In X Games Debut, Kearney Makes Cut for Snowboarder X Final
ASPEN – Freeskier Gus Kenworthy and snowboarder Hagen Kearney put Telluride on the map as a breeding ground for up-and-coming winter action sports athletes as the duo competed in the archetype of their sports’ competitions, the esteemed Winter X Games, last weekend in Aspen.
Neither Kenworthy nor Kearney earned any medals while representing America in a total of four events, but their presence on their sports’ most-watched competitive venues establishes them both as two of the fiercest contenders in their respective disciplines. X Games is an invitation-only event, selecting the premier athletes from around the world for start rosters in popular modern action sports like ski and snowboard slopestyle, Superpipe and Big Air; snowmobile long jump, freestyle and SnoCross; and Snowboarder X (boardercross.)
It marked Kenworthy’s fourth trip to Aspen and his fifth appearance on an X Games roster (there is also a European X Games event held in Tignes, France annually), and marked the first time Kearney has been invited to compete. Kearney raced alongside such snowboard greats as Nate Holland (who wound up taking his sixth career gold X Games medal) in Friday’s Snowboarder X event. Kenworthy, meanwhile, was invited to compete in all three skier events (slopestyle, Big Air and Superpipe) making for an exhausting weekend of competitions and helping him earn the moniker of the “triple threat.” Kenworthy, recently named to the first-ever U.S. ski slopestyle Olympic team, departed this week for Sochi.
Record-breaking crowds filled the spectators’ areas last weekend for contests like Big Air and Superpipe on Buttermilk Mountain’s world-renowned venues, and the event’s organizer ESPN anticipated high television viewership. The timing of this year’s X Games, scheduled just 11 days before the start of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia (which will showcase the Olympic debut of ski slopestyle, halfpipe, and skiercross and boardercross) added a heady feel to the already exhilarating ambiance at last weekend’s X Games. The buzz surrounding the upcoming Winter Olympic Games certainly added a new dimension to the competition, both Kearney and Kenworthy admitted, due in part to the fact that athletes’ tactics could change based on whether or not a Sochi trip was in their future. For example, prominent snowboarder Shaun White, who won the X Games snowboard Superpipe six years in a row, opted out of this year’s competition to focus on training for Sochi; the women’s defending Olympic snowboard halfpipe champion and X Games Superpipe gold medal favorite Torah Bright, of Australia, also bowed out, citing Olympics preparations.
Meanwhile, other events showcased almost full rosters of Olympians, including the men’s ski Superpipe final, in which six out of eight competitors were on 2014 Olympic teams – competitors like Telluride’s Kenworthy, who used the X Games as preparation for his coming trip to Sochi.
“The X Games has been our pinnacle event for much longer than the Olympics has even been in the picture,” Kenworthy said of his decision to compete last weekend, not just in slopestyle but in all three freeski events.
Kenworthy Goes Big All Weekend, Finishing Just Out of Medal Range
Kenworthy’s fast and furious weekend ramped up on Friday with men’s ski slopestyle qualifications in the afternoon and the men’s ski Superpipe final under the lights that night. Kenworthy finished 8th in the slopestyle qualifier, just making the cut and earning the right to compete in Sunday’s slopestyle finals. He went on to lay down three difficult runs in the Superpipe competition that evening, offering spectators all they had hoped for with “wow” factor by pegging the highest amplitude of any competitor of the evening (at a whopping 20.5 feet) during his second of three runs, yet paid a price for going huge and wound up crashing in all three runs. He finished 7th overall.
His mother Pip Kenworthy, who traveled to Aspen to watch the competitions, said that the second Superpipe run may have been the best run she had ever seen Gus ski. Fatigue could have played a role in his crash, she added, noting that between the training, qualifying rounds and final competitions, her son was exhausted.
American gold medal favorite David Wise came through with the top score in the ski slopestyle final, followed by Frenchman Kevin Rolland and local Aspenite Alex Ferreira in second and third, respectively.
Saturday night found Kenworthy wrapped up in the fast-paced Big Air event, in which five competitors complete as many jumps as they can, in 15 minutes, off a ridiculously huge jump beneath the lights at the base of Buttermilk Mountain. He stayed on-point with five huge tricks, but judges weren’t seeing perfection, and Kenworthy didn’t make it to the final round. No American broke onto the podium that evening, with Swede Henrik Harlaut taking gold followed by Canada’s Vincent Gagnier (silver) and Swiss teenager Kai Mahler (bronze.)
Kenworthy didn’t let up the pace on day three for the slopestyle final, and in fact put on the heat big time in his second run (while making X Games history) by busting out the first-ever triple in slopestyle competition, a switch rodeo 1440. Despite the palpable thrill this last-jump trick elicited among spectators and commentators, judges didn’t score Kenworthy above a 90 – thus keeping him out of the top three range.
His mother admits the low score was “pretty disappointing,” especially considering that this trick is so difficult that it had never before been attempted in a slopestyle competition. Yet she concedes that the judging format is by nature subjective, and thus open to interpretation.
“It’s part of the game, and Gus knows that,” Pip Kenworthy said of the surprisingly low score judges awarded Kenworthy, who remained just out of medal range, and wound up in fifth overall after three runs. American Nick Goepper took the gold, while silver and bronze went to Park City’s McRae Williams and Norway’s Andreas Hatveit, respectively.
Although he would have been thrilled to bring home an X Games medal, Pip Kenworthy says Gus has already put that competition behind him, and is eagerly anticipating the upcoming trip to Sochi – and his Olympic Games debut. The men’s slopestyle event is scheduled for Feb. 13.
In X Games Debut, Snowboard Phenom Kearney Makes It Into Semi-final Round
Kearney just barely made the cut to qualify for the Snowboarder X final, so on Friday’s race day he was in the inopportune position of getting last choice of lanes for the high-speed, rough-and-tumble quarter final round, in which six racers go head-to-head on a narrow course lined with berms, rollers and jumps. Stacked up against such snowboard greats as American Nick Baumgartner and Germany’s Konstantin Schad in the first heat, Kearney was set even further back by not nailing a great start out of the gate. Yet one of this sport’s signature characteristics – its spectacular crashes – actually helped Kearney elbow his way into the semi-final round on Friday.
“I knew going into it that, with this course being so narrow, I would really need to try to get in front out of the start – but if I didn’t, I wasn’t going to fight for it,” Kearney said of his race day tactics for the X Games event.
This approach proved winning for Kearney, who stayed on his game despite being behind the pack at the start. He made up time with a fast pace through the middle roller section, then was fast on his feet in dodging the pileup that later ensued when Mick Dierdorff, Baumgartner and Spain’s Lucas Eguibar got tangled up.
“This was where my growing experience in learning how to deal with carnage is starting to pay off,” Kearney said after the race, in which he pulled some ultra-fast moves to avoid a run-in with his fellow competitors.
Kearney crossed the line third and thus moved onto the semi-final round, where he lined up with one of his childhood, heroes Nate Holland. Yet he couldn’t avoid a run-in with another racer this time, losing his momentum yet still managing to finish fourth.
He then moved into the consolation round, or small final, in which this X Games rookie’s talent was showcased in his fight to the front of the pack. After battling his way through the starting chaos, Kearney took a fast line through the middle section, then threw it into high gear through the turns, ultimately crossing the finish in third behind Canadian Chris Robanske and American Jonathan Cheever.
In the final, American Nate Holland claimed his sixth X Games Snowboarder X gold medal, edging out teammate Alex Tuttle, and Schad, who took the silver and bronze, respectively.
Of his X Games debut, Kearney said racing against Nate Holland was a highlight: “Ever since I was little I have been watching Nate Holland, and even came to Aspen to see him compete back in the day. It was a huge honor to be on the same course as him,” Kearney said.
Kearney and his brother Harry are both invited to the illustrious Mt. Baker Banked Slalom competition, which will take place February 7-9 in Washington state. Kearney did not earn a spot on the 2014 Olympic team.