Fringe, fad or fantastic?
In its time it sent shock waves through the Colorado skiing world, and visitors from all over the U.S. and Europe would gather at noon (weather permitting) to see it happen. Outside the mountain-top restaurant at Aspen Highlands, legendary skier Stein Eriksen would throw a front flip off an icy white kicker, hurtling his long wooden skis over his head and landing to the applause of Aspen’s growing ski community.That was 1959.Forty-four years later the colors are brighter, the acrobatics are more extraordinary, and the collective applause of 40,000 people rock the spectator corral.But when ESPN’s Winter X Games begin their four-day display of all the leading winter extreme sports Jan. 30, one thing will remain the same: location.The X Games venue at Buttermilk isn’t the exact spot where Eriksen threw his ground-breaking front flips, but it’s only a few minutes away from where skiing and aerial contortions first came together to reach the national spotlight.Flips would be considered bland fare at the Winter X Games, where terms like “rodeo-seven” and “toxic mute grab” have replaced lingo from simpler days. Young skiers, snowboarders and snowmobilers on the cutting edge of their sports are riding superpipe, slopestyle and racing in the six-man head-to-head skier X competition for the largest prizes in their respective sports.Along with the U.S. Freeskiing Open, to be held in Vail Feb. 6-9, veteran twin-tipper C.R. Johnson says the X Games are as big as it gets when it comes to competition in his world.”The X Games are our Olympics,” he explains. “They don’t have our aspects of skiing in the Olympics, and so the X Games are definitely the biggest event for us and the most important.”For athletes like Johnson, the X Games television coverage can make or break a career. With 20 hours of programming on ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC from Jan. 30-Feb. 5, the Winter X Games will be telecast in 10 languages to more than 145 countries and territories, reaching more than 110 million homes around the world.”It’s a career-maker or a career-breaker,” says Micheal Jaquet, who founded FREEZE magazine and documented the new trends in skiing beginning in 1998. “It’s the difference between just being a local kid and getting a few pairs of skis thrown at you and living the dream getting paid even as much as six figures and skiing all over the world.”Creative urgesWith a house at Lake Tahoe and a ski-riddled schedule, Johnson is the prototype for the new free-riding skier. He’s a success story born almost completely from the X Games, slopestyle competition and big-mountain ski movies.At 19 years old, he and his best buddy, Tanner Hall, have become icons to an increasingly large sector of the ski world.Being a professional skier is a role that, traditionally, has belonged to alpine racers. Names like Billy Kidd, Buddy Werner, Spider Sabich, Tommy Moe, Steve and Phil Mahre and Picabo Street have brought alpine racing to the forefront of American snowsports.As World Cup competition became more intense, so did the training regimen. Becoming a World Cup skier is now a full-time, seven-day-a-week pursuit that leaves little time for free skiing, having fun and exploring creative new ways to get down the mountain.And that’s how X Games athletes are born.Almost invariably, X Games competitors come from the ranks of resort-based ski racers who could no longer bear to watch their friends ski fresh powder while they struggled with the icy ruts of a race course. Something clicked after enough stray skiers headed off-piste and into the freedom of freeriding, and flying off cliffs and landing in soft white stuff grew from a recreational pursuit to a way to make a living.Three men were at the center of the movement. Soon after the Mahre brothers took control of the World Cup ski circuit in the early 1980s, filmmaker Greg Stump began shooting films about people who left the world of gates to pursue a high-speed ski fantasy. Stump and his two ski stars, Glen Plake and Scott Schmidt, became ski idols. A few years later, the term “extreme” was born, and with it came a new generation of skiers.”When I was young, like before I was 10 years old, my big heroes were Scott Schmidt and Glen Plake,” says Johnson.”When I look at the history of skiing, it’s only been cool twice,” he says. “It was cool when Plake and Schmidt were doing it, with huge sponsors and tons of people watching it, and the second cool era is now.”Big gaps and generationsAny time Johnson hits a Colorado mountain on the weekends, he’s bound to share it with 80-year-old skier and former 10th Mountain Division second Lt. Tim Tyler.Tyler came to Colorado after serving in the Army during World War II, and he’s made skiing a big part of his life ever since.”It’s the greatest thing I’ve ever been able to do is ski,” he says.Tyler’s 10th Mountain Division paved the way for Colorado’s ski industry and helped build the infrastructure that allows for growth in the sport snowcats, terrain parks, and ultimately, events like the X Games.Skiing was about style and technique in his era, but catching air wasn’t a priority in leather boots and wooden skis.”The acrobatic stuff is strange,” he says. “But all that’s fine if they want to do it. I talk to them once in a while they’re a high-risk group all right. Their bodies can only stand so much of those acrobatics, but when you’re young, I guess nothing can happen to you.”In honor of skiers of all types, whether they’re like Johnson or Tyler, Rossignol has collected a museum display of the history of skis, from a 323-year-old set of wooden planks to the polymer/fiberglass/metal shaped skis of today.”When I think about how old our sport is, and yet how it’s able to revitalize itself it’s amazing to me,” says Rossignol’s Jeanne-Marie Gand. “It is and it always has been about two pieces of something strapped to your feet.”The next waveChris DelBosco is someone who can’t resist strapping something to his feet each and every day. A heavy regimen of skiing and workouts with a personal trainer have paid off, and DelBosco’s dream of racing in the skier X comes true Jan. 31.Like most skier X racers, DelBosco comes from a heavy gate-racing background. He was ranked as the No. 1 junior ski racer by the United States Ski and Snowboard Association three years ago, dominating his age group with ease in all four alpine events.But the images of Plake and Schmidt have gotten to him, too. Now, at 20 years old, he’s riding the park, riding rails, and riding everything he can except gates.”World Cup racing requires so much precision, and endless dedication,” he says. “I just wanted a break from that I’d been doing for a long time. You have to train, go to school, all of your friends come from the racing world, and that’s all you’re doing is chasing gates.”DelBosco is a perfect vision of the X Games athlete: young, able and willing to risk everything on a dream. His sport is new but gaining acceptance with the International Ski Federation, and there is talk of skier X (called skiercross by FIS) becoming an Olympic demonstration sport in 2006 when the Olympics head to Turino, Italy. And skiercross is developing a circuit through the FIS.With the coaching and experience gained during his time on the FIS B tour and the NorAm racing tour, DelBosco has the ski knowledge necessary to learn to glide and slide past the competition in the sport, which launches six racers simultaneously down a course filled with bumps, jumps, and turns like a super-G race through a terrain park with five other people elbowing past for rank.The X Games enter their seventh year when they come to Aspen Jan. 30, but only time will tell if, like Eriksen’s front flips, they can withstand the test of time and find a niche in the annals of ski history.ESPN WINTER X GAMES VIIWednesday, Jan. 29Skier X M&W Practice 9 a.m.-noonSnowmobile SnoCross Practice 9 a.m.-noonSki Slopestyle Practice 10 a.m.-3 p.m.Snowboarder X M&W Practice noon-3:30 p.m.Snowmobile SnoCross Practice 1 p.m.-3 p.m.Thursday, Jan. 30Snowboarder X M&W Practice 8 a.m.-9:30 a.m.Snowmobile SnoCross Practice 8 a.m.-9 a.m.Snowboard SuperPipe M&W Practice 9 a.m.-3:30 p.m.Ski Slopestyle Practice 9 a.m.-11 a.m.Snowboarder X M&W Qualifier 9:30 a.m.-11:30 a.m.Snowmobile SnoCross Qualifier 10 a.m.-12:30 p.m.Snowboarder X M&W Finals 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m.Ski Slopestyle Final 12:30 p.m. -1:30 p.m.Snowmobile SnoCross Final 1:30-3:30 p.m.Friday, Jan. 31Snowboard SuperPipe Men’s Practice 8 a.m.-9 a.m.Skier X M&W Practice 8 a.m.-9:30 a.m.Snowboard SuperPipe Men’s Qualifier 9 a.m.-11 a.m.Skier X M&W Qualifier 9:30 a.m.-11:30 a.m.Moto X Big Air Practice 10 a.m.-1 p.m.Snowboard SuperPipe Men’s Final 11 a.m.-11:45 a.m.Skier X M&W Finals 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m.Snowboard SuperPipe Women’s Practice 11:45 a.m.-12:45 p.m.Snowboard SuperPipe Women’s Qualifier 12:45 p.m.-2:30 p.m.Snowboard SuperPipe Women’s Final 2:30 p.m.-3:15 p.m.Saturday, Feb. 1Moto X Big Air Practice 9 a.m.-11 a.m.UltraCross Practice 9 a.m.-11 a.m.Skiing SuperPipe Practice 9 a.m.-noonSnowboarding Slopestyle M&W Practice 10 a.m.-3 p.m.Moto X Big Air Final 11 a.m.-12:30 p.m.UltraCross Final 11 a.m.-1:30 p.m.Skiing SuperPipe Final 1:30-2:30 p.m.Sunday, Feb. 2Snowmobile HillCross Practice 8 a.m.-9:30 a.m.Snowboard Slopestyle Men’s Practice 8 a.m.-9 a.m.Snowboard Slopestyle Men’s Qualifier 9 a.m.-11 a.m.Snowmobile HillCross Qualifier 10 a.m.-11:30 a.m.Snowboard Slopestyle Men’s Final 11 a.m.-11:45 a.m.Snowboard Slopestyle Women’s Practice 11:45 a.m.-12:45 p.m.Snowmobile HillCross Final noon-2 p.m.Snowboard Slopestyle Women’s Qualifier 12:45-2:30 p.m.Snowboard Slopestyle Women’s Final 2:30-3:15 p.m.*Schedule is subject to change.– Courtesy of ESPN
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