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X Games: Olympic snowboard-cross stars appear ready for a challenge

January 27, 2007|Pete Thomas | Times Staff Writer

ASPEN, Colo. — Snowboarder X takes center stage today, nearly a year after it made its Olympics debut as snowboard cross.

That was a rollicking romp for the women and men on the speedy course in the Italian Alps, when Lindsey Jacobellis stumbled close to the finish line and watched her gold-medal hopes fade to silver, and Seth Wescott won by the length of a snowboard to realize his dream.

Both are back in the U.S. spotlight for the first time since then, having qualified Friday for today's final, and both are in top form.

But there's slight hope for the field.

Jacobellis suffered a concussion Thursday during a crash in halfpipe practice and qualified second for today's final -- behind Switzerland's Tanja Frieden, the athlete who swept past her for the gold at the Turin Games.

And Wescott, who qualified sixth, has not won an X Games snowboard competition in nine tries, though he has reached the podium six times. "It's kind of the monkey on my back that I want to get off," he said.

To which Nate Holland, last year's X Games gold medalist, predicted: "I'll keep that a dream for him, rather than a reality."

A beautiful performance

Tanner Hall held off Simon Dumont to defend his Skier X gold medal in Friday's only X Games final. Dumont had an impressive run of 94.0 that many thought might overtake Hall's 95.0. Peter Olenick finished third.

But perhaps as remarkable was the victory by Sarah Burke in the women's event, which came two days after she broke her nose on the lip of the U-shaped pipe.

The Canadian skier came into the media room afterward with faint dark circles beneath her eyes and a tiny abrasion on the bridge of her nose.

Asked how she could look so good so soon after such a mishap, she told the male reporter about a wonderful invention called makeup.

"It's kind of embarrassing to admit that I'm wearing makeup on the ski hill but, yep, I've got a little bit of a black eye and I'm trying to hide it," she said.

A painful performance

Sweden's Sanna Tidstrand, 21, a Skier X gold-medal winner in 2005, suffered a head injury and two broken ribs during a violent crash in qualifying.

She was flown by helicopter to St. Mary's Hospital in Grand Junction and placed in the trauma center, where her condition was listed as fair, a hospital spokesman said.

Tidstrand lives for thrills: Last April she set a world speed-ski record after being clocked at 150.648 mph.

Old man out

Snowboarding legend Ross Powers, who won Olympic bronze in 1998 and gold in 2002, was not invited to compete in the Winter X Games superpipe competition.

At 27, he's simply being out-performed by a younger generation accustomed to bigger pipes, bigger air and more difficult tricks.

But Powers, a two-time X Games gold medalist, was invited for Boarder X -- he advanced into today's quarterfinals. Thus, he kept his streak alive of competing in all 11 Winter X Games.

"I've had my good years in halfpipe -- I've pretty much accomplished my goals in that, so boarder cross seems like something you can do a little later on."

Old man in

Shaun Palmer, 38, who's tied with Shaun White with an X Games-record six gold medals but has not competed since 2002, was eliminated from Skier X competition but advanced to today's Boarder X final.

Palmer has said that he came to Aspen to keep 20-year-old White from passing him in the medal count, but this appears also to be a mid-life crisis.

Palmer's 2002 retirement was prompted by a concussion suffered during a Boarder X semifinal. He made a run for the Turin Olympics but suffered a torn Achilles tendon after qualifying.

Once dubbed "the world's greatest athlete" by USA Today he has also expressed a desire to compete in the 2010 Olympics at Vancouver.

His body may indicate otherwise long before that.

Mono skier Ferguson

Sometimes life delivers a vicious curve. Sam Ferguson, a competitor in today's Mono Skier X final, knows this as well as anyone.

The Aspen resident was mountain biking alone in 1995 and came across a closed single-bar steel gate. He fastened the gate open and continued his uphill trek.

There was nobody around. He assumed the gate would still be open on the downhill run. It wasn't. He crashed at high speed and was paralyzed from the waist down.

In hindsight, as an avid outdoorsman and thrill-junkie, he was semi-prepared for such an eventuality.

"I promised myself at one point in life that that if anything happened I would try to lead the best possible life I could," he said.

Still, it was a rough recovery period, full of reluctance and self-doubt. Ferguson got back on the slopes with the help of Challenge Aspen, and helped bring about this event with assistance from the U.S. Disabled Ski Team.

"The truth of the matter is, when my ski hit the snow I knew all those questions about who I was were now answered," he recalled.

"I knew that I had something that I could have a passion about, and to start seeking knowledge and experience about integrating back into society and into sports."

It was a job well done. Ferguson, an accountant with a property management firm, became the first mono-skier to ski nearby Highland Bowl from the summit, in 2003. He loves free-skiing in powder and is among the favorites today as the jump-filled Mono Skier X race debuts as an X Games medal sport.

"There are a lot of big jumps so you have to be focused on how to be balanced in the air," he said, "and be aware that there is somebody on a mono-ski next to you."

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pete.thomas@latimes.com

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