X Games Aspen notes Day 0: Olympics loom as athletes return to Buttermilk | AspenTimes.com

X Games Aspen notes Day 0: Olympics loom as athletes return to Buttermilk

Telluride snowboarder Lucas Foster airs out of the superpipe on his first hit during practice ahead of X Games Aspen on Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022, at Buttermilk Ski Area.
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

Back for the 21st consecutive year at Buttermilk Ski Area, X Games Aspen gets underway Friday with many of the world’s top skiers and snowboarders slated to compete over three days in ESPN’s signature winter competition.

While much of the talk is currently on the upcoming Winter Olympics, which officially start Feb. 4 in Beijing, X Games will bring with it an atmosphere all its own with the Olympic team qualifiers wrapped up and the pre-Olympic stress yet to really hit home.

“I’m kind of glad it’s not an Olympic qualifier,” said slopestyle skier Nick Goepper, an Indiana native and four-time X Games champion. “X Games has always been a little more relaxed than some of the other events because they take such good care of the athletes and we get so much practice. It gives you a lot of time to get creative and really work out a run. I’ve always held X Games to a higher standard than every other event, except for the Olympics.”

Last year’s X Games was truly one-of-a-kind, as it was held without fans amid the coronavirus pandemic and before the first wave of COVID-19 vaccines made it into any arms. While cases remain high a year later, the fans are allowed to return to Buttermilk this weekend, although in limited numbers and all attendees must be vaccinated; proof will be required to get into the venue.

Admission remains free.

What remains absent are the motorsports, from the snowbikes to the snowmobiles, part of a still-condensed COVID-19 lineup at X Games.

“Generally speaking, it’s going to be awesome to have fans back on the venue watching all of these amazing athletes,” said ESPN’s Tim Reed, the longtime vice president of X Games. “I know I’ve missed it and I’m just excited to get thing going.”

Here are some first day storylines to watch as action gets underway with women’s slopestyle snowboarding on Friday morning:

Who is here?

Because of the upcoming Olympics and concerns around COVID-19 — one positive test could mean an athlete doesn’t get to compete in China — a handful of big names have decided to skip X Games this year. Fan favorites like Chloe Kim, Shaun White, Cassie Sharpe and Eileen Gu will not compete.

Still, the lineup remains star-studded, with Mark McMorris, Red Gerard, Jamie Anderson and Scotty James among a long list of athletes still expected to compete.

Local talent

The Roaring Fork Valley is home to two of this year’s athletes, and both are halfpipe skiers. Reigning Olympic silver medalist Alex Ferreira is back and will be one of the frontrunners to land on the podium at Buttermilk. He won X Games in both 2019 and 2020 and also will return to the Olympics next month.

Making her X Games debut on Friday night is Basalt’s Hanna Faulhaber, who will head to her first Olympics in February. Ferreira will compete in the men’s competition on Sunday night (6:30 p.m.), while Faulhaber gets things going on Friday night (7 p.m.). Of note, brief Aspen resident Chris Corning is also back. The Colorado snowboarder will compete in the men’s big air contest at 8 p.m. Saturday.

What to watch on Day 1

Friday’s lineup is jam-packed. Anderson and the slopestyle snowboard women get things started at 10:30 a.m. The Tahoe rider will be the favorite, just as she will be at the Olympics, although New Zealand’s Zoi Sadowski-Synnott and Austria’s Anna Gasser could give her a run.

At 12:30 p.m. is women’s ski big air, where Switzerland’s Mathilde Gremaud and Sarah Hoefflin, Norway’s Johanne Killi and France’s Tess Ledeux will be among the favorites. Ski big air is making its Olympic debut next month, so this is definitely worth watching.

Following the Special Olympics Unified event at 2:30 p.m., snowboard knuckle huck will go down at 6 p.m. Last year’s champ, Dusty Henricksen, and 2020 champion Zeb Powell, who sat out 2021 with injury, are both expected to compete.

When the sun goes down the action shifts to the pipe, with the women’s halfpipe skiing contest set for 7 p.m. with Faulhaber and event favorite Kelly Sildaru of Estonia. Winter Park’s Svea Irving is another Colorado kid expected to get her first X Games start along with Faulhaber.

The first day will wrap up with the men’s snowboard halfpipe final at 8:35 p.m. It’ll be an American-heavy lineup and despite a few big names not competing, like White and last year’s champion, Yuto Totsuka, the contest still features James and Japan’s Ayumu Hirano, who might be the Olympic gold-medal favorite. Hirano, the two-time reigning Olympic silver medalist, landed the sport’s first-ever triple cork in competition only last month at Dew Tour.