Confessions of an X Games Noob
Here’s a full confession: I am probably the least coordinated person I know.
I played mainstream sports reasonably well throughout my childhood but any type of action sport eluded me. I’ve never been skiing or snowboarding mostly because, considering how bad I always was at skateboarding, I knew it would end badly.
Since I knew next to nothing about action sports, I never even watched the X Games on TV. So when my editor asked me if I wanted to go to Aspen to cover the 2015 iteration of the winter games, my plan was, roughly, “learn on the fly.”
This is a guide for those, like me, who don’t follow action sports, but might be considering making a trip to Colorado to see these Games in the future. For you, it should be informative. For an experienced X Games attendee, it should be high comedy considering the number of rookie mistakes I made. These are my Aspen experiences.
Thursday – Day 1
Rule No. 1 about Aspen: don’t let daytime temperatures fool you.
I flew into Aspen and landed about 3 p.m. local time. The weather at the time was cold but reasonable and remained that way throughout the afternoon. After checking in, I decided to get some dinner and then go to the men’s snowboard Superpipe competition, which I had heard would be one of the highlights of the games.
I arrived at the competition mountain, known as Buttermilk, wearing just one extra sweater compared to the afternoon. Big mistake. Within minutes of standing outside at the event, I was frozen from head to toe in weather that was easily 15-20 degrees colder than it had been with the sun out that afternoon. I retreated to the heated press tent to regroup. Yes, I copped out on my first night, but if I had not, frostbite might have set in and then I wouldn’t have been able to type this guide for you.
From the tent I watched an incredibly exciting event unfold. Although I didn’t know the names of many of the moves the competitors pulled off, it was still easy to tell which tricks stood out from the rest. Defending champion Danny Davis ended up taking the gold medal on the competition’s final run of the night, posting the best score of this year’s event in the X Games equivalent of a walk-off home run. Monster’s Iouri Podladtchkov, known as Ipod to fans, took the bronze.
One aspect of this event that stood out and added to the drama was the scoring system in which a panel of judges rated each run for difficulty on a scale of 0-100. Therefore, unlike most sports, the outcome of a play (in this case an individual run) is not immediately known.
Davis, for example, needed a 92.34 or higher to beat leader-in-the-clubhouse Taku Hiraoka for the gold. After his run, it was a good 45 seconds before his winning score of 93.66 flashed on the scoreboard. Those short seconds seemed to take an eternity and added an extra layer of tension to the event.
Friday – Day 2
After being unprepared for the weather on Day 1, I bundled up in several extra layers for my second run at watching an X Games event live. The main event of the second day of competition was the Big Air event, in which snowboarders fly off an 80 foot-high ramp and try to do as many flips and twists as possible before they land (hopefully right side up). My main thought as I was watching the competition was, “The person who invented this must have had a death wish of some kind.”
With my extra layers, I was able to stay outside the whole competition and mingle with the crowd, which was lined up on the side of the track as well as at the bottom. The people at the bottom of the hill were able to see the athletes up close after the runs (as well as get sprayed by some of the snow they kicked up when stopping), but those on the side had a better vantage point to see the tricks.
I spent most of my time on the side and the experience was, ironically, much like being in a gallery at a golf tournament. The fans lined the hill from top to bottom, trying to get the best angle possible to see the competitors. I ended up about the middle of the hill, which involved walking up a steep, snow-covered slope in sneakers. Rule No. 2 about the Winter X Games: bring boots. The slope was so steep that some fans, instead of walking back down decided to slide as if they were on invisible sleds.
The crowd, despite having the appearances of a golf gallery couldn’t have been any different demographically. The vast majority of fans were 20-somethings and had a vast knowledge of the event. Names of tricks, such as “backside triple cork 1620” were thrown around as they happened.
The younger crowd created a party-type atmosphere, almost like being in the lawn seats at a concert; the music is important, but having fun with friends is even more of a priority. Many of the fans came equipped with handheld extreme action cameras and the smell of marijuana filled the air constantly.
Monster’s Sage Kotsenburg, coming off a gold medal in slopestyle at the Sochi Olympics was the fan favorite, getting far and away the most cheers as he rode a snowmobile back to the top of the hill after each run.
Eventual gold medal-winner Mark McMorris earned the adulation of the crowd with an unbelievable run in the finals, a performance that put on display just how passionate the X Games fans are. The crowd knew immediately how fantastic the run had been and roared in unison as soon as he landed on his feet. It didn’t stop until he was all the way back at the top of the hill.
Saturday – Day 3
I spent most of my third and final day at the Games wandering around the competition area at Buttermilk, taking in the sights.
The competition area is set up with booths that fans can purchase merchandise at as they head up the hill to view the competition. Companies such as Oakley® and of course Monster set up booths to sell their wares, giving the competition a feel almost like a music festival where little convenience booths surround a big stage (the mountain).
A unique aspect of the X Games is that officials do not force Buttermilk to shut down to the public on days of the events. Therefore, the ski hill, which lies parallel to the superpipe and Big Air hills, is open on competition days and those who choose to do so can be skiing on the same mountain where world-class athletes are competing just a few hundred feet away. It is akin to having amateur pickup basketball going on at a court adjacent to an NBA Finals game. This phenomenon gives the Games a much more personal feel in the mind of this writer.
A further positive aspect of the organization of the Games is the shuttle system. There are buses that run continuously from early in the morning to close to the end of the competition around 10:30 p.m. local time. There are multiple shuttles that pick up from the competition mountain and take fans to downtown Aspen where most of the hotels are located with frequent stops along the way. This is convenient because downtown Aspen is not walking distance from the mountain (it is about a 10-minute drive), so the Games organizers have transportation down to a science. The whole weekend I don’t think I ever waited more than 10 minutes for a bus while at the mountain. Overall, the setup of the Games seems to be very efficient and allows for fans to enjoy themselves as much as possible.
The events themselves were extremely exciting this day, as well, a highlight of which was 14-year old Chloe Kim winning the women’s snowboard superpipe, making her the youngest to win a gold at the Winter X Games.