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Sunday, July 31, 2011
Broken bones and burnished legacies

By Micah Abrams
ESPN.com

The sun sets on downtown Los Angeles. Fans, hoarse from cheering and glowing with too much sun, stream from the Staples Center, and L.A. Live. The Jersey barriers are being removed, returning Figueroa Street to a northbound thoroughfare when just a few hours ago it was a hotly contested stretch of the RallyCross course. That transformation was just one first in a four-day stretch of them that prove X Games 17 to be historic.

The Games began Thursday, but the fuse that sparked this action sports explosion was lit months ago with the announcement of the four-day "Pastranathon." Travis Pastrana's attempt to wrap the end of his competitive freestyle career into the beginning of his NASCAR career (never mind the 4,000-mile round-trip commute to Indianapolis right in the middle of the weekend) appeared to be doused before it really started after he shattered his leg and ankle attempting a rodeo 720 in Moto X Best Trick. The air seemed to follow Pastrana out of the Staples Center as he was stretchered to an ambulance, partially overshadowing Jackson Strong, who won the event by becoming the first competitor to successfully land a frontflip in competition.

Travis Pastrana crashed on his "TP Roll" attempt, the same trick that took him out of Moto X Best Trick in 2009, and left him with a broken heel and tibia. He still placed fourth in the RallyCross final on Sunday.

"I feel bad for the fans who watched and thought it was no closer than two years ago," Pastrana said afterward, referring to his 2009 crash attempting the same trick. "To choke that badly on the first one and be zero-for-three in pressure situations, which I pride myself in, it's heartbreaking."

By Friday, Pastrana's Nationwide start was canceled and attention turned to another X Games staple. Jamie Bestwick, who has competed in X Games BMX Vert every year since 1996, sought the sport's first five-peat. The 40-year-old has frequently been without peer, but not this year. Thursday night's BMX Big Air champion, Steve McCann, laid a gauntlet by landing a no-handed 900, which hasn't been seen at X since Mat Hoffman did it in 2002. Bestwick stepped up to the challenge, relegating McCann to second place and earning his ninth gold medal.

Jamie Bestwick took home his ninth gold medal, stepping up his game and proving his career seniority to five-peat in the BMX Big Air final.

Youth was nevertheless well-represented at these Games. After 18-year-old Raven Tershy held off 16-year-old Pedro Barros in Skateboard Park on Thursday, Mitchie Brusco starred in Friday night's Skateboard Big Air. The 14-year-old from Washington state had landed two 900s on the MegaRamp quarterpipe, the second just one day earlier during practice. But in the heat of battle it was the discipline's grand master, Bob Burnquist, who returned to the top of the podium for the third time. By that point, rumors were swirling that Subaru had modified Pastrana's Rally car to make it drivable without the use of his feet.

Saturday, these rumors were confirmed when Pastrana shoehorned himself and his immobilized leg into the driver's seat to take practice laps using a steering wheel-mounted accelerator and clutch. Watching him hobble from couch to car and back, Pastrana looked decades older than his 27 years, which made the performance of Nyjah Huston in the Skateboard Street final all the more stark in comparison. A 16-year-old phenom who came to L.A. unbeaten in 2011 Street League competition, Huston bested the deepest field of the year in a format many felt favored skaters like defending champ Ryan Sheckler.

The dominant force in Rob Dyrdek's Street League contest series, Nyjah Huston proved he can win in events outside of the league. Huston's runs, mixing technical tricks and gutsy maneuvers, were a cut above everyone else in the field.

Dominating was a word that described Nate Adams, who Saturday became the only competitor to earn two golds in these Games. His win in Moto X Speed & Style followed Friday's Freestyle victory but was only the second biggest highlight of the night. The first came in the closing minute of the Skateboard Vert competition, when Shaun White dropped in for his final run.

Recently, the 24-year-old two-time Olympic Snowboard champion has sounded bored with his on-snow accomplishments. It seemed he wouldn't be satisfied until he returned to the top of the X Games Vert podium, where he's been only one time before, in 2007. But a brief lead in Saturday's final was snatched away by four-time and reigning champ Pierre-Luc Gagnon. With the jam format clock expired, White would have only one shot to retake the lead and, with no competitors left to go, the gold.

After two RallyCross silver medals, Brian Deegan came to X Games 17 with a hunger for gold, and once he had it in his hand, he told fans that it was the best day of his life.

"I'd be lying to say I wasn't standing up there at the very top like, 'You could blow it right now or you could just win it,'" White said later. "I went with win it."

When the judges announced White's final run had put him back on top, the crowd in the Nokia Theater roared. White stood on the edge of the halfpipe, arms above his head, and roared right back.

By Sunday morning, the roars of X fans turned to winces when footage surfaced of Pastrana crashing into a wall during RallyCross practice. He was officially cleared to race by event medical officials, but his damaged car was a vivid metaphor for the man himself. It was hard not to wonder when enough would be enough. But Pastrana has never been one to let questions like that be answered through deliberation. The only way to know if he couldn't compete was to line up and see if anyone could beat him. Despite his mangled body; despite having his NASCAR-debut dreams crushed and having to relearn how to drive his own car, Pastrana managed to qualify for the RallyCross final with the fifth fastest time. When would enough be enough? He'd tell us after the final.

In the end, though Pastrana's start made headlines, it was Brian Deegan who stole them. The former Moto X champ has only two years of rally racing under his belt, but he earned the hole shot in the final and was never really challenged. Pastrana was in contention for bronze until the final lap, when he buried the nose of the Subaru into a wall. On the in-car camera angle, for the first time in the entire weekend, Pastrana was finally seen to be in pain, grimacing as he grabbed his broken leg.

In his triumphant return to the top of the podium at X Games for the first time since 2007, Shaun White bested rival PLG in Skateboard Vert to grab the gold. White stuck a bevy of tricks including a heelflip body varial frontside 540 to seal the deal.

It was a humanizing moment for a superhuman spirit and a most fitting way for X Games 17 to end. After all, what are a few more medals to Pastrana, already the most decorated Moto X competitor in X Games history and a legend in American rally racing? What the world saw instead of the Pastranathon was a competitive failure completely eclipsed by a triumph of guts, courage and will power. This week's images of Pastrana are seared on his legacy and will last as long as the iconic image of his huck into the San Francisco Bay in 1999 or his climb to the top of the dirt landing after his double backflip in 2006.

On Monday morning, Figueroa Street will once again be just another thoroughfare in downtown L.A., ferrying commuters to their 9-to-5's. But take a closer look at the stretch between Olympic Boulevard and Chick Hearn Way and you'll see the tire marks from a weekend's worth of racing. It's action sports calligraphy and it spells out: X Games 17 was here.