In 2011, a group of teenage snowboard prodigies dominated Winter X Games Men's Snowboard Slopestyle. At 19 years old, Canadian Sebastien Toutant became the first male rookie to win Slopestyle since Travis Rice in 2002. Canada's Mark McMorris, now 18, also a rookie in 2011 and one of only three snowboarders in history to land a triple cork, took silver. And American Tyler Flanagan, also now 18, earned bronze in his second year at Winter X. Shaun White, who didn't compete in Slopestyle in 2010 (Olympic year) but had won gold in the event five times between 2003 and 2009, took 13th last year at 24 years old. The youth made a statement: They were reclaiming men's slopestyle.
"We've been there forever, but the new generation just changed and it's cool to see all my buddies that have been riding for so long doing really good," Toutant says. "It's good to see younger guys competing in snowboarding. I think lots of fans will be looking after us and will see it's possible -- even if you're 17 or 19, it can happen."
For 2012, Toutant, McMorris and Flanagan are back, with another year of competition experience, and are joined by perhaps one of the most talented and progressive fields ever seen at the Winter X Games in Aspen, Colorado.
"At this point, I could easily name 12 people that could win on any given day in slopestyle," McMorris says. "When you show up to a pipe, you know Shaun White will win, but it's really anyone's day in slope. It comes down to whoever rides perfectly. You can't have a mishap and you need to be trying your hardest tricks."
Speaking of perfect runs, defending gold medalist Toutant posted a 97 during elimination in 2011, the then-highest score ever awarded in WX Slopestyle, men's or women's, Snowboard or Skiing. He also took silver in Big Air. Last year's performance, along with second-place finishes at the first two Dew Tour events of 2011-12 season, have established him as a ringleader of this new generation of rippers. Not only are his tricks big and technical, but his edge control and stomped landings set him apart from the field. In April 2011, he became the third person in history to stick a triple, behind Norway's Torstein Horgmo and McMorris, when he landed a backside triple cork 1440 at Squaw Valley, Calif.
Horgmo, who has the distinction of being the first snowboarder to land a triple cork, in May 2010 in Norway, is still the favorite to win WX Slopestyle this year, despite his best finishes being a fourth place in 2010 and sixth in 2011 (he won gold in Big Air in 2011). Here's why: For 2012, he has an arsenal of double corks. To top it off, he has almost every combo imaginable of spins into and out of the rails. All this, and his riding is done with incredible control while maintaining a look of ease and style.
"I've got some new tricks up my sleeve," Horgmo says. "But you'll have to wait until the event to find out. Mostly I just want to do all my tricks with style."
McMorris, fresh off a win at the O'Neill Evolution in early January, enters WX further refining his already-consistent Cab double cork 1260 and backside double cork 1260. He also has a double backside Rodeo and a unique double backflip. He says Winter X Games is all about making it through the semifinals because everyone "just throws down all they've got."
Willett just took the win at last week's Dew Tour slopestyle in Killington, where he beat out Toutant (who took second) and others with a stout run. WX Big Air bronze medalist Sage Kotsenburg, 18, landed the first Cab double cork 1440 in February 2011 at the Air & Style, Innsbruck. Kotsenburg says he plans to do the Cab double cork 1440 in both Slopestyle and Big Air at Aspen.
In 2011, Norway's Braaten broke his collarbone two days before WX and had to watch the event on television. He burst back on the scene full force this season, upsetting a stacked field at the Breckenridge Dew Tour stop for the win. Chas "Chuck G" Guldemond, who at 24 is the veteran of the new guard, beat a tough field in very tough conditions to win the 2011 WX Europe Slopestyle gold. Aside from being one of the best spinners in the game, with multiple double cork variations on lock, he is among the small handful of riders who have landed a 1440 in competition.
Then there's the Shaun White factor -- or as some have said, the nonfactor. He placed 13th in last year's Winter X Slope qualifiers and didn't advance to the finals. This season, he showed up at Breckenridge Dew Tour but also didn't come close to qualifying for the final there. Some of his fellow riders, including McMorris, speculated he was there to survey the field and top tricks so he could go back to his lab and put together a podium run.
Despite his showing of late, of White's five Slopestyle gold medals -- the most of any athlete in men's slopestyle -- one came just three years ago. With slopestyle a new addition to the Winter Olymics for 2014 and White possibly looking for a double medal in Sochi, the world might see White rekindle his focus on the discipline.
But like McMorris said, on any given Saturday, men's snowboard slopestyle could be anybody's game.