Olivero: X Games Aspen men’s snowboard superpipe has Ali-Frazier feel | SummitDaily.com

Olivero: X Games Aspen men’s snowboard superpipe has Ali-Frazier feel

Local pros Gerard to compete in slopestyle, Corning in big air

American snowboarders Shaun White, left, and Toby Miller fist bump before a practice run on the superpipe Tuesday, Jan. 26, at X Games Aspen at Buttermilk Ski Area.
Photo by Kelsey Brunner / The Aspen Times

On Thursday, Jan. 28, Summit County legend Todd Richards and U.S. Halfpipe Pro Team coach JJ Thomas chatted about how halfpipe is one of the most dangerous sports an athlete can compete in. They likened the bravery it takes to stare down and drop into a mammoth superpipe to entering the UFC octagon.

Look no further than Swiss star Jan Scherrer’s crash last week right before finals at the season’s first halfpipe competition: the Laax Open. Scherrer slammed his side into the icy pipe wall from 20 feet in the air while trying a new trick that he invented last fall. Despite the crash, Scherrer will compete at X Games Aspen this weekend.

From a literal bumps and bruises standpoint, halfpipe snowboarding rivals mixed martial arts. And entering X Games at Buttermilk Ski Area on Friday through Sunday, the men’s snowboard superpipe competition feels like a big-fight storyline of yesteryear.

With the return of Shaun White and the emergence of Japan’s Yuto Totsuka, the halfpipe scene feels kind of like when Muhammad Ali returned in 1970-71 from his three years away from the boxing ring to fight champion Joe Louis. Only the situation in men’s halfpipe snowboarding right now is not a mano-a-mano duel — rather a battle royale for superpipe supremacy.

Yes, Red Gerard of Silverthorne is returning from the first major injury of his young career — the 2018 Olympic slopestyle gold medalist had reconstructive surgery on his meniscus in August — in hopes of winning his first X Games gold amid a loaded 10-rider slopestyle field Saturday afternoon (12:30 p.m, ABC). And, yes, local pro snowboarder Chris Corning — a last-minute addition due to COVID-19-related dropouts — will get a chance to take home his first X Games Aspen medal in big air Sunday night (7:45 p.m., ESPN). But it’s in the eight-rider men’s snowboard superpipe final Sunday (6:30 p.m., ESPN) where I believe the preeminent drama of X Games Aspen will take place.

It all starts with Shaun White. In his fourth decade of riding competitively, the 34-year-old American action sports icon has prepped as hard as ever for his latest return to the contest scene nearly three years after his 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympic gold — a time frame similar to Ali’s in 1970.

White has been a fixture at U.S. Snowboard Team training sessions at Copper Mountain Resort and in Switzerland in recent months and teased to Instagram followers earlier this month that he hopes to land a trick in the halfpipe that he’s never landed before.

Since White left the competition scene, it seemed he’d have to fight the pipe’s new reigning king, Australia’s Scotty James, when he returned. The showdown seemed destined, as James won 11 contests in a row through last February’s Dew Tour at Copper. James was snowboard superpipe’s Joe Frazier. But he had two capable Alis on sabbatical — White and Japanese star Ayumu Hirano — waiting in the wings.

But a funny thing happened at the Burton U.S. Open in March and at the Laax Open in Switzerland last week. The guy who was James’ perpetual bridesmaid, Totsuka, took the belt. Then there was the sudden 10-month COVID-19 contest pause. The 19-year-old Totsuka kept the belt, going absolutely massive en route to victory in Laax last week.

After initially making the official invite list, the 2018 X Games Aspen gold medalist Hirano won’t compete in Aspen. That means fans once again won’t get a White-Hirano showdown after White didn’t compete in the 2018 X Games Aspen ahead of the Olympics in Pyeongchang, where Hirano took silver to White’s gold.

But even without Hirano, it’s a legitimate question: Who will come out on top?

Steamboat Springs native and Breckenridge resident Taylor Gold, 27, is undoubtedly a wildcard after his gold in the X Games snowboard superpipe “session” auxiliary contest last year. Gold said on Dew Tour Live on Thursday that he’s worked on several new tricks this winter but hasn’t linked them all together in a run. If he does, Richards and Thomas believe Gold could win Saturday.

“His run he almost landed in Laax, I think, is on the way to being one of the best runs ever put down in snowboarding,” Thomas said.

Throw in White’s American understudy Toby Miller, cagey American vet Chase Josey and Laax Open third-place finisher Ruka Hirano — no relation to Ayumu — of Japan and the halfpipe on Sunday will have its haymakers.

Antonio Olivero is the Summit Daily News sports and outdoors editor.

Antonio Olivero, Summit Daily News

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