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James looking to keep up with Hirano’s triple cork in X Games Aspen superpipe

Australian snowboarder Scotty James airs out of the superpipe on his first hit during practice for X Games Aspen on Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022, at Buttermilk Ski Area.
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

Rumors were circulating that Scotty James had been off training in his own private halfpipe the past few months, skipping the early-season competitions to get ready for his latest X Games and Olympics runs. Reports say this is true, yes, even if the Australian snowboarding great isn’t always willing to admit it out loud.

“The halfpipe is a myth. I basically set up an airbag setup, the same as anyone else has done,” James said with a laugh on Tuesday during a pre-X Games Aspen interview with reporters via Zoom. “Nothing super crazy. So, we set one up and it was really cool. I actually spent some time on it in December. I spent a lot of time working on some new tricks and some things I really wanted to achieve.”

Where James stands in relation to his competition is anyone’s guess at this point. His only event this season has been the World Cup in Laax, Switzerland, earlier this month. James had the highest qualifying score, just edging Japan’s Ayumu Hirano, but couldn’t put down a clean run in finals and finished 11th. Hirano won the contest, sharing a podium with runner-up Jan Scherrer of Switzerland and American legend Shaun White, who essentially locked up his Olympic team spot that day.

Still, despite the Laax shortcomings, James will be among the podium favorites at both X Games Aspen on Friday — the men’s halfpipe snowboard contest is scheduled for 8:35 p.m. — and next month’s Olympics. James is a three-time X Games Aspen champion, having won in 2017, 2019 and 2020. The 27-year-old also is a three-time Olympian — Beijing will be his fourth — and is the reigning Olympic bronze medalist behind Hirano (silver) and White (gold).

Australian snowboarder Scotty James prepares himself at the top of the Buttermilk superpipe during practice on Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022, for X Games Aspen.
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

“Laax was definitely a bit disappointing, so a good start to this week or a good progression from there would be to land on my feet, so that’s the plan,” James said. “X Games is always a really good benchmark for us competitively, one, because not many people really leave any stone unturned when they come to X Games. You usually get to see a lot of tricks, a lot of people’s plans, in this case before Beijing. You get to see some cards revealed, which is always nice from a competitive standpoint.”

The big question surrounding men’s halfpipe snowboarding entering both X Games and the Olympics is what it will take to win. Four years ago, at the Pyeongchang Games, both White and Hirano landed back-to-back 1440s in finals, a combo still rarely seen attempted.

This Olympic cycle all the attention has turned toward the triple cork — requiring riders to invert three times on a hit — first landed in competition by Hirano in December at Dew Tour. Hirano was also the first to land back-to-back 1440s, doing so at X Games Aspen when he won in 2018, just before the Olympics.

Hirano’s triple cork on his first hit at Dew Tour was historic and eye-opening, but he also failed to land his second hit of that run and ultimately finished fifth in a contest won by Japan’s Yuto Totsuka, the reigning X Games Aspen champion.

Next up will be to see who can land the triple cork in a scoring run and who, if anyone, can match it. The number of athletes even willing to attempt the trick over the next month will certainly remain in the low single digits.

“It was a matter of time before the triple corks would happen. Those that do ride the pipe can probably appreciate and understand that it’s definitely a beast. It’s a pretty scary trick,” James said. “Just the amplitude you have to basically get to get it around is pretty significant. As well as most of the Japanese guys that are doing them that I’m competing against are pretty short. I’m about 6-foot-2, so I’m having to lug my big, lanky body around three times, which you can imagine is also another task that I’m managing.”

The men’s halfpipe snowboarding contest at X Games on Friday night at Buttermilk will be without a handful of big stars who decided to sit out for health and safety reasons, mostly surrounding COVID-19, ahead of the Olympics. White, Totsuka and Steamboat Springs native Taylor Gold — who was the top American qualifier for the Olympic team — won’t compete, nor will the talented Swiss contingent, led by Scherrer.

Ultimately, it looks like it will be a two-man show between James and Hirano, who both plan to compete. They haven’t dueled it out at X Games since 2018 — the last time Hirano competed in ESPN’s event — with Hirano’s 99 edging James’ 98 and Oregon’s Ben Ferguson’s 95 in one of the best X Games halfpipe contests in history. What happens Friday will likely just be a warm up for the show in Beijing next month — qualifying is scheduled for Feb. 9 and finals are Feb. 11 — when the full contingent of athletes strap in.

“There is a lot of hype, there is a lot of media, there is a lot of people around and that’s also an element of the Olympic Games, which is always different from other events,” James said, comparing X Games to the Olympics. “I love this week. Like I said before, it’s got as much clout and amazing vibe and energy and atmosphere as you get at the Olympic Games, if not better.”

Australia’s Scotty James celebrates at the bottom of the halfpipe after his run at a past X Games Aspen contest at Buttermilk Ski Area.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

Hirano has shown the world he can land a triple cork in competition. So, the big question Friday will be if James can do the same. When asked on Tuesday if he has the triple cork in his quiver, he remained coy, but did make it seem he had something up his sleeve planned for the Buttermilk superpipe.

“It’s definitely a technical trick, and once you figure that out and how it works in your run, the next step is obviously implementing that to combo it into other things. I wouldn’t be surprised if this week we see some more and potentially probably landed, and then obviously into Beijing,” James said of the triple cork. “We got some triple corks done. Have I done any to snow yet? That’s the pleasure of X Games. You just got to wait and tune in.”

X GAMES SCHEDULE

A look at the events at the three-day run of X Games Aspen

*times listed are MST for in-person viewing

FRIDAY

10:30 a.m.: Women’s snowboard slopestyle

12:30 p.m.: Women’s ski big air

2:30 p.m.: Special Olympics Unified race

6 p.m.: Snowboard knuckle huck

7 p.m.: Women’s ski superpipe

8:35 p.m.: Men’s snowboard superpipe

SATURDAY

10:30 a.m.: Women’s ski slopestyle

Noon: Men’s snowboard slopestyle

1:45 p.m.: Women’s snowboard big air

5 p.m.: Women’s snowboard superpipe

6:45 p.m.: Men’s ski big air

8 p.m.: Men’s snowboard big air

SUNDAY

11 a.m.: Men’s ski slopestyle

5 p.m.: Ski knuckle huck

6:30 p.m.: Men’s ski superpipe

acolbert@aspentimes.com

Predicting the 2022 winners in X Games Aspen’s annual return to Buttermilk

Aspen’s Alex Ferreira airs out of the halfpipe during the men’s ski superpipe finals at X Games Aspen on Friday, Jan. 29, 2021, at Buttermilk Ski Area.
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

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.

New Zealand's Zoi Sadowski-Synnott laughs at the bottom of the course after a run during the women's snowboard slopestyle final on Friday, Jan. 29, 2021, at Buttermilk Ski Area in Aspen.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

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.

Basalt’s Hanna Faulhaber makes a run through the halfpipe during the women’s skiing finals at Dew Tour on Friday, Dec. 17, 2021, at Copper Mountain.
Hugh Carey/AP

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.

Japan's Ayumu Hirano competes in the men's snowboard halfpipe contest at the U.S. Revolution Tour stop on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021, at Buttermilk Ski Area.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

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

Saturday, noon

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.

Canada's Mark McMorris catches his breath after a run during the men's snowboard slopestyle finals at the U.S. Grand Prix and World Cup on Saturday, March 20, 2021, at Buttermilk Ski Area in Aspen.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

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.

Groomers prepare the X Games superpipe one week out from the 2022 events at Buttermilk Ski Area on Thursday, Jan. 13, 2022, in Aspen.
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

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?

California’s Maddie Mastro competes in the women’s snowboard superpipe finals at X Games Aspen on Jan. 30, 2021, at Buttermilk Ski Area. Mastro took home a silver medal.
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

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.

Aspen’s Alex Ferreira takes a moment after his first-place finish in the men’s halfpipe skiing finals at Dew Tour on Saturday, Dec. 18, 2021, at Copper Mountain.
Hugh Carey/AP

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.

acolbert@aspentimes.com

X Games Aspen 2022: What you need to know if you go to Buttermilk this weekend

Groomers have been working day and night to prepare the X Games superpipe for the 2022 events at Buttermilk in Aspen. Competition starts Friday morning.
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

The Winter X Games are back in Aspen and this year the fans are back as well. After going without spectators in 2021, fans are welcome for the compressed three-day event, which starts Friday morning.

Here’s what you need to know if you go out to Buttermilk Ski Area:

X GAMES SCHEDULE

A look at the events at the three-day run of X Games (times listed are MST for in person viewing):

FRIDAY

10:30 a.m.: Women’s snowboard slopestyle

12:30 p.m.: Women’s ski big air

2:30 p.m.: Special Olympics unified races

6 p.m.: Snowboard knuckle huck

7 p.m.: Women’s ski superpipe

8:35 p.m.: Men’s snowboard superpipe

SATURDAY

10:30 a.m.: Women’s ski slopestyle

Noon: Men’s snowboard slopestyle

1:45 p.m.: Women’s snowboard big air

5 p.m.: Women’s snowboard superpipe

6:45 p.m.: Men’s ski big air

8 p.m.: Men’s snowboard big air

SUNDAY

11 a.m.: Men’s ski slopestyle

5 p.m.: Ski knuckle huck

6:30 p.m.: Men’s ski superpipe

GOTTA HAVE VAX AND MASK …

If you plan to head to Buttermilk over the weekend for Winter X Games, here are a few things to know before you go:

— All spectators need to bring and wear a mask on all shuttles/buses to and from X Games Aspen. There is no onsite parking. Please take shuttles from Aspen or Brush Creek Park and Ride.

— Proof of vaccination required for all spectators 12 and older for entry into X Games spectator viewing areas; 11 and younger can come with a vaccinated adult but must wear a mask at all times, except when eating and drinking.

— Vaccination requirement: Upon vaccination confirmation, spectators will receive a wristband to use through the weekend (same wristband for the entire duration). Vaccination check points are at the main Buttermilk entrance, Rubey Park transit center (Thursday only, 2 to 5 p.m.) and at the Brush Creek lot (Friday, 5 to 8 p.m. and Saturday 11 to 8 p.m.).

Longtime X Games star Gus Kenworthy confirms retirement after Olympics

Gus Kenworthy hits the first jump during his final run in the men’s ski slopestyle qualifying event at X Games Aspen on Friday, Jan. 24, 2020, at Buttermilk Ski Area.
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

One of the most beloved and outspoken X Games athletes in history is ready to cross the finish line. Gus Kenworthy, who grew up partially in Telluride, confirmed that this week’s contest at Buttermilk Ski Area and next month’s Winter Olympics in China will be the last of his storied career.

The multi-disciplined skier spoke Tuesday as part of a pre-X Games Aspen press conference with reporters via Zoom.

“Yeah, these are going to be the last two competitions of my career. I am very excited for them,” Kenworthy said. “I don’t have any gold, and it’s always, always, always been my dream to win X Games gold, so that is very much what I’m going to be fighting for this weekend and also in Beijing.”

The 30-year-old Kenworthy is headed to his third Olympic Games, but his first representing Great Britain, his mother’s native land. He won silver in slopestyle skiing at the 2014 Sochi Olympics and took 12th in the same event at the 2018 Pyeongchang Games. He’ll likely compete in the halfpipe next month in China.

Kenworthy also has five X Games medals to his name, including two silver. He won both at X Games Aspen in 2016, one each in slopestyle and halfpipe. His bronze medals all came overseas: Tignes 2013 in slopestyle, and Oslo 2016 in both big air and halfpipe. As he brought up, he’s never won that coveted gold medal at X Games.

His finish this winter looked in doubt even a few weeks ago. Kenworthy said he suffered a concussion back in October and spent time working with UCLA doctors — he now lives in Los Angeles — on treatment. He then got the delta variant of COVID-19 and had to miss a couple of contests this winter, his only World Cup appearance being the Copper Mountain Grand Prix in December, of which he finished last in qualifying.

“There was a moment that I was nervous that even having my Olympic spot I might not be able to do it, because at that moment I really couldn’t ski,” Kenworthy said. “I’ve been in Copper for the last like 10 days training and I have done all of the tricks that I need to do in my run now. I haven’t put it all together, but I’m feeling pretty good. I’m feeling more confident. I don’t know if I feel 100%, but I feel 90% and if there is ever a time to give it my all, it’s right now.”

Kenworthy will compete in Sunday night’s men’s halfpipe skiing contest (6:30 p.m.) alongside Aspen local Alex Ferreira, a two-time X Games Aspen champion and the reigning Olympic silver medalist, and the rest of a strong U.S. contingent that includes Crested Butte’s Aaron Blunck, Winter Park’s Birk Irving and Nevada’s David Wise. New Zealand’s Nico Porteous, who won X Games gold last winter, is also expected to compete.

Gus Kenworthy competes in the 2018 U.S. Grand Prix and Olympic qualifier slopestyle event at Snowmass Ski Area.
Anna Stonehouse/Aspen Times archive

Entering the week, there were no plans for Kenworthy to compete in either slopestyle or big air.

Kenworthy, who is openly gay, was also planning to take part in aspects of Aspen Gay Ski Week over the coming days before dropping into the Buttermilk superpipe for one final contest here in Aspen on Sunday.

While there are a handful of big names — notably Shaun White, Chloe Kim and Eileen Gu — who have decided to sit out X Games this week out of injury and COVID-19 concerns ahead of the Olympics, Kenworthy said that wasn’t an option he had on the table.

“It was never a question. This is my last season doing this. X Games is just as important to me as the Olympics,” Kenworthy said. “I do think for a lot of athletes that chose not to come this year, it was a really hard decision. I don’t think any of those decisions came lightly and I don’t think any of those people didn’t want to do X Games or didn’t care about X Games. I think they did, but for whatever different reason, they didn’t want to risk it, whether it be injury or COVID or whatever. I think that was a calculation a lot of people had to make and I know it was a really, really tough decision for a lot of people to make. But it was no question for me.”

acolbert@aspentimes.com

Sustainably harvested aspen wood used to create this year’s X Games Aspen medals

For the third straight year, Ridgway artist Lisa Issenberg, of Kiitella studios, created the X Games Aspen medals. The 2022 design includes a piece of sustainably sourced aspen wood along with the metal.
Photo courtesy of ESPN

When the X Games athletes come to Aspen each year to compete, they often leave a bit of themselves behind, both physically and emotionally. This winter, the ESPN staff wanted to make sure the stars who make the podium also go home with a piece of Aspen, both physically and emotionally.

“We wanted to capture something iconic from this majestic location,” said Brian Kerr, ESPN’s associate director of competitions, who is in charge of the X Games medal design. “We wanted something these professional ski and snowboard phenoms could take back to their homes and not only feel proud that they podiumed at the ultimate action sports event that is X Games, but they would also remember where they were when they won, to take a piece of Aspen, Colorado, home with them.”

The X Games Aspen 2022 medals — including the knuckle huck rings and Rocket League awards — were again created by Colorado artist Lisa Issenberg. The founder and owner of Kiitella studio — a Finnish word meaning “to thank, applaud or praise” — in Ridgway, Issenberg first made the X Games medals in 2020 before also returning last winter.

She’s known for making many other awards, as well, from the Birds of Prey World Cup ski races at Beaver Creek to Aspen Skiing Co.’s own Power of Four events. Issenberg’s Ridgway studio has long been located in the same building as that of famed artist John Billings, who among other projects makes the Grammy awards.

For the third straight year, Ridgway artist Lisa Issenberg of Kiitella studios created the X Games Aspen medals. The 2022 design includes a piece of sustainably sourced aspen wood along with the metal.
Photo courtesy of Kiitella

“Brian Kerr’s vision was the spark for this year’s design,” Issenberg said. “He wanted to somehow capture that feeling one has of standing in a thick aspen grove … those perfectly round, white trees, with thick, smooth bark … a feeling of natural perfection and serenity.”

Unique to this year’s medals is the use of wood. Inlaid in the design is an actual piece of an aspen tree, which was sustainably harvested locally from either standing dead trees or trees that had already been knocked over by wind or avalanche.

This meshes with how Issenberg works with metal, which is all highly recycled with minimal waste created during the crafting process. That waste is even then recycled.

This year’s medals are round with “Aspen ’22” etched into the outside edges, with a gold, silver or bronze colored X Games logo making up the center. The inside of that “X” is cutout from the metal, with the aspen wood showing through. The famed X Games globe is burned into the wood in the center.

“The (wood) discs were turned on the lathe to fit perfectly within a slice of thick-walled steel pipe, which in terms of design represents the thick bark,” Issenberg explained. “All together, the medal synthesizes as an outside-the-box, custom-made hefty mixed-media work of art, melding industrial processes with handmade … with the intention to significantly honor the athletes’ incredible talent and accomplishment, and creatively represent the X Games brand.”

Medals are awarded to the top three placers in each event, outside of knuckle huck, with only the winner getting a ring. Kerr said along with each medal the athletes will receive a written description about the award that explains the aspen wood.

“Each medal is created by hand and just like the beautiful Aspen snowflakes that fall from the sky around here, no two are exactly the same,” Kerr said. “The medals look like they were forged on the banks and taken directly out of the Roaring Fork River moments ago, and we couldn’t be happier with the end result.”

X Games Aspen returns to Buttermilk Ski Area, beginning Friday and running through Sunday. Unlike the 2021 contest, which was closed to spectators because of the coronavirus pandemic, this year’s event will again be open to fans, although proof of COVID-19 vaccination will be needed for in-person viewing at Buttermilk.

acolbert@aspentimes.com

Basalt’s Hanna Faulhaber earns her first invite to X Games for halfpipe skiing

Basalt's Hanna Faulhaber trains ahead of the women's freeski halfpipe qualifier of the Land Rover U.S. Grand Prix and World Cup on Friday, March 19, 2021, at Buttermilk Ski Area in Aspen.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

Hanna Faulhaber’s dream season just got a little bit dreamier. The Basalt High School senior has received her first official invite to compete at X Games Aspen in January, a major step for the rising halfpipe skiing star.

The 17-year-old made the announcement Tuesday evening on Instagram, complete with pictures of herself as a young, brightly-clothed child hanging around the Buttermilk Ski Area halfpipe prior to a past X Games competition.

“As u may be able to tell X Games has been a dream of mine since I was a little girl in my purple onesie,” Faulhaber wrote on Instagram. “It is a big reason why I compete in the halfpipe. Thanks @xgames for making my dream come true.”

The invitation is hardly a surprise considering Faulhaber’s recent success. On Friday, she finished third at Copper Mountain’s Dew Tour for her first major podium, and a week earlier had finished fifth at the Copper Grand Prix. Both of those events were official U.S. Olympic team qualifiers, and the Dew Tour podium all but assures Faulhaber a bid to the 2022 Winter Olympics with only a single halfpipe qualifier remaining.

X Games is not a World Cup nor an Olympic qualifier and often includes a much more select field of athletes. With a month to go until the event’s return to Buttermilk, Faulhaber has been added to a list that currently includes seven others for the women’s halfpipe skiing contest, scheduled for 7 p.m. Friday, Jan. 21, the first night of X Games.

The list also includes rising Chinese/American sensation Eileen Gu, Estonian superstar Kelly Sildaru and reigning Olympic champion Cassie Sharpe of Canada. Great Britain’s Zoe Atkin, Canada’s Rachael Karker, China’s Fenghui Li and California’s Brita Sigourney round out the current lineup.

The U.S. Olympic ski and snowboard teams will likely be announced sometime around or before X Games, with the Winter Games set to start Feb. 4 in Beijing. Based off the three qualifiers so far, Faulhaber and Sigourney look set to make the trek to China. After that, the roster remains relatively fluid with only the Mammoth Mountain Grand Prix from Jan. 6-9 remaining to qualify.

Faulhaber’s recent run of strong performances goes back to last spring when she was a surprising fourth at the world championships, also held at Buttermilk back in March. A week later at the Aspen Grand Prix and first U.S. Olympic team qualifier, she had to withdraw after a hard crash during training, but has made up for it with her performances at Copper Mountain the past two weeks.

Faulhaber, who grew up skiing with the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club, is poised to add her name to a list of recent local athletes to have competed in both X Games and the Olympics. Alex Ferreira, the reigning Olympic silver medalist in men’s halfpipe skiing and a two-time X Games Aspen champion, tops that list. Fresh off back-to-back wins at both the Copper Grand Prix and Dew Tour, Ferreira is among the gold-medal frontrunners for X Games and the upcoming Olympics.

The Roaring Fork Valley’s Torin Yater-Wallace, who has since retired from competitive halfpipe skiing, is an X Games icon who competed in both the 2014 and 2018 Olympics. Aspen’s Cassidy Jarrell, who remains in the thick of the Olympic team chase although will need a magical run or two at Mammoth to get to China, made his X Games Aspen debut as a halfpipe skier in 2020.

Hanna Faulhaber poses for a portrait at the base of the Aspen Snowmass Freeskiing Open course on Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2020, at Buttermilk Ski Area.
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

Halfpipe skiing has only been an Olympic sport since the 2014 Games — halfpipe snowboarding made its debut way back in 1998 — with Nevada’s David Wise having won both Olympic gold medals for the men. Tahoe’s Maddie Bowman won Olympic gold for the women in 2014, followed by Sharpe’s win in 2018. Bowman has since retired from the sport.

Next up for the halfpipe skiers is a World Cup event in Calgary held around the New Year. Faulhaber said she plans to compete; the Canadian contests are not official U.S. Olympic team qualifiers. After that, athletes will travel to Mammoth and then X Games, before the lucky few will make their way to China for the Olympics.

acolbert@aspentimes.com

Only vaccinated fans, athletes are to be allowed at next month’s X Games Aspen

Skiers on Buttermilk Ski Area stop on the other side of the boundary fence to watch the slopestyle finals during the 2021 X Games at Buttermilk on Sunday, Jan. 31, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Live fans will be back at next month’s Winter X Games in Aspen, though concerts and motor sports will remain on pause because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

That was the word Tuesday from an ESPN representative who briefed Pitkin County commissioners on the Jan. 21-23 event that has been held at Buttermilk Ski Area for the past 20 years. Fans were not allowed at last year’s event because of COVID-19 transmission concerns.

“I’m really glad you’re having some crowd this year,” Commissioner Steve Child said. “There’s nothing more exciting than to be up on the halfpipe somewhere and have, just a few feet away from you, people doing these amazing things. It’s a whole different element than watching it on television.”

To accommodate fans in the COVID era, the 2022 Winter X Games event area will have a hard fence line separating it from the larger Buttermilk Ski Area for the first time ever. Only vaccinated spectators will be allowed inside the event area, and a vaccination card and government identification will be necessary to receive an entrance wristband, said Vanessa Anthes, associate director for ESPN’s global X Games events.

Staff, athletes and vendors also must be vaccinated to participate in X Games next month. While testing will not be part of the games like it was last year because of the vaccination requirement, anyone suspected of having COVID-19 will go through protocols that include testing, quarantine and contact tracing, Anthes said.

Feedback from Winter X Games last year — when spectators were not allowed because of the pandemic — indicated that athletes and Aspen locals missed the crowd energy and being able to see local favorites perform, Anthes said.

Event capacity will be based on whatever the final fenced-in area turns out to be and capacity maximums determined by fire code. ESPN is not worried about accommodating crowds who show up, though there will not be a reservation system for event tickets, said Anthes and Danny Chi, ESPN senior director of communications.

“It’s great to have spectators back,” Chi said.

No parking will be available on site at Buttermilk, with Roaring Fork Transportation Authority buses running shuttle service to the venue.

Child cheered the lack of motor sports events at this season’s games, an element also missing last year when just skiing and snowboard competitions were held.

“To me, the noise is annoying when you go in person,” he said.

Commissioner Francie Jacober, however, took issue with Child’s brush-off.

“I know lots of people who are wild about the snowmobile events,” she said. “So I don’t necessarily agree with you on that.”

Climate change was on the mind of two commissioners, who suggested ESPN do more to offset the X Games’ carbon footprint.

Commissioner Greg Poschman asked if the network could offset the carbon footprint for people who drive or fly in to attend the event, while board Chair Kelly McNicholas Kury wondered if ESPN might be able to make X Games a carbon-neutral event.

“Make X Games the first carbon-neutral big games sporting event for other sporting events to look up to,” McNicholas Kury said. “It would support our community goals.”

Anthes said the network would be happy to participate in future planning for X Games.

Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo praised ESPN as a reliable and responsive partner during the past two decades of Winter X Games.

“This is our 21st year together,” he said. “It’s always been raising the bar every year. I think they are probably the gold standard for events that we should hold other events to. I trust them implicitly.”

jauslander@aspentimes.com

Fans to return to X Games Aspen 2022 with proof of COVID-19 vaccination

Media and athlete support stand in an otherwise empty spectator corral during the women’s ski big air final at the base of the course during the 2021 X Games Aspen at Buttermilk on Friday, Jan. 29, 2021.
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

Fans will return to X Games Aspen in 2022, it was announced Tuesday by ESPN. After last year’s event was held for the first time without spectators because of the coronavirus pandemic, they’ll be allowed to return for January’s contests, although attendees will be required to wear a mask indoors when not eating or drinking, and will be required to show proof of full COVID-19 vaccination for admittance.

“X Games Aspen 2022 will welcome spectators back to competition viewing and X Fest areas with proof of full COVID-19 vaccination, and masks must be worn in all indoor X Games event areas except when eating or drinking,” the news release said. “Fans 11 years old and under may attend without vaccination if accompanied by a vaccinated adult and must wear a form-fitting facemask at all times except when eating and drinking.”

The news release did make clear that Buttermilk Ski Area, which is set to host X Games for the 21st straight year, will be open to regular skiing and snowboarding during X Games under Aspen Skiing Co. guidelines and proof of vaccination won’t be required to access the mountain. Vaccines are only required for those wanting access to the competition viewing areas and X Fest areas.

X Games is scheduled for Jan. 21 through 23 and once again looks like it will be a slimmed down version without any of the motorsports, although the Special Olympics Unified competition will return. The announced competitions include superpipe, slopestyle, big air and knuckle huck for both skiing and snowboarding.

The 14 disciplines between men and women will include 13.5 hours of live coverage on ESPN and ABC, with additional coverage found through ESPN’s social media platforms.

ESPN has already announced an extensive list of invited athletes, including Aspen’s own Alex Ferreira, who won gold in halfpipe skiing in both 2019 and 2020. Plenty of other familiar superstars were listed as having been invited, including snowboard icon Shaun White, who hasn’t competed at X Games since 2017. He had intended to compete in 2021, but withdrew from the competition after hurting his knee during training.

Jamie Anderson holds her seventh gold medal in slopestyle after winning the 2021 women’s slopestyle final at X Games Aspen at Buttermilk on Friday, Jan. 29, 2021.
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

Jamie Anderson, Henrik Harlaut, Scotty James, Gus Kenworthy, Chloe Kim and Mark McMorris are all among the A-list names on the invitee list so far. McMorris, the Canadian snowboarding superstar, was the biggest name to miss X Games 2021 after he tested positive for COVID-19 ahead of the contests.

X Games Aspen will likely be the final competition for the athletes ahead of the 2022 Winter Olympics, scheduled for Feb. 4 through 20 in Beijing. Unlike many of this year’s skiing and snowboarding competitions leading up to X Games, including Dew Tour at Copper Mountain in December, X Games is not an Olympic qualifier for U.S. athletes.

Skico hopes for colorful setting when X Games, Gay Ski Week in town

Aspen Skiing Co. President and CEO Mike Kaplan addresses the group gathered for the Afternoon Blend hosted by Skico and Aspen Chamber Resort Association at Bumps at Buttermilk Ski Resort in Aspen on Monday, October 4, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Drag queens commentating about high-flying stunts over a rainbow-colored superpipe is a scenario Aspen Skiing Co. is envisioning for January when the Winter X Games and Gay Ski Week overlap.

With Gay Ski Week scheduled Jan. 16-22 and the Winter X Games Jan. 21-23, two of Aspen’s premier winter events will share the spotlight for two days and nights. The last overlap came in 2004.

Gay Ski Week is celebrating its 45th year in Aspen this winter; the Winter X Games has been held in Aspen since 2002.

“We thought, ‘What if we really brought two unexpected things together?’” Erin Sprague, Skico’s chief brand officer, said Monday during Skico and the Aspen Chamber Resort Association’s annual Afternoon Blend previewing the winter ahead.

Skico has partnered with both events over the years, providing the Buttermilk venue to ESPN, which produces the X Games, and playing host to Gay Ski Week’s Friday drag-skiing race on the Little Nell run at Aspen Mountain, for example.

Sprague showed the audience a mock version of a rainbow superpipe, the same place from where the likes of Aspen’s own Gretchen Bleiler, Alex Ferreira and Torin Yater-Wallace have dazzled spectators with medal-winning X Games performances over the years.

“This is one of our ideas,” she said. “I’m sure ESPN is going to be thrilled about this idea. But we really want to bring these two unexpected things together.”

Sprague also discussed the plan to have drag queens provide some commentary about the X Games as a fun departure from the heavy dose of extreme-sports jargon — think “alley-oop,” “vertical axis,” “corkscrew” — broadcasters regularly employ.

“We’re going to bring in a drag queen, and we’re going to have a drag queen narrate X Games, what’s happening, a live special,” she said. “We’re working closely with Gay Ski Week on this, and we’re really excited about it.”

Skico has a recent history of taking environmental, social and political positions. And a “warming future,” said Skico President and CEO Mike Kaplan at the Afternoon Blend, is one reason the company is proposing the 153-acre expansion of Aspen Mountain into the Pandora’s terrain. The matter is scheduled to go to Pitkin County commissioners for final approval Oct. 13.

“To have a whole new pod of skiing that’s above 10,000 feet and north-facing, it’s necessary in today’s ski business,” he said. “And I think it’s critical to us, not only maintaining the competitive edge that Aspen Mountain and our four mountains have, but to really ensure this remains a vibrant ski town, a ski-centered town. And that’s really our agenda here, our only agenda here.”

Rebranding effort underway

Also underway at Skico, which will be celebrating the company’s 75th anniversary this season, is a rebranding effort that included the quiet launch of its redesigned website this week and the August debut of its ski-wear business inspired by employee uniforms with the new company logo. The company’s app will be updated in November, Sprague said.

Some 1,000 employees recently attended Skico’s inaugural brand camp emphasizing “this is who we are and what we believe,” Sprague said.

Skico also is repainting the exteriors of the buckets on the Aspen Mountain gondola, and also replacing their plexiglass windows. Buckets on the Elk Camp Gondola at Snowmass Ski Area are getting touch-ups showing the new logo, as well, according to Sprague.

The intent of the rebrand is to bring more cohesion and uniformity among the Skico properties.

“Doing a rebrand across a resort is a mighty task,” Sprague said. “Some of our assets have been updated, some are in process, so you can expect a little bit of a transition period.”

Season passes this year — in keeping with Skico’s tradition of exhibiting artwork on them — will highlight the bear-inspired work of Italian artist Paola Pivi.

Recognizing local workers

The Aspen Chamber Resort Association also announced Monday that it is dedicating this month of October to frontline and guest service workers working under pandemic conditions.

“Their job continues to be tough, and I just really want to recognize that,” said ACRA President and CEO Debbie Braun.

The chamber this week handed out gift cards to employees at Clark’s Market, and they’ll continue to recognize workers at other businesses this month.

“Throughout the month ACRA is surprising local frontline staff with gifts, offering public recognition throughout town, and hosting a grand prize giveaway,” said an ACRA announcement.

rcarroll@aspentimes.com