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A ski racer picks up speed in the alpine downhill event during the FIS (Fédération Internationale de Ski) competition Sunday, April 11, 2021, at Aspen Highlands Ski Resort, CO. (Hugh Carey, Special to The Colorado Sun)

When just about every other resort in the world nixed contests for the 2020-21 winter, Aspen Snowmass hosted its busiest competition season ever.

“It was monumental,” said Eric Webster, the director of events for the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, or USSA. 

Going into the 2020-21 season, USSA had no events on the calendar in Aspen. By the end of this month, the association will have hosted 1,000 athletes from 37 countries plus another 1,000 coaches, officials, event staff and television production workers at four major events.

Add in the Winter X Games in January and the NASTAR National Championship this month, and Aspen Skiing Co.’s four Roaring Fork Valley ski areas packed six high-profile events into a three-month window in the middle of a once-a-century pandemic.

As the world began shutting down last March to slow the spread of contagion, the competitive ski scene evaporated. USSA had to cancel a long-planned and highly anticipated World Cup cross-country race in Minneapolis as well as the U.S. Alpine Championships in April. 

“There was so much unknown. I was thinking, yeah, two, three months and this will wash over and we will get back on track,” Webster said. “That’s not the way it went, though.”

The cancellations continued in August, with the International Ski Federation canceling North American ski races for the 2020-21 season, including the men’s and women’s speed contests at Lake Louise in Canada, the early-December Birds of Prey races at Beaver Creek, and races in Vermont. 

“That’s when I started questioning if we were going to be able to get anything done,” Webster said. 

As cancellations mounted, Aspen Skiing and ESPN leaned into their 20th Winter X Games at the operator’s Buttermilk ski area. Crews sculpted the halfpipe and slopestyle course with plans for an athlete-and-coaches only event. 

“Failure was not an option”

When the first skiers and snowboarders dropped in on Jan. 28, it wasn’t just fans watching the four-day X Games live on ESPN. Contest organizers, teams and athletes around the world were hoping Aspen could pull off a major event in a crippling pandemic that had left most resorts struggling to stay afloat. 

“We knew there would be others looking to engage because the competition landscape was basically zero,” Aspen Skiing’s operations boss John Rigney said. “Most people were just hanging on for dear life and just playing defense.”

That added a layer of extra pressure to pull off a successful X Games. Without the crowds and festival vibe, X Games was different this year. Still, the venues were top-notch and the competition was as compelling as any other in the 20 years of X Games throwdowns at Buttermilk. 

Greyson Cromer, at left, stretches ahead of the alpine downhill run during the FIS (Fédération Internationale de Ski) competition on April 11 in Aspen. (Hugh Carey, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The contest drew a few hundred athletes, crew and production workers just two weeks after Pitkin County health officials moved the county into level-red restrictions that shut down indoor dining and restricted lodging capacities. As athletes competed, Pitkin County teetered on the edge of a total shutdown.

“Failure was not an option,” said Rigney, describing intense testing protocols and rigid rules limiting even athletes from congregating. “We could not mess it up.”

State outbreak data does not show any COVID-19 outbreaks resulting from the events, but Pitkin County did slide back into level-orange restrictions at the end of March, with county health officials warning that increased visitors could cause case numbers to rise.

If you build it, they will come

Rigney started fielding calls from event organizers within hours of the final X Games Big Air contest Sunday night. Major ski and snowboard events — especially World Cups — can have lead times as long as five years. Aspen Skiing began planning major events this season with a five-week head start. 

The short timeline was actually helpful, Rigney said. It accelerated no-nonsense negotiations with groups like USSA and NASTAR. There weren’t a million details to hammer out. The venues and features were already built. The X Games was the template. The Roaring Fork Valley community had seen a high-profile contest go off without a hitch. 

“We said let’s take what templates you have and we can smash it all together at Buttermilk and we will give it a go,” Rigney said. “We talk about celebrating athletic achievement in our guiding principles … not only did the sports of skiing and snowboarding need this, but the athletes needed this.”

ESPN agreed to open the X Games features to all comers. The X Games builds its pipe and slopestyle courses at Buttermilk as part of a 20-year deal with Aspen Skiing Co. Typically, it’s the only big-name competition on those sculpted jumps, berms and ditches. (In 2018, for example, athletes competed on a different pipe and slopestyle course at Snowmass during the ramp-up to the Sochi Winter Games.) 

“As the first major action sports event to return since the beginning of pandemic, we’re pleased our ground work and the plan we executed was able to benefit the sports, athletes and community we care so much about,” said Tim Reed, the vice-president of ESPN’s X Games in an email. “The environment was unusually challenging this year, and this was a unique opportunity to help athletes, organizers and staff get back to work and competition safely.” 

Julia Wordley takes off for the alpine downhill run during the FIS (Fédération Internationale de Ski) competition on April 11 in Aspen. (Hugh Carey, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Rigney said ESPN understood the request to use their facilities at Buttermilk. 

“We are all playing long ball here,” he said. “We all want to grow the popularity of skiing and snowboarding and add to the youth pipeline. After we got through X safely, we knew we were one of, if not the only game in town.”

Aspen Skiing Co. did not have a good season. The company saw its critical international traffic evaporate. Destination traffic was down too. While ski areas close to major urban areas saw decent numbers this season, more remote resorts that rely more heavily on fly-in traffic endured painful declines. 

The few thousand visitors who came for Aspen Skiing Co.’s events helped float some economic boats in the Roaring Fork Valley, but that’s not the only reason the operator opened its slopes to contests this season, Rigney said. 

“These are big platforms to message the world about Aspen Snowmass,” he said. “There are tons of influencers in the sports that we love who get to experience this place and that’s how this resort has grown. People come to experience our four mountains against the backdrop of the Roaring Fork Valley and they come back. That’s our long game.”

Aspen Skiing “stepped in and saved our sports” 

In early February, USSA hosted a freestyle World Cup at Deer Valley in Utah, and the mogul and aerial contests went well. That’s when Webster began working in earnest with Aspen Skiing Co.

The Freeskiing and Snowboard World Championship was originally scheduled for Zhangjiakuo, China, and would double as a test event for the 2022 Beijing Winter Games. Calgary stepped in to host the event when the pandemic shut down China, but when Alberta Health Services balked at the logistical challenge of hosting an international contest, Aspen welcomed the show.  

The six-day event in March included 24 men’s and women’s ski and snowboard slopestyle, halfpipe and big air contests. Two days after those contests wrapped, Buttermilk hosted four World Cup freeski and snowboard competitions as part of the Olympic-qualifying U.S. Grand Prix originally scheduled at California’s Mammoth Mountain. The December Grand Prix at Copper Mountain was canceled in late November.

In April, 500-plus skiers participated in the NASTAR Nationals at Snowmass and the country’s top racers descended on the closed Aspen Highlands resort for the U.S. Alpine Championships originally set for Waterville Valley, New Hampshire. Skiers competed in the men’s and women’s downhill, super-G, giant slalom and alpine combined, often racing as early as 7 a.m. to beat the midday slush. 

The racing, freeskiing and snowboard events at Aspen this year were critical for athletes jockeying for a berth in the 2022 Winter Games. This fall, American skiers and snowboarders will begin a grueling selection process to make the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Team. Results from this season’s contests are critical in setting up a successful path to Beijing. The World Cup Olympic qualifiers this season in Aspen reduced the need to cram all the qualifying contests into next season.

“Our season and maybe even the Olympics in general were looking pretty grim for us, especially for halfpipe,” said Peter Olenick, a Roaring Fork Valley native and former professional skier who now coaches a team that had athletes competing in the Rev Tour, the World Championships and the World Cups this year in Aspen. 

Olenick’s athletes spent the winter in Aspen, training in the Buttermilk halfpipe alongside hundreds of other skiers and snowboarders. He calls the Buttermilk pipe and slopestyle course “the very best in the world.”

“Those guys at Aspen, they really stepped in and saved our sports,” Olenick said. “I hope they see how amazing that venue is for training. They have everything high-end athletes need in one place and maybe this season showed them how they can keep our sports going and alive and progressing.” 

An international affair

It wasn’t just American athletes who benefitted from the contests in Aspen. Government funding for many international ski and snowboard athletes depends on competing in World Cups and World Championships. If they don’t compete, they lose support. 

“It was helpful for us, but it was also helpful for 20 to 30 other nations,” Webster said. 

Pro pipe and slopestyle skiers and snowboarders for years have competed during the same weeks. There’s a December showdown at Copper Mountain’s superpipe. In January there is an international contest or two in Europe or Asia. For two decades the X Games have been in late January in Aspen. Then the season wraps with a contest in California or Utah. Travel plans are typically set long before the snow flies.

When Copper Mountain canceled its Grand Prix halfpipe competition in November, Olympic-caliber athletes started to worry. The only contest that hadn’t been cut by December was the X Games. ESPN, the owner of the X Games, reached out to athletes and told them “we are not going to cancel this,” said Crested Butte’s halfpipe Olympian Aaron Blunck. 

“They told us we need you guys and you guys need us,” Blunck said. 

When the four-day Winter X Games wrapped at the end of January in Aspen, the world’s top freeskiers and snowboarders were left with a once-in-a-career blank calendar. 

“Some of us were like, ‘Wow, this is our dream season,’” Blunck said. “We compete in the X Games and that’s it. It’s time to go ski pow and put together a film segment.”

Blunck was skiing for cameras — not points — in New Mexico a few days after the X Games when he got word that Aspen Skiing Co. and USSA were hosting both the world championships and Grand Prix. 

“We were like ‘Alright, let’s go compete,’” Blunck said. “At the end of the day we all were very stoked and very thankful that USSA and Aspen Skiing were able to pull it off.” 

Isaiah Nelson, left, Sam Morse, right, and the competitors watch the remaining ski racers from the bottom of the course during the U.S. Alpine Championships on April 10, at Aspen Highlands. (Hugh Carey, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Jason Blevins

The Colorado Sun — Email: Twitter: @jasonblevins