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Winter X Games

Bright stands up next to best

January 24, 2008|Pete Thomas | Times Staff Writer

ASPEN, Colo. -- Torah Bright is talented. She's beautiful and personable and the essence of Roxy, the women's-specific snowboarding brand that she's used for seven years.

So won't Roxy and all of Bright's supporters, including those in her hometown Cooma, Australia, be thrilled to see her beaming atop the podium after her halfpipe victory in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics?

OK, so that may be peering too far into the future.

But it's not unrealistic to envision Bright adorned in Olympic gold. Not after the breakout year the Soarin' Mormon recently enjoyed.

She kicked off 2007 by winning her first X Games gold medal, officially emerging from the shadow of American rivals Gretchen Bleiler, Hannah Teter and Kelly Clark. Bright, 21, won the Ticket to Ride World Tour championship, the World Superpipe Championships, the New Zealand Open, Nippon Open and Burton Global Open Series.

Now she's back in Aspen for Winter X Games 12, which runs today through Sunday at Aspen's Buttermilk Mountain.

And on Friday night, before thousands of fans expected to cheer local hero Bleiler, Bright will be slightly favored to defend her superpipe title.

"Torah has become, hands-down, one of the most technically gifted riders out there," says Bleiler, 26, who was second to Teter at the 2006 Winter Olympics and second to Bright at last year's X Games.

"And it's just awesome to see because I've seen her work so hard for so many years, and last year everything just fell into place and she was just kind of untouchable."

Adds longtime X Games commentator Sal Masekela: "Torah's at that Shaun-type level," referring to 2006 Olympic gold-medalist Shaun White. "What we saw her do last year was incredible and I think we'll see more of that this year."

Drawing a comparison to White? Bright would blush if she heard that.

Last woman standing

Like all top snowboarders, Bright pays a dear price for stardom. She travels almost year-round and has not been home for Christmas since she was 14.

She has not attended a full year of school since the seventh grade and obtained her high-school diploma via correspondence courses. Last year, she spent only five weeks with family. Five years ago she relocated to Salt Lake City, but she has been there only four days since July.

And because she's a practicing Mormon, she does not really fit into the wild snowboarding lifestyle. Or does she?

"Some people say, 'You're a Mormon and you snowboard. How does that work?' " Bright says with a laugh.

"But I'm the sober driver at the end of the night, and everybody loves a sober driver. I go out and dance all night with them, and I'm usually the last one standing on the dance floor. Everybody has a good time."

Amplitude matters

Bright finished fifth at the 2006 Turin Olympics, but at least one commentator, Todd Richards, said she should have received higher scores for routines that involve grabs and switch-stance takeoffs and landings, but are not as showy as routines unveiled by American riders.

Says Bleiler: "You look at her run and say it's a nice clean run, but then you look closely and realize they're all switch tricks -- including switch backside spins, which not many guys are even doing, so it's really revolutionary."

New thrills, and spills?

Winter X Games 12 will unveil new disciplines: snowmobile speed and style (tonight) and skiing big air and snowboard big air (Friday and Saturday, respectively).

The former is a crazy blend of snowmobile racing and freestyle riding.

Eight riders will be divided into four groups of two. They will compete head-to-head, but on alternate loops. One is a SnoCross racing track, and the other features steep ramps for aerial theatrics. After one lap, they swap loops and final scores will be based on difficulty of tricks performed and the time it takes to complete the full track.

Star driver Chris Burandt likens it to rally-car racing on snowmobiles, adding that "the element of the unknown" will make it compelling for competitors and fans.

ESPN, which every year adds more machinery to the X Games, is hoping it will boost TV ratings.

One-hit wonders

The Big Air lineup for skiing: Charles Gagnier, John Olsson, TJ Schiller and Jacob Wester. For snowboarding, it's Travis Rice, Andreas Wiig, Kevin Pearce and Torstein Horgmo.

"These guys are all one-hit specialists," says Chris Stiepock, X Games general manager, "guys who have the ability to put all their focus and energies into one jump that is spectacular."

Making introductions

Winter X Games brings to the forefront big action sports names such as White, Palmer, Bleiler, Teter, Rahlves, Wescott, Jacobellis, Hall, Dumont and many others.

But in their shadow, hoping to emerge, are the lesser names -- the underdogs, who dream of greatness.

One such athlete is Lonnie Kauk, who will compete in Saturday's snowboard slopestyle final.

Kauk is a direct descendant of Chief Tenaya, leader of the Ahwahneechee tribe when Yosemite Valley was discovered in 1850, and he was raised by maternal grandparents who follow Native American traditions. But it's clear where Kauk gets his extreme genes. His father, Ron Kauk, was a pioneering Yosemite rock climber.

Coming of age

Ellery Hollingsworth, at 16 years 4 months, is the youngest X Games competitor this year. She lives in Breckenridge, Colo., and was invited to the X Games based on her fourth-place finish at the season-opening Grand Prix halfpipe event in December.

Mosaic Management, the agency that handles Hollingsworth's affairs, is pointing her toward the 2010 Olympics.

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pete.thomas@latimes.com

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WINTER X GAMES 12

When: Today-Sunday.

Where: Aspen, Colo.

TV: ESPN, Channel 7

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