ASPEN, Colo. -- Colten Moore sat on his snowmobile late Thursday night smiling like a champion, his eyes wet with tears. Moments earlier, he sealed the most emotional gold medal in the 20-year history of the X Games, riding to a convincing win in Snowmobile Freestyle one year after his older brother and best friend, Caleb, crashed and suffered fatal injuries in the same event.
Asked to describe what just happened, Moore said: "That was the most amazing, awesome, epic time of my life. To be able to come back here and do what I did for Caleb, and with Caleb …" Then he trailed off.
It was a night that left everyone who witnessed it in disbelief. Among the 60 family members and friends who traveled from Texas to support Moore in his X Games return -- many of whom slept on the floor of the Moores' rented house a few miles away from the competition site -- dozens of large, tough men watched the scene with red eyes and glistening cheeks, wiping away tears and shaking their heads. Moore's parents, Wade and Michele, hugged him together after the event, his gold medal hanging from his neck. His 70-year-old grandfather watched from the perimeter, crying beneath a cowboy hat.
"It was tough," Wade Moore said. "There were a few spots that were really hard to get past tonight. But Colten's confidence was really high, just carrying everybody through. He's been carrying Caleb with him the whole time.
"I'm totally twisted up, but I knew he could do it. I just knew he could."
Moore won with his first-run score of 91.33 -- five points better than silver medalist Joe Parsons. He electrified an already charged crowd with giant airs, flawless tricks and clean landings throughout the teeth-chattering night. Because he was the last rider to go, he ended the event with a victory lap, his long, wavy curls flowing from beneath his helmet and his fist in the air.
His supporters waved Texas flags and held signs calling for #Mooregold. Some wore jackets that said, "Caleb Moore: Ride in Peace." Colten said leading up to the event that he hoped to win for Caleb, but given the circumstances, it seemed more like a nice storyline than a realistic fate. On his way to practice on Wednesday, he said he did not relish all the extra attention due to his brother's death. "I don't like being hyped up too much," he said.
It was inevitable nonetheless. No athlete had ever died in the X Games until Caleb underrotated a backflip and was thrown forward off his 450-pound sled, which tumbled down on top of him. He walked away from the crash but died one week later after developing bleeding around his heart.
X Games organizers added new safety measures leading up to this year's event, requiring metal springs to keep competitors' sled skis from digging into the snow, as Caleb's did. Athletes also had to wear protective vests made of a proprietary combination of Kevlar and other impact-resistant materials. Event officials patted them down to confirm they were wearing the vest before allowing them to ride.
"They're taking every necessary precaution to make sure that doesn't happen again," longtime freestyle competitor Kourtney Hungerford said Wednesday. "But it's a heavy piece of machinery coming after you, so anything can happen."
In a sport in which riders often keep to themselves and train apart or in small pods, everyone had Caleb on his mind this week. Only one year earlier, they had watched a stout, world-class athlete do the same thing they do but not live through it. Many competitors Thursday night rode with a sticker that featured Caleb's name and No. 31.
Caleb's death took an emotional toll and made them re-evaluate everything in their lives, they said -- not just their riding style and safety measures, but what they consider most important off the snow. Almost to a man, they decided freestyle snowmobiling is too important to give up.
"I try not to worry about stuff like that," said Heath Frisby, a nine-time X Games medalist who took bronze Thursday. "Because you can't, or you shouldn't even be here. Go have fun. Do your thing. Live your life. Do everything you can."
One rider, 2013 bronze medalist Justin Hoyer, walked away from the sport this past summer. He had been moving in that direction for a while, he said, but witnessing last year's tragedy sealed his decision.
"I hope if we can take anything away from Caleb's passing, it's that this is a dangerous sport," Hoyer said in a phone interview. "Incredibly dangerous. And people don't really realize that. They throw the words around too much: 'These guys are risking their lives' or 'they're putting their lives on the line.' That's literal. It's true. These guys are literally risking their lives. Keep that in mind.
"Hopefully, we can look at just being safe over entertainment value and getting so gnarly. Let's maybe pull back a little and get back to what the sport is. It's a fun, entertaining sport. It doesn't always have to be so intense."
Colten Moore's performance Thursday night epitomized that ideal. Some of his peers thought he might pull back after Caleb died, but he said Caleb would not have approved if he did. Under the lights at Buttermilk, he played to the crowd. He rode free and fast. After he won, he said his run was the best of his career.
"I just tried to block out everything and tell myself that I was going to ride with Caleb," he said. "And that's what I was doing. I went out there, I rode with him and I rode good.
"We'd always ride the best when we'd ride together."