Commentary

It happened at Winter X ...

Five-peats, perfect scores, first-ever tricks: It's all in a Winter X Games

Updated: January 30, 2012, 7:14 AM ET
By Devon O'Neil and Colin Bane | XGames.com

ASPEN, Colo. -- Nothing any athlete did at Winter X Games Aspen 2012 was going to cure the emptiness in their guts. Not the medals they won, not the memories they shared, not the tears they shed.

The spirit of freeskiing's godmother, Sarah Burke -- who died Jan. 19 at age 29 after a fall in the Park City, Utah, halfpipe -- was everywhere this week. It didn't matter what your sport was, it didn't matter whether you were 15 or 50; the action-sports community united to mourn one of its heroes in Burke, a woman who personified class, grit and grace.

It didn't get easier as the week wore on, but there was solace to be taken from each tribute, each sticker, each smile. As Canadian freeskiing pioneer Mike Douglas said of Burke on Wednesday: "She loved the X Games. This is the family that she loved to surround herself with. This is where she was happiest."

And so began a week of ecstasy, heartbreak and history, one that will be remembered for the way in which some of the most talented athletes in the world honored their beloved friend by forging forward in spectacular fashion.

Trevor Brown, Jr./ESPNShaun White, superhuman.
PERFECTION, PROGRESSION

Shaun White notched a perfect score -- 100 out of 100 -- for his victory lap in the Men's Snowboard SuperPipe final after unveiling his new frontside double cork 1260 in a run that also included a double McTwist 1260. Oh, and did we mention he was riding on a bum left ankle? He sprained it before arriving in Aspen this week, aggravated it in practice Thursday, missed the Slopestyle competition because of it and spent most of the week icing it on his couch. Must have been some good ice. "I've been wanting that 100 forever," White said. Not one to rest on his laurels, he's already thinking about how to top it with a six-peat in 2013: "There's always next year," he said.

Torstein Horgmo brought the first triple to the Winter X Games Big Air competition last year with a triple flip 180 that left many purists quibbling that it wasn't a true triple cork spin. This year he shut them up for good with a picture-perfect triple cork 1440 and a perfect score -- 50 out of 50 -- to match it. Still, it was only good enough for silver since Winter X Big Air results combine the total of each rider's best two runs, and Horgmo didn't have another score big enough to fend off Mark McMorris. Horgmo spent most of the competition trying triples instead of putting down a solid safety run, and we have a feeling he was working up to something even bigger before time ran out. Why go for broke at the expense of winning? "It's the X Games," he said. "It's just something you gotta do."

Joshua Duplechian/Trevor Brown, Jr./ESPNCanadians Roz G. and Kaya Turski, who dedicated their wins to the memory of Sarah Burke.
FOR A TEAMMATE

Sarah Burke made her name in the halfpipe, so it only made sense that one of her Canadian teammates and protégés, Roz Groenewoud, won the first gold medal since Burke's passing. Groenewoud did it in typical Burke fashion, too, boosting massive, fearless airs and linking technical tricks throughout her run. She won gold two days after another of Burke's teammates, Kaya Turski, strung together a near-flawless run to complete a three-peat in Women's Ski Slopestyle, sticking a trick she pioneered: the switch 1080.

Turski landed her run in the clutch, too, needing to overtake two of the sport's brightest young talents on her final trip down the course. "We have someone watching from above that we need to make proud," Turski said. "We all need to follow in Sarah's footsteps. She was pushing the sport even when she didn't need to, she was trying new tricks, landing new tricks, and I think now it's our turn to keep pushing for her."

Joshua Duplechian/ESPNMark McMorris, what teen dreams are made of.
McSOPHOMORE: THE GOLD STANDARD

Eighteen-year-old Canadian snowboarder Mark McMorris was the biggest winner at Winter X Games 2012, taking gold in Big Air on Friday with a mind-blowing triple cork 1440 then doubling up with Men's Snowboard Slopestyle gold on Saturday.

Only a year ago he was McRookie, winning silver in Slopestyle and just missing the podium in Big Air. This year he rode like he owned the place. The frontside double cork 1080s he threw in his Slopestyle runs? Yeah, he learned those last week. All the pressure of riding under the lights in the big show at Buttermilk Mountain? "It's so much fun," McMorris said. "I love riding at night."

Fun is the operative word for McMorris, a snowboarder's snowboarder who doesn't seem to realize that the events at Winter X Games are competitions. "When you're riding with the people you love to ride with it makes everything so much fun," he said, shrugging off his wins.

FLIPPING OUT

Heath Frisby's frontflip in Snowmobile Best Trick on Sunday was the first time the trick has been landed on a snowmobile and only the second time it's been landed in any motorsports competition (Australian freestyle motocross rider Jackson "Jacko" Strong won Moto X Best Trick at X Games 17 with a front flip last July). Frisby wasn't deterred after seeing his friend and rival Justin Hoyer auger into the snow on a failed double backflip moments before taking his run. "No one can explain the feeling athletes get," Frisby said, by way of explanation. "When we go out there it is the worst feeling in your stomach, in your head, everything, and I just knew that I had to stay focused. I knew that I trained for this and I knew what to do."

SBX PLANET REALIGNED

Nate Holland was back on top of the Snowboarder X podium this week after a brief tear in the fabric of the universe left him settling for bronze in 2011. Holland slipped up and moved back to the middle of the pack after an early lead out of the gate in Saturday's six-man final, seemingly destined to fall short of gold again. But Snowboarder X is rarely that predictable: Leader Stian Sivertzen tumbled in the banked turns on the X course, clearing the way for Holland to take his sixth gold in seven years, leading an American podium sweep. We'll check back in on the status of Holland's six-peat dream in 2017: One down, five to go.

YOUNG AND OLD

Every year it seems like the X Games get younger, with fresh-faced teens usurping the very athletes who inspired them. That's true in freeskiing as much as any sport, and in the Men's Ski Slopestyle final on the games' opening night, young and old collided. Small-town Indiana boy Nick Goepper, 17, and Pittsburgh urban wizard Tom Wallisch, who at 24 is akin to an elder statesman, engaged in an epic duel that ended with Wallisch claiming his first Winter X gold. It made you wonder which was more impressive: the fact that Goepper could ski so well at such a young age, or that Wallisch came so close to perfection at an age when most of his peers are past their prime.

Trevor Brown, Jr./ESPNUltimate Heath Frisby, frontflipping to Snowmobile Best Trick gold.

Two days later, Reno, Nev., skier David Wise strung together the run of his life to win SuperPipe gold. Forgetting for a moment that Wise used a rare switch double 1080 to vault to the top of the podium, the most stunning stat to qualify his notice-serving victory was that, at age 21, he was the oldest man on the podium. The combined age of the other two medalists, Noah Bowman and Torin Yater-Wallace, was 35. With his 3-month-old daughter watching from the bottom of the pipe, Wise's perspective was just as refreshing as his athleticism. "Spending time with my wife has really centered my mind and made me realize that life's not all about skiing," Wise said. "It's about being a good person as well and being passionate about all aspects of your life."

Meanwhile, with everyone fixated on who's next, one of the original action sports superstars seems to defy age altogether. By winning her second straight Snowboard SuperPipe gold Friday night, Kelly Clark made it 13 victories in her past 13 contests. This year's win came 10 years after her first X Games gold, and thanks to her willingness to push the sport even when she doesn't need to, Clark remains as close to unbeatable as any athlete we saw this week. "I'm kind of in awe of my streak right now," Clark admitted. "But at the same time, I'm having fun and I think that's the biggest component to my success."

As it was for a certain fearless freeskier from Squamish, B.C.: the late great Sarah Burke.

Devon O'Neil

Writer, Action Sports
O'Neil was raised in the Virgin Islands before dropping anchor to ski, write, and combine the two for profit. He now lives in Breckenridge, Colo.