Vail’s GoPro Mountain Games gives adrenaline junkies a taste of pro-level competition | SummitDaily.com

Vail’s GoPro Mountain Games gives adrenaline junkies a taste of pro-level competition

Rosanna Turner
Special to the Daily

VAIL — Less than a decade ago, many of the events taking place at this year's GoPro Mountain Games weren't even technically considered a sport. Back then, if you'd told someone you were going to catch the SUP on the river in the morning and then head over to see the slacklining competition in the afternoon, fellow festival-goers would've probably just given you a confused look.

The debut of disc golf

Running this Thursday through Sunday, June 4-7, the Mountain Games have always been the place to showcase the hottest and most innovative mountain and outdoor sports, bringing together both amateurs and pro athletes for an extended weekend of non-stop competition.

Like the emerging sports it features — stand-up paddleboarding, slacklining, bouldering, extreme kayaking and surf cross — the Mountain Games has grown in popularity every year. Paul Abling, Vail Valley Foundation's senior marketing manager, said the biggest change to the Mountain Games this year is that today will now be a full day of competition, kicking off in the morning with a new sport making its debut: disc golf.

Disc golf is typically played on a golf course, but instead of using balls and clubs, the goal is to throw a frisbee and hit a target, not sink it in the hole. Abling said disc golf is a booming sport in Eagle County, and many locals are excited it's being added this year.

"We've had a lot of people already registered for it," he said. "(We do) some surveys, and disc golf has been showing up in the last few years. Vail and Beaver Creek both have disc golf clubs, there's one in Eagle, one in Frisco. It's a popular thing."

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During the day today, there will be a disc golf clinic, which is free and open to anyone interested in practicing their skills or learning how to play.

New competitions with more 'carnage'

There are other new competitions at the Mountain Games this year. Taking place on Saturday, the S2 SUP Cross is similar to the traditional SUP Cross, but, this time, it's a tandem event, where two people must paddle together on one board. It makes for more of a challenge and will definitely result in some "carnage," which most attendees know means watching everyone run into each other and crash into the water. And that's part of the fun.

"The competitors must cross the finish line together and on their board — this is a key rule," Abling said. "There's a bunch of new boards that are bigger, designed for two people, a person and a dog, a (parent) and their kids. We don't think anybody's ever done an event like this. This will be the first ever at GoPro Games, possibly (the first in) the universe."

River surfing on the big screen

Watching all the live-action events isn't the only way to witness some unbelievable feats. Instead of being inside, this year, the Outdoor Reels Film Series will be shown on a big screen near the bouldering wall in Vail's Mountain Plaza. The filmmakers who made "Can I Surf That," a documentary about female river surfers in search of the ultimate wave, will be in attendance and competing throughout the weekend.

Brittany Parker, co-producer and professional stand-up paddleboarder, lives in Glenwood Springs and started SUPing four years ago. She said she made "Can I Surf That" to introduce more women to the sport of river surfing, which is growing at a rapid pace.

"I grew up watching snowboarding movies and I'm always inspired by sport documentaries and endurance films," she said. "We decided to make a movie about (river surfing) to encourage the growth of the sport and get more people out on the water."

The Outdoor Reels Film Series screens movies Thursday through Saturday, with "Can I Surf That" playing on Friday at 8 p.m.

Elite athletes ready to compete

Part of the fun of the Mountain Games is getting to rub knee pads with some of the best in their discipline. Last year, pro runner Joseph Gray won both the 10K Spring Runoff and the Vail Pass Half Marathon, an impressive feat considering the competition. Gray said that as an athlete, what he likes about the Mountain Games is the group aspect, as there are more opportunities to bond with fellow runners and even those outside of his sport.

"A lot of other races don't have a social aspect behind it," Gray said. "What I love about the GoPro Games is you can go watch the pro mountain bikers, then you can go watch some sports in the water, then (there's also) some really cool nightlife … You don't have to be a runner to come there."

An honorary member of the Vail Running Club, Gray will lead a free fun run on Vail Mountain that anyone can participate in today at 5 p.m.

There's always a mix of athletes who compete at the Mountain Games every year, but for kayakers, one name seems to dominate them all: Emily Jackson. From a long line of professional kayakers, Jackson remembers back in the day when the Mountain Games was an invitational event, which she wasn't asked to participate in. The next year they moved to a sign-up format, and Jackson not only competed, but she also finished first. She was 13 years old, paddling against adult pro women because there were few junior kayaking competitions at that time.

For the next seven or eight years, she was undefeated until two years ago, when she made it to the finals but did not win. She was eight months pregnant at the time. After family obligations forced her to miss last year, she is pumped to be back and plans on competing in both kayaking and SUP events. She said what makes the Mountain Games different is that you're so close to the crowd when in the water.

"It's really claustrophobic," Jackson said. "You're in this small (space), with 10,000 people in your face … When I compete, I try to get the crowd involved. I like it when they're loud. Everyone seems like they're having fun."

Canine competitors

Look for Jackson this year in her hot pink boat and hot pink helmet out on the water or at a DockDogs competition — her favorite event to see as a spectator. Like many athletes and attendees, the DockDogs events are a highlight of the festival, where man's best friends attempt to wow the crowd as they leap across a large pond in the Speed Retrieve, Extreme Vertical and Outdoor Big Air competitions.

Lafayette resident Rich Schafer and his wife have been bringing their dogs to the Mountain Games since 2007. Schafer's Labrador retriever, Jasper, is a DockDogs Hall of Fame inductee and has competed in five DockDogs World Championships. Sadly, Jasper passed away this year, but Schafer has two other dogs, Tonka and Trouble, who will compete this year. He said that like the human athletes, he trains with his dogs in prep for competitions.

"Small dogs, or most dogs, jump flat, meaning they don't get a whole lot of distance," he said. "You train and teach them to jump up to get more distance and speed."

Unfortunately, the prize for pups who win at DockDogs is not a heaping plate of bacon. Schafer said dogs can tell when they do well, and it gives them a confidence boost.

"For them, it's all about just being in the moment and jumping into the pool," he said. "My dog Jasper, (after his jumps) he held his head high, was super proud. You could just tell the act of competing was his reward."

Having fun over winning first place

This sentiment is echoed throughout the Mountain Games, in that just going out and doing your best means more than winning the prize package. Abling said most of the athletes are actually amateurs, not pros — they just enjoy the chance to participate in their favorite sport.

"As much as sport motivates people to compete, (we also) have people who love stand-up paddleboarding and love climbing," he said. "They love coming to Vail and getting to do this awesome GoPro Mountain Games while they're here."

Even for the pro athletes, the Mountain Games are less about placing first and more about having a good time.

"I'll definitely be the one having the most fun out on the water," Jackson said. "I'm already a winner in that sense."

Event schedule highlights

Thursday, June 4

9 a.m. Disc Golf Clinic, free and open to the public

1:30 p.m. Slackline Invitational- Highline Demonstration at I-Bridge

2 p.m. DockDogs Outdoor Big Air

5 p.m. Free Group Run with Joseph Gray

7:45 p.m. Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe at Checkpoint Charlie

Friday, June 5

11 a.m. River Town opens

12:30 p.m. Kayak Freestyle Semifinal

4:30 p.m. Rocky Dog Trail Run

5 p.m. Raft Cross Finals

7:45 p.m. Iration at Checkpoint Charlie

Saturday, June 6

8 a.m. Down River Kayak Sprint

8 a.m. Vail Pass Half Marathon

1:30 p.m. S2 SUP Cross Semi-Final & Finals

3:30 p.m. DockDogs Extreme Vertical

3:45 p.m. Ultimate Mountain Challenge – XC Start Amateur Men/Women & Teams

3:45 p.m. X-Country Mountain Bike

4 p.m. Vibram Disc Golf Experience – Disc Golf MPH Money Shot

4 p.m. Kayak Freestyle Finals

4:30 p.m. Bouldering World Cup Finals

7:45 G.Love & Special Sauce at Checkpoint Charlie

Sunday, June 7

8 a.m. 2 Fly X-Stream Finals

10 a.m. Disc Golf Finals

12:30 p.m. Slackline Invitational Finals

1:30 p.m. DockDogs Speed Retrieve – All In One Finals

3 p.m. SUP Cross Finals

4 p.m. 8-Ball Kayak Sprint Finals

4 p.m. DockDogs Outdoor Big Air Finals

For a full list of all GoPro Mountain Games events and activities, visit mountaingames.com/summer.