Spence steeled for Winter X Games
Deafened by hometown fans screaming in adoration, looking up at a giant X Games scoreboard and seeing his name in lights at the top of the standings, it must have been a divine moment for Snowmass Village native Steele Spence.
But the young Spence, who only qualified for last year’s Winter X Games one week before, had to watch as, one by one, the final three skiing slopestyle competitors bumped him from first place to fourth.
Divine one moment, fleeting memory the next.
“I missed it,” he sighed at the time. “So close.”
This year, however, instead of consuming himself with simply qualifying for the X Games, like the past two years at last-chance qualifiers, the 20-year-old freeskier’s automatic invitation back – with a top-five finish – has enabled him to focus all his energies on a singular purpose.
That purpose, he says Tuesday morning while practicing at home at Snowmass, is reeling in one Tanner Hall.
Hall is the California freeskier who has won both skiing slopestyle gold medals since ESPN debuted the event at Buttermilk in 2002. And by default, Hall remains the favorite when the 2004 X Games skiing slopestyle contest takes off on Sunday.
But Spence is not alone in the pursuit.
“I would say everyone’s gunning for him,” Spence says. “He’s won it however-many-years-in-a-row, like, it would be amazing if someone beat Tanner. The kid is so good and so consistent; it really would be amazing if someone beat him.”
To that end, Spence has reloaded his bag of tricks, reformulated his game plan.
“Big switch tricks,” he says. “I didn’t have any tricks taking off backwards last year and that’s how Tanner wins all his competitions. I know that’s going to be huge, man. Big switch 9s and switch 10s.
“And I’ve been working a lot on getting really technical on rails – all sorts of natural and unnatural stuff on rails and big spins, spinning on and off the rails.”
Spence demonstrates his rail work at the Snowmass Pipeline Tuesday with a “270-on, 270-off,” a trick that involves a three-quarter rotation spin onto, then off, a snow-covered rail.
He makes it look easy, like an uncontested Carmelo Anthony finger roll.
“And hopefully I’m gonna do a switch-bio trick – which is corked forward,” Spence continues, referring to a trick that incorporates an off-axis, or corked, flip. “Tanner usually stays pretty upright, doing standard switch 9s. There will definitely be some switch corked 9s in my portfolio.”
All the lingo used by slopestyle competitors, X Gamers in general, can be tough to translate. However, watch Spence in action – or Hall or other top guns like Maine-iac Simon Dumont or Swede Jon Olsson – and the vocabulary becomes a necessity. Like the triple axel of figure skating, the ever more complex routines beg classification.
“It’s gotten a little out of control, stuff I can barely keep up with,” he says, “but I think that speaks to the progressive nature of the sport – X Games as a whole. Always pushing.”
Spence grew up skiing with the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club freestyle team. Coaches and friends say Spence, even from a very young age, was a rare talent – both for his ability to execute the standard fare freestyle of the era and for his creative eye. One friend remembers seeing Spence grinding rails at Snowmass before snowboarders brought the practice to the fore.
And yet, Spence, now part owner of 4FRNT Skis and one of the new-school freeskiing revolution’s leading spokesmodels, feels pressure to perform here for the X Games.
“The two years before there was pressure about qualifying for the X Games, gettin’ in any way possible,” he says. “So before I was worrying about qualifying, but this year I’ve just been worrying about the X Games.
“Everyone feels more pressure for this competition – from your sponsors, and with the television being there, everyone just tries to step it up. This is the biggest event of the year … and it’s huge to get on the podium here. It gives you a lot of credibility, a lot of pull with your sponsors. It’s what everyone’s shooting for, anyone who wants to stay in the game, keep pushing their career.”
And to date, that’s just what Spence has managed to do.
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