On Monday, ski and snowboard athletes began flinging themselves into the air in preparation for the Dew Tour iON Mountain Championships, which has its sole winter stop in Breckenridge starting today.
"It's kinda sketchy," American slopestyle and big air skier Nick Goepper said Monday. He was referring to hitting 60-foot jumps in blizzard-like conditions. But last year's second-place slopestyle finisher is looking forward to clear skies come Thursday, when the main events kick off.
Goepper is among the invite-only crowd attending this year's Dew Tour in Breckenridge. And having the event hinge on invitations, it means a stellar athlete mix.
Goepper will be taking on fellow American Tom Wallisch, who became the Dew Tour slopestyle champion by a decided 4.75 points over Goepper.
This time, though, Goepper thinks he might have a chance.
"I don't want to come off as super cocky and competitive; he's older and more experienced than me. He's had more time on his skis. We'll go neck-and-neck and it'll be a good contest. It'll be all about finding the most creative line and doing the most technical tricks," Goepper said.
Goepper hit the nail on the head, according to former competitive snowboarder and current webcast announcer Kevin Pearce, who had a lot to say about his colleagues and what they bring to the table in the Dew Tour's world of snowboarding.
Pearce has been out of the game with a head injury incurred in December 2009 while training for the Olympic trials. A halfpipe trick sure to guarantee him the gold went bad, and Pearce's career was finished.
Still, the athlete and announcer hasn't given up on the snowboarding profession - he's just taking it from a different angle.
"I'm looking forward to just being here and enjoying snowboarding," he said, adding that he's been able to get back on the snow recently, though he still struggles with vision and memory. "I'll be up here on the mountain and be with my best friends. ... I'm not going against Shaun (White) for the gold this year, but I'll be by his side riding with him."
And he'll be lending his expertise to the fans listening in. And in Pearce's analysis, in all three Dew Tour disciplines - halfpipe, slopestyle and big air - the key is amplitude. It's about getting high, going fast and taking the judges' breath away. And, it's about being consistent.
Which is why we can expect White to stand atop the podium in men's snowboard halfpipe again this year.
And though getting off the ground is key in all three disciplines, each has its own technicalities.
"Halfpipe is so technical," Pearce said. "It's not just how fast and big you can go, you have to be good at carving and be good at riding that halfpipe. ... In slopestyle, it's about how you land and if you can hit the next jump."
Pearce thinks Russian Iouri "iPod" Podlachikov, might have what it takes to knock the reigning champion off his laurels. Last year, he was an even five points behind White and 2.75 points behind American Louie Vito in third place.
"He's the one that really has the chance of giving Shaun a run for it," Pearce said. "He's been focusing. If he wants it bad enough, he has the talent."
So, too, might Japan's Kazuhiro Kokobu.
"He's insane. He's got really good style. I don't know how he's been riding this year, but last year, he was riding really tight."
But when we're talking amplitude, two of Pearce's closest friends might also be able to step it up. Americans Scotty Lago and Luke Mitrani might be hard-hitters, Pearce said.
"(Mitrani) was a loose cannon the last few years and now he's realizing he has the potential ... He can give it a run for the top spot if he pulls it all together," Pearce said, adding, "If (Lago) can lay it down, he has a good chance. Scotty can go so big with so much style ... But he's pretty inconsistent, to put it bluntly."
Pearce expects to see some back-back-double corks, which he said are big right now, in addition to some tricks that aren't as hard but dazzle alongside the height off the halfpipe edge.
"It looks so much more crazy if you're going really big," Pearce said.
As for Vito, Pearce said he had the opportunity to train alongside him this summer.
"He needs to go big," Pearce said. "I've been pushing him on that. He knows how important that is. He's a small kid. He's a tiny dancer. He's been working hard, he's been training hard all summer."
For Vito, the early-season Dew Tour is about "shaking some cobwebs off and getting the adrenaline going," he said, adding, "I can't control anyone else ... I can be my own worst enemy ... I gotta put it down when it counts."
In the men's snowboard slopestyle discipline, Pearce has his expert eyes on American Sage Kotsenberg as well as Canadian Mark McMorris.
"(McMorris) is super consistent. Again, it's all about how you're feeling on the day and where your head's at. You can be good and can be the top dog, but if you're not in the right place and your body and mind aren't in the right place, it's not going to happen for ya," Pearce said, as he explained that watching training runs are key to deciding how any elite athlete will perform in the main event.
Other names that come to mind as top contenders are Norwegian Gjermund Braaten, American Chas Guldemond, Canadian Sebastien "Seb Toots" Toutant, Finn Peetu Piiroinen, Frisco native Eric Willett and Norwegian Torstein Horgmo, who threw a triple cork a few years back and has been pushing the limits ever since.
As for Willett, "He's a great kid. Obviously, he's come up big the last couple of years. His style is super smooth and calm and mellow. ... If he's feeling it the day of the event, he has what it takes to put it down," Pearce said.
American Elena Hight is the name that's thrown around in the women's halfpipe world.
"She's pushing the limits of women's snowboarding. It's gnarly how she's putting down these tricks that other girls can't," Pearce said, adding that her amplitude is there, and so are her tricks. She was the first woman to land a double backside alley-oop rodeo.
"Most girls can't go that big," Pearce said.
Meanwhile, American Kelly Clark has historically been the Shaun White of women's snowboarding, but Hight snuck in for the win last year.
"(Clark) has work to do," Pearce said, adding that he hasn't seen her train, but said she's "unstoppable" and he's sure she's pushing her abilities. "To be that good, there's obviously something about you."
Clark sees fellow American Kaitlyn Farrington as her primary competition.
Hight says her main competition is herself.
"There are so many great riders who will be here," she said. "It's important to play your own game."
Hight isn't the only one who views herself as her primary competition. Clark does, too, and In the women's skiing slopestyle, American and Team Breck athlete Emilia Wint is quick to say that though she's a rising star, she's focused on putting down her best run.
"Everyone's going to be here. Everyone's going to be firing. ... It's going to be a super fun competition," Wint said.
In the men's ski halfpipe, Justin Dorey is a name to watch for. At least, it's a name American David Wise is watching for as he heads into the tour.
"But there's so many guys you could name," he added.
Through all the competition, Pearce, who's sidelined this time around, has one thing to say to fans and fellow athletes: "It's about how fragile the brain is and how careful you need to be. I felt like I was unstoppable. I felt like I was on top. But there's more than just snowboarding. There's so much more. You need to be smart about it and do the right things. On the other side, you can come back by doing the right things - and be able to live a happy and successful life."