilk.
Keep in mind, the athlete list is updated constantly and could change even minutes before the contest starts. Considering the Olympic implications, don’t be surprised by a few more substitutions.
Women’s snowboard slopestyle
Friday, 10:30 a.m.
Projected winner: Zoi Sadowski-Synnott
This event remains stacked, with Jamie Anderson and Anna Gasser also expected to compete. Picking against Tahoe’s Anderson in this event is about as dumb as dumb gets — seven of her eight career gold medals at X Games Aspen come in slopestyle, with the other coming in big air only last year — but New Zealand’s Sadowski-Synnott has the tools to pull the upset. The Kiwi won slopestyle gold here in 2019 and took silver last winter. Only 20 years old, she will be one of Anderson’s primary Olympic challengers. Anderson won Olympic slopestyle gold in both 2014 and 2018. So far this winter, Anderson’s only competition has been Jan. 8 at Mammoth, which she won over Sadowski-Synnott.
Women’s ski big air
Friday, 12:30 p.m.
Projected winner: Mathilde Gremaud
Sometimes it’s best to not overcomplicate things. Switzerland’s Mathilde Gremaud is the world’s best, having won big air gold in Aspen in both 2019 and 2021, as well as in Norway back in 2017. France’s Tess Ledeux, who won big air gold in Aspen in 2020, is the other main contender. A winner coming from outside those two would be an upset, although Switzerland’s Sarah Hoefflin did win her lone X Games gold medal in big air back in 2018. There’s only been one World Cup big air event for skiing this season, a U.S. Olympic team qualifier held in Steamboat Springs in early December and won by China’s Eileen Gu. Ledeux was second and Norway’s Johanne Killi was third. Killi should be at X Games, but Gu is sitting it out. Keep in mind, big air skiing is making its Olympic debut next month in China.
Women’s ski superpipe
Friday, 7 p.m.
Projected winner: Kelly Sildaru
This will be the first contest that truly has the local crowd’s attention with Basalt teenager Hanna Faulhaber set to make her X Games debut. Faulhaber looks like the future of the sport for the Americans and will also make her first Olympic team next month in China. And the way she’s been skiing, Faulhaber is going to have a shot at the podium at both events. With Gu opting out of X Games after dominating it last winter in her debut — winning gold in both slopestyle and halfpipe — this contest looks like it’ll belong to Estonian star Kelly Sildaru, who won halfpipe gold at X Games in 2020. Sildaru, who specializes in slopestyle, did not compete at X Games in 2021 after getting hurt in training. The 19-year-old will also make her Olympic debut next month after she was injured during the 2018 cycle. Another notable name not competing at X Games this week is reigning Olympic gold medalist Cassie Sharpe. Five of the eight women expected to compete in women’s ski pipe on Friday are Americans.
Men’s snowboard superpipe
Friday, 8:35 p.m.
Projected winner: Ayumu Hirano
This contest is likely to come down to two familiar names: Scotty James and Ayumu Hirano. Shaun White again looks like a healthy scratch with his final Olympics drawing near, and Japanese sensation Yuto Totsuka, who won the contest last year, also looks absent. Currently scheduled to compete is Japan’s Hirano, the two-time reigning Olympic silver medalist who won X Games Aspen gold back in 2018, the last time he competed in the event. Like White, who narrowly beat him in Pyeongchang, Hirano essentially disappeared from competitive snowboarding between then and last spring. It’s not taken Hirano long to re-establish himself as the snowboard god we know he is, winning World Cups in Laax and Mammoth so far this season. His biggest moment, however, came when he landed halfpipe snowboarding’s first triple cork at Dew Tour in December. He didn’t finish his run and didn’t win, but the triple cork was a game-changer. Of the expected riders at X Games on Friday, only Australia’s James can be seen as a true threat to Hirano. James, the reigning Olympic bronze medalist, won gold at X Games Aspen in 2017, 2019 and 2020.
Women’s ski slopestyle
Saturday, 10:30 a.m.
Projected winner: Kelly Sildaru
Sildaru will have a lot more competition in slopestyle than she will in the halfpipe, although it’ll also be much easier with Gu sitting out. Gremaud, Killi, Ledeux and Hoefflin are all contenders, as is American Maggie Voisin. But if you’ve ever seen Sildaru on a slopestyle course, you need to know nothing about the sport to know she’s next-level insane. She’s won this contest at X Games the past four times she’s competed in it (2016, 2017, 2019, 2020). Only injury can keep her from the top of the podium, as it did in 2018 and 2021. If she’s healthy, she wins again this year. Oh, and she’s still only 19, while Gu is just 18. The next decade-plus will be incredible between those two, and it’ll truly begin next month at the Olympics.
Men’s snowboard slopestyle
Projected winner: Mark McMorris
Looks like the stars are showing up for this one: Red Gerard, Dusty Henricksen, Marcus Kleveland and Mark McMorris are all expected to be in action at Buttermilk. Why do I like McMorris, the Canadian superstar who already has a record 20 X Games medals to his name? Because he was forced to miss the event last year after testing positive for COVID-19 and I think he’ll be extra motivated for his first win in Aspen since 2019. A lot of eyes will be on Gerard, the Silverthorne rider who won slopestyle gold in his star-making Olympic debut four years ago, and California’s Henricksen, who had a dazzling X Games debut in 2021 by winning gold in slopestyle and knuckle huck. The last American to have won slopestyle gold at X Games prior to Henricksen? That would be Shaun White back in 2009. Can Henricksen repeat? Maybe. It’ll be a lot more difficult with McMorris strapping in this time around.
Women’s snowboard big air
Saturday, 1:45 p.m.
Projected winner: Miyabi Onitsuka
Anderson was the (somewhat) surprising winner of this contest last year, and it’s expected she’ll compete again. Austria’s Anna Gasser, the reigning Olympic gold medalist in big air, is back, as is Sadowski-Synnott, Japan’s Kokomo Murase and American Julia Marino. But 23-year-old Japanese standout Miyabi Onitsuka is my pick. She won silver behind Anderson last year and won X Games Aspen gold in big air back in 2020. Then again, here I am picking against Anderson — who also happens to be the reigning Olympic silver medalist in big air — for the second time. I’ll pick Anderson at the Olympics (in slopestyle, anyway), but I’m still going with Onitsuka for X Games.
Women’s snowboard superpipe
Saturday, 5 p.m.
Projected winner: Maddie Mastro
It takes a lot of lunacy to pick against Chloe Kim here, but I’m doing it. Actually, Kim isn’t expected to compete at X Games, instead choosing to join the list of athletes sitting out to train (and hopefully stay COVID-free) ahead of the Olympics. Kim’s dominated this event for years now, winning three of the past four contests. She sat out 2020, when Spain’s Queralt Castellet won. Castellet is again a contender, as are any of the expected four Japanese riders, but California’s Mastro is easily the second-best female halfpipe rider in the world behind Kim, a fellow Mammoth product. Mastro won silver behind Kim’s gold at X Games last year for only her second medal here, following a bronze in 2018. The door was also open for her in 2020, when Kim sat out, but Mastro went for broke and unfortunately crashed and burned, finishing eighth that year. She’s wiser and better than she was two years ago, and I’m thinking she finally gets that elusive X Games gold medal. If not now, then when?
Men’s ski big air
Saturday, 6:45 p.m.
Projected winner: Matej Svancer
Who is Matej Svancer? The world is about to find out. The 17-year-old from Austria has essentially come out of nowhere in recent months and I’m all aboard his train (bandwagons aren’t cool enough for this kid). Not only did he win October’s World Cup big air event in Switzerland and then the Steamboat World Cup big air event in December, he absolutely dazzled. Among the “wow” moments was his triple cork 1980 in Steamboat that scored him 98 on that specific run. We all want more. His main competitors include reigning X Games Aspen champion Andri Ragettli of Switzerland and Utah’s Alex Hall, who are both going to have their hands full with the new guy.
Men’s snowboard big air
Saturday, 8 p.m.
Projected winner: Marcus Kleveland
I want to pick someone else, but Norway’s Marcus Kleveland is just too good and I can’t do it. When he’s on one, he can’t be beat in big air. He’ll look to go back-to-back at X Games Aspen after winning one of the sport’s most insane contests a year ago, edging out Sweden’s Sven Thorgren and Norway’s Mons Roisland on the podium. Colorado’s Chris Corning, who has some Aspen connections, was fourth in 2021 and looks like he’s a late addition to the fun for 2022 as well. Also expected to compete are McMorris and his Canadian compatriot, Max Parrot. What also looks to be back is the epic big air jump ESPN made a year ago, moving the contest from its own venue at looker’s right of the superpipe to the final jump of the slopestyle course. The end result was possibly the biggest, gnarliest big air jump ever made, and the contest was every bit as epic at it could have been. Saturday night’s big air two-fer should again be pure insanity.
Men’s ski slopestyle
Sunday, 11 a.m.
Projected winner: Alex Hall
For most events, picking a winner instinctually comes down to one or two names for me. In men’s ski slopestyle, my list is — sorry, I’m counting the current invite list — about 10 deep. This contest is wide open, is what I’m saying. Last year it was Indiana native Nick Goepper’s grand return to the top of the podium, but I like what I’ve seen from Utah’s Alex Hall so far this winter, so I’m going with him. Hall won slopestyle gold at X Games Aspen in 2019, his only win at Buttermilk. He’s technically a four-time X Games gold medalist, but two of his wins came in Norway and the fourth was his World of X Real Ski victory in 2021. This winter, Hall’s highlights include taking second in big air to Svancer in Steamboat and in winning the Mammoth Mountain Grand Prix earlier in January, holding off Goepper and Canada’s Evan McEachran. It’ll be an absolute free-for-all on Sunday morning, which is what makes it so enticing.
Men’s ski superpipe
Sunday, 6:30 p.m.
Projected winner: Alex Ferreira
Will I ever pick against Alex Ferreira in this contest? Not while I still call Aspen home, and not when Ferreira continues to be this impressive in a halfpipe. The reigning Olympic silver medalist and hometown hero already has won this year at the Copper Grand Prix and Dew Tour, and looks more than ready to make a run at his third X Games Aspen title, following wins in 2019 and 2020. He was off his game in 2021, but we’ll give him a pass. Last year’s competition was taken over by New Zealand’s Nico Porteous and his back-to-back 1620s, with Crested Butte’s Aaron Blunck finishing second and Winter Park’s Birk Irving third. This is one contest where all the big stars seem to be here, with Ferreira, Porteous, Blunck and Irving all back, along with two-time reigning Olympic gold medalist David Wise. Even Telluride native Gus Kenworthy, now representing his mother’s homeland of Great Britain, is expected to compete in what will be his final X Games. The extra fuel of being at home is why I’m going with Ferreira, but this contest is reasonably wide open.
Bring the popcorn.
“Without any exception the worst snow storm known since the advent of the railroad west of Leadville has been raging over the crest of the continental divide since last Thursday,” asserted the Aspen Tribune on January 31, 1899.