Ask any skater grinding the curbs in your neighborhood parking lot, or any brand manager for an international sports apparel line, and they’ll tell you the same story: The X Games rule.
Spawned by cable TV sports behemoth ESPN 16 years ago as way to stake a claim to the vast popularity and money of extreme sports, the X Games are a four-day festival of erstwhile fringe athletic indulgence that has morphed into high-profile, mainstream competition. Where skateboarding, BMX riding and snowboarding were once the terrain of disaffected teens and misfit jocks, the X Games have brought gravitas and the green dollar, transforming participants into highly trained athletes and their odd pursuits into Olympic events.
Originally there were two X Games, one in the summer (with skateboards and bikes as the centerpiece) and a winter carnival centered on the snowboard halfpipe and the skier big-air competition known as slopestyle.
Things are a bit different today: This year there will be six X Games competitions, as ESPN added Barcelona, Munich and Foz do Iguaçu, Brazil, to the established Los Angeles, Aspen and Tignes, France, events. The dominant advertisers linking their brands to the bold and the brash are not just energy drinks and sneakers: This year the U.S. Navy looks to be the number-one ad buyer of the Winter X Games on TV.
More than 35 million Americans tuned in to the X Games on cable channels and ABC last year, and that’s not counting the growing audience that took in the action via YouTube, the X Games website and on tablets and smartphones. This year’s winter X Games begin Thursday, Jan. 24, and run through Sunday.
Arguably the most recognized athlete to emerge out the X Games is Shaun White, the California snowboarder famous for his huge air and long red hair. White has won 17 Winter X Games medals for snowboarding over the past 10 years (plus five skateboarding medals from the summer games), as well as gold from each of the last two winter Olympics.
The most famous woman to emerge from the X Games was Sarah Burke. A 29-year-old Canadian freeskier, she was a five-time medalist at the X Games in the Superpipe competition, star of many skiing movies, video game designer and general pioneer for the sport and women’s athletics. A year ago this week, she died from injuries she suffered while in the halfpipe training for the 2012 X Games. Before her death she was widely recognized as the single most effective lobbyist to get freeskiing accepted by the International Olympic Committee. At the 2014 winter games in Sochi, Russia, skiing the halfpipe will be a medal event for the first time ever.
Taking up her mantle, smack dab in the midst of this vortex of hype, attitude and athleticism, is Brita Sigourney. The 23-year-old Carmel native and graduate of Santa Catalina High School spent virtually every winter weekend of her life heading up the highway to ski at Alpine Meadows near Lake Tahoe. At the last two Winter X Games, Sigourney won silver and bronze medals in women’s Superpipe. To date this season, she has been on the podium at both of the premier competitions, winning the gold medal at the Dew Tour halfpipe competition at Breckenridge last month and taking third at the first World Cup event of the season two weeks ago at Copper Mountain.
Her parents remain her number-one fans. Dad Thad Sigourney, P.E. teacher and athletic director at All Saints School, says Brita’s love of speed and snow started at age 2, when a neighbor lent them a pair of skis.
“We strapped her in and pushed her down the hill. My wife looked at me and remarked she had really good balance,” he recalls. “I think she developed muscle memory at that early age, and it has served her to this day.”
Her mother, Julie, an outdoor education teacher and water polo coach at Catalina, says her maternal instincts of fear and anxiety have been mostly replaced by pride and delight as she watches her daughter achieve her goals. Brita now has a U.S. Ski Team coach as well as a manager and agency to help oversee her training, competition schedule and endorsement contracts. At present Brita is sponsored by Monster energy drinks, K2 skis, Oakley sunglasses and Giro helmets.
Like many talented young athletes around these parts, Sigourney’s sports initiation was with water. She was a competitive swimmer, diver and water polo player who earned a scholarship to UC Davis to compete in the pool. In her teens, though, she also got deep into snow sports – competing for the Alpine Meadows freestyle team in moguls, big air, slope style and halfpipe events. Since being selected to the U.S. Ski Team two and half years ago, she has focused exclusively on the halfpipe.
A photogenic and technology friendly event, freeskiing in the halfpipe is a highly choreographed slice of the winter sports pie. Videos of Sigourney’s medal winning runs in big events abound on the Internet and reveal her talent even to those who’ve never skied themselves. The X Games halfpipe – which they dub the Superpipe – looks like two giant banks of snow plowed so steeply that they resemble a giant water culvert made of ice pitched on a steep slope of mountain.
Skiers need lots of speed to go up the wall and launch high above it, but not so much that they fly out of control. The mid-air object is to perform tricks and spins, and then land on the steep wall going down the pipe in the other direction. Then to repeat – the entire run takes about 60 seconds and consists of five or six moves – without crashing. Freeskiing in the halfpipe has a low margin of error and high cost for imprecision. Lots of competitors end their runs ingloriously on the seat of their pants in the bottom of the pipe, with cameras rolling.
Judges are looking for the height over the wall (what is now called amplitude), the degree of difficulty of the rotations and the overall grace and style brought to the run. Having medaled at the X Games the last two years, Sigourney enters this week’s competition as a very strong contender to bring a little golden shine to the Central Coast.
She spoke to the Weekly from Park City, Utah, where she was training to grab big air in this week’s X Games.
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Weekly: When did freeskiing go from being a hobby to something serious?
Sigourney: I competed all throughout high school in aerials – big air and slopestyle. I was part of the Alpine Meadows freestyle team, but did not get serious until I was at Davis, and then I was just two hours away from the mountain. I skied around with my friends, nothing particularly structured, and I went to a few competitions.
Then the summer after freshman year in 2010 I got invited by USSA to go to the Junior World Championships in Wanaka, New Zealand. It is a higher level of competition than the Junior Olympics because the field is international, there were 30 girls from around the world, four from the U.S. It was turning point for me. I didn’t know anyone when I went, but I made a trip out of it and went early and traveled around the country a bit, then met the coaches and really connected with them. I ended up winning that event. I was 19. That was my first big podium. I’ve had nine or 10 since then.
Would you be a competitive skier without the halfpipe?
In another discipline? I did the whole moguls thing when I was growing up, but it was too competitive. I grew up swimming and it reminded me of that – too much race structure. I really enjoy the freedom of the halfpipe competition. I never snowboarded. My parents put me on skis when I was really young, and I never had the time or the option to explore it so I never really saw the reason to switch.
What are some misconceptions you’d like to debunk about X Games athletes? You know, that they’re a bunch of baggy-pant-wearing, shaggy-haired ne’er-do-wells?
I think the slacker look appeals to a certain crowd. That’s fine. We are wild personalities. We are taking these risks every day, but we are also very disciplined. I think every professional athlete has to be. I don’t consider halfpipe skiing that extreme, but I grew up in the sport. I think it scares a lot of people who see the moves and hear about the injuries, as opposed to us athletes who view it more as second nature.
Do you have a signature move or trick?
Last year I did a 1080 at the X Games and apparently I was the first girl to ever land that.
How fast are you going?
I like to take a lot of amplitude into my tricks. You need the time to make the rotations, so you might just as well go bigger. I get about 10 to 12 feet above the deck of the pipe.
Take me through the trick: you’re skiing up a 22 foot wall of snow at high speed and then what?
I carry as much speed as I can, hit it on the right wall and launch and spin to my left. That is my natural rotation; I do three full rotations and land coming down the wall – above the transition – with my skis facing the same direction as when I went up, which means I’m facing backwards. Landing and skiing backwards, or what we call switch.
What are your goals for X Games and beyond?
I’d love to be on the podium – I’d love to win. I have a silver and bronze from the last two years. My main goal is to ski my best and land a run I haven’t done before. And to stay healthy. Because I want to go to the Olympics. A blown knee would mean I wouldn’t go.
Assuming I get invited, I’ll continue on the World Cup circuit and go to Sochi, Russia – the site of next year’s Olympics – and compete at Voss, Norway. Both of those are later this winter.
I’m working on a corkspin right now where my head goes below my skis. It’s a “cork 9” which is 2.5 rotations. I’m going to see how this week goes and try and put a big run together, error free with new tricks and amplitude.
A year ago this week Sarah Burke died from an injury she suffered in a training run in the halfpipe. Talk to me about her.
I grew up idolizing her; she was pretty much the face of women’s freeskiing. She was the best woman to ever ski. It was incredibly humbling to be on the pipe with her. She made a point of wishing me good luck even though I’d barely ever met her. It made a big impression really fast. On top of her attitude she was really good skier; she was so accomplished and doing the biggest tricks ever. She is the reason that there is a women’s division in the X Games, the Dew Tour and the Olympics. She wrote and pestered the organizers for years to get it done. Her death hit us all hard. It is something that we’ve definitely become way too familiar with in the last three years.
What scares you?
Getting hurt. Once you’ve been hurt so many times, it gets in your head that you’re not unbreakable anymore. Getting older, I don’t do as many reckless things as I may have done.
You’re a professional skier at age 23. How’s that?
It’s a dream come true. I always wanted to be a professional skier, but I didn’t know how realistic it was. It’s a great life and I wouldn’t rather be doing anything else. I’m getting so much support from my parents and coach and sponsors, I’m very lucky. It just proves that anything is possible. Just because you’re not in the environment doesn’t mean you can’t make it happen. I definitely got a lot of help from my parents. They drove me to Lake Tahoe almost every weekend. Lots of travel, lots of time on the snow.
What are the best parts of your job?
Winning! And landing a really good run, getting a high score and being able to celebrate with your friends.
What’s the worst thing?
Let me think about it… still working on that college degree, never getting to go home, and crashing.
You have some experience with injuries?
In 2007 I broke my kneecap. In 2009 I tore my thumb ligament – it’s called skier’s thumb. I landed back seat and my pole almost tore my thumb off. And I’ve broken my pelvis in the halfpipe. That was at Snow Basin in Utah on the Dew Tour in 2011. I ended up winning the competition because I had a great first run, then on the second run I tried a 1080 but wasn’t high enough and landed in the flat. They took me down in a sled. I felt fine when I was lying down and they checked me out and said I was fine, then I took a step and couldn’t walk. I flew home the next day and got an x-ray. The Euro X Games were four weeks later, so I took it really easy. That’s what you do to heal pelvic bones.
Then I went to Europe. I was training in the halfpipe and I didn’t pop hard enough on my run and clipped the deck with my feet and flipped and landed in the bottom on my shoulder and broke my collar bone. I came home; Dr. Scott Kantor put a big plate in there and fixed me up. I went to UC Davis the next day.
The latest injury was my ACL – total detach. I was skiing in slushy sticky snow last spring in Park City and tweaked it and felt it pop, and that was the day before I was supposed to go to France for Euro X Games 2012. Basically, the third time’s the charm. I’m going to make it to France this year.
What’s your in-season training?
Skiing maybe five days a week, lap the pipe. I’ll usually ski three to four hours a day, 20 to 30 laps in the pipe and then free skiing. I like to go fast to fast on the groomers. Then I go to the gym after skiing, lift some weights. We do strength conditioning once a week, cardio and core work twice. Basically I’m at the gym five days a week for an hour to an hour and a half after skiing.
Last summer, it was five hours of gym a day because I was doing physical therapy as well as workouts. I trained for six months at the U.S. Ski Team facility in Park City.
What’s your favorite X Games event as a spectator?
Snowboard halfpipe. I just like the halfpipe as a venue ’cause it’s easiest to watch. Although my boyfriend, Joss Christensen, competes in ski slope-style – that is the event with the big air with multiple jumps and rails in between. Look for him.
What do you think of the snowmobile events?
Not much. I just don’t think they compare to what we are doing at all. It’s on a vehicle it’s not your own body.
Do you like Aspen?
It is always perfect. They spend a lot of time getting the halfpipe that way. They are definitely not going to have any glitches with the pipe. There is so much more publicity around the X Games. The truth is that the Dew Tour is the same prize money and same sponsors, but it is not hyped nearly as much. ESPN produces the X Games specifically on the one weekend between the football playoffs and the Superbowl to try and drive max viewers. It’ll be a pretty big deal.
WINTER X GAMES Women’s Superpipe Ski Finals air live Friday, Jan. 25, at 5:30pm on WatchESPN and ESPN 3D. For more on Brita Sigourney, visit britasigourney.com, or follow her at twitter.com/britasig For the schedule of X Games events, visit xgames.espn.go.com