TTR world champion Jamie Anderson topped the podium in almost every contest she entered last season. In fact, the podium may be the only place she's more at home than on the perfectly cut jumps of the numerous Slope courses she has dominated the past half-decade. Last season, Enni Rukajarvi barely beat out Anderson for gold at Winter X Aspen, and Anderson handily got it back at Winter X Europe. She's already banked three early wins this year in the Southern Hemisphere.
But the field of Slopestyle competitors has grown stronger and deeper than ever. No longer is it just Anderson's game. Heavier tricks have become stock for all riders, and 720s, switch backside spins and rodeos are all par for the course. Winter X Aspen 2012 will surely feature the best women's snowboarding we'll see to date. And with the level of riding expected, the gold is anyone's to earn.
Below is a list of the talented and driven women who will be alongside Anderson on Jan. 27, vying for a top position on the podium and a gold medal.
Jenny Jones is a consistent, powerful snowboarder. In 2009 and 2010, Jones won back-to-back Winter X gold medals and followed with a gold at Winter X Europe. In 2011, she took silver at X Games 15 with a frontside 540, a cab 540 and a front 720 on the final three jumps of the course. Throwing in a few stronger rail tricks could help to boost her run score this year. If she can stomp a 900 in addition to her other spins, she could put herself in the running for gold, yet again. For a rider who knows what she needs to do to win, Jones undoubtedly will be going into WX Aspen with her sights set on regaining the top spot.
Enni Rukajarvi has been a new face on podiums the past few seasons. She was a dominant force in Slopestyle competition during the 2010-11 season: first place at Winter X 15, third place at Winter X Europe, first at the U.S. Open. It's a bit of a well-spun rampage, and Rukajarvi shows no sign of slowing down. Her grabs have continually become more solid, and she's added new tricks to her roster -- like the front 720 she debuted at the Nike Open Dew Tour in December, where she finished in second place. Her tricks on rails, like a new boardslide 270 off, back up her jumping skills, too. She is aware of the work she needs to put in to stay competitive when she arrives at Winter X. Says Rukajarvi, "I need to work on my rail tricks to incorporate them into my run and get familiar with the big jumps." In short, Rukajarvi is one to watch.
Although Silje Norendal is the fresh threat at 2012 Winter X, any anonymity she still has is going to disappear quickly. This 19-year-old Norwegian is just starting to make her mark on the competition circuit, having arrived during the most progressive period of women's riding. At Winter X Europe last year, Norendal launched into second with a front rodeo 720, a trick that she will no doubt put into her run in Aspen.
This is her first year competing at Winter X Aspen, and big tricks are her starting point. Silje's repertoire on rails has room to grow, and if she can incorporate more technical tricks, like front boards and 270s off, her already-competitive position will become even stronger.
"I think that rails are going to be very important on the girls' side," says Norendal, "and are going to play a huge part in who wins and who gets second and third." There is no doubt that Silje will bring heat to the competition. "Getting silver last year was my biggest podium so far, and I didn't expect it at all. Knowing that I'm able to be up there on the podium definitely helps my confidence going into Winter X in Aspen."
A talented, well-rounded snowboarder and experienced X Games competitor, Cheryl Maas has the tricks that it takes to medal at Winter X. No doubt she wants to see results. At WXE last year, Maas became the first female to land a backside 900 in competition -- though she landed only in fifth place overall. She is less concerned with the number of rotations and is focused on keeping her tricks smooth.
"I'm going to try to ride clean and do my tricks well, rather than hucking spins," says Maas. Is the 900 in her plans? "I would definitely like to do it again if I get my first run out the way." Linking larger spins will be key for Maas, who also has a solid rail game, in which she incorporates proper boardslides and frontboards into each run.
Kjersti Oestgaard Buaas
Kjersti Buaas, a three-time Olympian, has won two U.S. Open Slopestyles and has been top-three at Dew Tours and six-star TTR events. Her versatility is proven with wins in halfpipe, Slopestyle, rail jams and quarterpipe contests, but the Slopestyle podium at Aspen has eluded her. In past showings, she has been on the fourth-place bubble three times, though she won silver at WX Europe in 2010. Buaas is feeling good this season, and she should: In August, she took second in Slope at the Burton New Zealand Open.
"This year, I am feeling good about my riding," says Buaas. "I'm learning new tricks and having fun with it all. I just turned 30 and I love that I have watched the sport grow and progress so much." As difficult tricks become stock for riders, Buaas emphasizes the growing importance of style. "The level [of riding] is really, really good now. A gold-medal run will flow with consistent style throughout the course, laying down progressive tricks on both the jumps and rails. I think we will see a lot of switch tricks this year." With her experience, talent and early-season momentum, Buaas is no doubt in a good position entering X this year.
Sarka Pancochova has been called "the best overall female rider in the world today" by Pat Bridges, editor of SNOWBOARDER Magazine. That's no shallow claim, since Bridges is considered a veritable snowboarding encyclopedia and a definitive judge of talent. Pancochova took third at the Nike Open Dew Tour stop in Breckenridge, but she has yet to make a more consistent winning sweep like some of the other women she competes against. She has time, though. Both in and out of competition, Pancochova rides with an incredible combination of strength and fluid style. She's comfortable hitting anything that is put in front of her -- jumps, halfpipe, rails, quarterpipes -- and this confidence will help her on the varied X Games Slope course. With multiple 720 variations and both backside and frontside rodeos on lock, Sarka has one of the deepest bags of tricks in the women's field. The clincher will be linking these tricks to create a winning run in her first year competing in Winter X Slope.
Over the last few winters, Spencer O'Brien has solidified herself as a top contender, and so far this season she's been on fire. Her recent win at the Nike Open Dew Tour, where she linked a back 540 mute into a front 720 indy, was decisive. A smart and fierce competitor, O'Brien is keenly aware of what she needs to do when competing, making her a constant threat.
"I feel like I'm coming into my own as a rider a bit," says O'Brien. "I'm less hesitant and more confident. The mental side of things has always been a challenge for me, but this season I feel like everything's coming together, like all the work I've put into every aspect of myself and my riding is paying off."
O'Brien credits her trick consistency as one of her strengths. If she can add in a new backside rodeo, she will have a run about which she can be stoked. "I want to land a run this year," she says, "I've had two bad results the past two years and I'd really just like to come to X and do the best run that I can do. If that means gold, then great; if it means yet another 10th place, then at least I still did what I came to do."
And that is the bottom line for all of these women: Gold, silver and bronze are the icing on an already pretty sweet cake. But to complete a run that is defined by technical tricks executed with proper style, while continuing to set the pace of progression for women's snowboarding, is the real goal.