A New Dimension
ASPEN, Colo. -- Nowhere in the action sports stratosphere does the possibility needle move forward more often than at the X Games. You can count on it. One week, human beings can do this; the next, after the X Games have concluded, a whole new dimension exists.
Almost without exception, those new dimensions are created by athletes who win gold medals. Yet on Saturday night in the Buttermilk Mountain SuperPipe, 23-year-old Elena Hight bucked that trend, and a much more exclusive one, too.
in May, while training with the U.S. Snowboard Team at California's Mammoth Mountain, Hight landed a maneuver no woman had done. It's called a double backside alley-oop rodeo, and to qualify its difficulty, Shaun White has since declared it his mission to add the same trick to his competition run.
White tried to land it during the Dew Tour Mountain Championships in December, but he fell. This meant that when Hight dropped in for her first run in Saturday's SuperPipe final, no one -- men included -- had ever performed it during a competition. Hight landed the trick flawlessly on her final jump, breaking a barrier not just for women but men as well.
Without overstating its significance, Hight's historic feat belongs among the rarest of athletic achievements. Imagine Brittney Griner not just dunking a basketball during a game, but dunking in a way no man ever has.
When it came time to decide the gold medalist, the X Games judges awarded two-time defending champion Kelly Clark a higher score than Hight. The crowd booed. It was the second straight year Hight claimed silver to Clark's gold. But as with any true innovator, the number next to her name mattered less than moving the needle of possibility.
"As women," Hight said, "we are a step behind them but totally capable."
Hight's breakthrough wasn't the only memorable moment -- or bar-raising feat -- from Colorado's Elk Mountains this week. On the same night Hight made history, Henrik Harlaut, a dreadlocked, perpetually smiling 21-year-old from Sweden, landed a trick not even the sport's most esteemed technical gurus thought possible: a nose butter triple cork 1620, which looks even more spectacular than it sounds. The best part? He had never even tried it until he used it to seal his first X Games gold medal.
The prior night, Norwegian snowboarder Torstein Horgmo -- who three years ago became the first person to land the vaunted triple cork -- brought a new degree of difficulty by landing a switch triple, three off-axis flips and four full spins after taking off backward. It was just enough to edge Canadian Mark McMorris, who won Slopestyle gold the next day and showed poise and class here that belied his 19 years.
In the category of non-judged X Games events, an old warrior returned to Aspen after a year hiatus and promptly picked up where he left off. Tucker Hibbert six-peated in Snowmobile SnoCross, and, at 28, won his seventh career SnoCross gold medal 13 years after he won his first, at age 15. Asked for the secret to his success here, the lifelong racer from Pelican Rapids, Minn., said, "Honestly, it's just something we work super hard for."
We saw two double gold medalists in snowmobiler Levi LaVallee (Freestyle and Speed and Style) and snowboarder Louis-Felix Paradis (Real Snow and Street). We saw dreams come true -- Exhibit A: Nick Goepper, 18, who won gold in Ski Slopestyle after selling candy bars on his school bus to support his youth ski habit in rural Indiana -- and a father winning for his daughter, in David Wise's Ski SuperPipe title defense.
As with any worthy sporting event, we also saw inspiring comebacks, a la above-the-knee amputee Mike Schultz's win in Snowmobile SnoCross Adaptive, when Schultz fought back from a first-lap crash and passed all seven of his rivals to win his second straight gold medal.
Snowboard Slopestyle queen Jamie Anderson and SuperPipe king Shaun White reminded us that sure things still can thrive at the X Games, while Norwegian teenager Tiril Sjåstad Christiansen's upset of three-time defending Ski Slopestyle champ Kaya Turski made the case for unpredictability, as well.
For every triumphant moment and glowing smile, however, we were reminded that glory does not come without risk at the X Games. Caleb Moore's crash in Snowmobile Freestyle and ensuing heart and brain complications cast a sobering haze over the weekend, one that was compounded by Rose Battersby's lumbar spine fracture in Ski Slopestyle practice.
The only consolation, if there can be any, is that whenever an X Games athlete faces dark times now, he or she has a shining example to follow. That example is Kevin Pearce, who played a subliminal but nonetheless starring role this week in Aspen. Three years ago, Pearce was a favorite to challenge White for X Games SuperPipe gold. A crash in the pipe left Pearce in a coma and clinging to life, with no guarantee he would ever regain normal brain function.
Not only was Pearce back in Aspen, he filled the snowboard TV analyst's seat high above the action, cracking wise and candidly telling millions how it is and should be in a sport he once ruled. It was enough to make you believe anything really is possible.