Getting X-Treme at the Winter X Games
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In a world that seems to be constantly changing, it is nice to know that some things do stay the same. Marking its 20th year in Aspen, Colorado, the 2021 Winter X Games slid in with yet another jaw-dropping competition, filled with gravity-defying tricks and historic talent. Straight from Buttermilk Mountain, just under 100 of the world’s most skilled winter athletes competed in the first international snowboard and freeski event of the season.
The X Games, well known for being one of the biggest snow-sport events of the year, was held over the course of three days with 14 action-filled disciplines, including men and women’s big air, superpipe, halfpipe, slopestyle, and Knuckle Huck for both skiing and snowboarding. This year’s competition took on a jam-session format for every event, meaning that athletes had a set time frame to complete as many runs as they could, with each athlete’s best run’s score being ranked.
While the same incredible jumps and tricks were present over the course of the event, the X Games, like every major competition, was forced to adapt in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. In stark contrast to previous years’ live concerts and fan interactions, this year’s competition was closed to all spectators and consisted of a slimmed-down roster, making for an oddly quiet weekend. In addition, all motocross events were cut, leaving only skiing and snowboarding. Without any fans cheering, the silence on the slope was broken only by the scrape of skis and snowboards. Several big names, including Mark McMorris, the most decorated X Games contestant of all time, also had to sit out due to testing positive for COVID-19. Mark McMorris had previously never missed a competition since his debut in 2011.
Among other pandemic-related adjustments, the X Games incorporated an interactive, immersive virtual media hub to bring the event to fans at home. Live-telecast announcers Craig McMorris, Brandon Graham, Jimmy Coleman, and Tom Wallisch provided engaging analysis and raw reactions for virtual viewers. With these adaptations, the X Games continued to successfully showcase both famous and rising athletes as they took on the Aspen slopes.
One of the more shocking breakout stories of the Games involved rookie Dusty Henricksen. At only 17 years old, Henricksen competed in three events, taking home two gold medals by the end of the weekend. In the men’s snowboard slopestyle, Henricksen coasted down the course in a short-sleeved t-shirt, picking up a gold medal and edging out Olympic champion Red Gerard. As such, Henricksen became the first American since Shaun White in 2009 to win this contest. In the men’s snowboard Knuckle Huck, Henricksen continued his strong form, securing yet another gold medal.
Another name to remember from the weekend is China’s Eileen Gu, a 17-year-old rookie who crushed the competition. In her X Games debut, Gu won gold in both the women’s ski superpipe and women’s ski slopestyle, also placing third in the women’s ski big air. In doing so, she broke several records. She became the first woman to win two gold medals in her rookie year, the first woman to earn three medals in her rookie year, and the first athlete from China to ever win a gold medal. In the past 26 years that athletes representing China have competed in the X Games, they have won a total of three medals. Gu single handedly doubled that number in one weekend.
Of course, many big names made their mark over the course of the competition as well. Jamie Anderson, a two-time Olympic gold medalist in women’s snowboard slopestyle and the most decorated woman in X Games history, performed strongly throughout the competition. Anderson came out on top in the women’s snowboard slopestyle, throwing down a cab double 9 right off the bat, and secured her seventh career gold medal in the event. She won her first gold medal in the women’s snowboard big air event as well, which featured every 2018 Olympic medalist. Anderson was also the first woman to ever compete in the snowboard Knuckle Huck event. She now holds 19 career Winter X Games medals, leaving her one away from tying Mark McMorris’s record of 20 total X Games medals.
Another notable story was Chloe Kim’s return to competition. After taking time off to focus on her freshman year at Princeton, Kim’s return to competition was highly anticipated. It’s safe to say that she lived up to the hype. Taking home gold in the women’s snowboard halfpipe, Kim received her fifth Aspen title in the event since her X Games debut when she was only 14 years old. Kim now has eight X Games medals to her name.
This year’s X Games were also supposed to mark White’s return to competitive snowboarding for the first time since the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics. The expected showdown between White and Scotty James, both Olympic medalists, on the snowboard superpipe unfortunately did not happen, as White was kept out with a knee injury. With White out of the picture, James took home the silver medal while Japan’s Yuto Totsuka claimed the first gold medal of his career.
One of the most impressive events of the X Games was the men’s snowboard big air, the highest-scoring big air competition ever. Marcus Kleveland took home the gold with a composite score of 96/100 after executing two nearly-flawless 1800 jumps, both the four-inversion, five-rotation quad cork 1800 with an Indy grab and a frontside switch 1800 spin. If this execution wasn’t surprising enough, by the end of the night, every athlete who ranked in the top five had landed at least one 1800 jump. Sven Thorgren and Mons Røisland, silver and bronze medalists, respectively, both landed 1800s they had never tried in competition before. Chris Corning landed his first quad cork 1800, as well as another flat spin 1800. Most notably, Tareku Otsuka landed the world’s first-ever front quad cork 1800, en route to placing fifth in the event.
Several athletes across the X Games executed similarly astonishing jumps. In the women’s ski big air event, gold medalist Mathilde Gremaud landed the first 1440 jump ever in women’s competition. Nico Porteous landed two 1620s back-to-back, securing the gold medal in the men’s ski superpipe. In men’s ski big air, Andri Ragettli won the event after managing to land an unprecedented triple cork 1980. In the same event, bronze medalist Alex Hall performed remarkably well with several 1800 jumps.
Though the pandemic did affect the overall atmosphere of the competition, the competing athletes still went above and beyond, delivering trick after trick. Overall, while maintaining COVID guidelines, this year’s X Games kicked off the winter season smoothly, showcasing many fan-favorite athletes and highlighting major breakout stars who will surely make noise in the seasons to come.