Smooth and sick ... all at once
By Eric Neel
Page 2 columnist

Editor's Note: Eric Neel isn't really an "extreme guy," but Page 2 sent the columnist to the Winter X Games in Aspen, Colo., to cover the event from an outsider's point of view. Here's his report from the first day of competition:

There is a calm serenity to these radical Xtremists.
The Combination

Extreme. X.

In a way, they're misleading labels.

In a way, the essence of the Games isn't something wild but something cool. Not hip, not gotta-wear-shades cool (though it's true that, as jazz musician Hank Mobley once said, there's "no room for squares" here), but calm cool.

I came to Aspen thinking mostly of the supercalifragilisticexpialidotiousness of what I was about to see. I came thinking of an inside and an out, of a divide between the basic movements of games I knew and the extraordinary angles and patterns of games played on an unfamiliar edge.

But from my first moments on the hill at Buttermilk on Thursday morning, watching the SuperPipe practice sessions and the Slopestyle Skiing competition, I was struck by how quiet and unhurried things are at X.

The athletes move easily. They walk, slide, ski and speak with a centered sort of stillness.

Jumps and moves are born of a yoga-like self-awareness -- all body-mind grounded and natural, effortless reaches for the sky. You can almost see them breathing into the spaces they travel over and up into.

Winter X coverage
For all the latest photos, videos, stories and TV schedules, be sure to check out the complete coverage of Winter X Games VII at

It's composure, the same thing you see in a pitcher in the moment before he goes into his wind-up, or a quarterback as he surveys the field before bending down to take the snap. Only here, it's not something before the action, it's part of the action -- it's in the flow of the spectacular.

Between runs at the top of the SuperPipe, I asked 15-year-old snowboarder Mason Aguirre what I should be looking for in a good run.

"Big air, big tricks," he said. "And smooth, it's gotta be smooth."

There it is. Smooth. Deep-breaths, loose shoulders, a kind of surrender to the motion and the moment that makes everything wild seem organic and right.

X. Extreme.

In another way, of course, they're just the right labels.

In another way, the essence of the games is something mad, something wicked and unbelievable.

Clif Dimon
Yes, these guys are calm cool ... but they'll always be badass cool, too.
I'm standing on the deck of the SuperPipe, staring over and across the lip. Suddenly, with a shiver and rumble, a board and a body shoot up over the lip, way up over the lip. And into the sky. And they're spinning now, in a tight spiral, the way water goes down a drain, only seemingly against gravity, not with it. And then they're gone.

It's a jaw-dropping, did-you-see-that, catch-your-breath thing (every single time it happens). Ever had a car speed by you just a little closer than you'd planned? Ever get buzzed by a flock of low-flying birds? Remember the Memorex guy blown away in his cushy living room chair? It's that kind of thing.

Boarder Channelle Sladics sees the shake in my head and wonder in my eyes and says, "That's cool -- you're bringing the awe factor."

Um, no sister, you are.

Later, I'm at the bottom of the Slopestyle hill, looking up at the crest of the last jump. It's still, the light is flat, there's a slight push and pull about the clouds above.

A father and young son stand next to me, kid on dad's shoulders.

Jon Olsson
Third-place finisher Jon Olsson was left awestruck by Tanner Hall's lo-fi, high-fly sails.
"Watch it, watch it, watch it," dad says. "Here he comes."

Then Tanner Hall materializes in the still, flat light at the crest.

He can't be real. He spins, summersaults, crosses his skies, sings an aria, paints a portrait, boxes with God. Who can say what he does? It's a magical blur.

I've got no words for it. Dad can't do much better. "Did you see that?!" he shouts.

The kid -- and he's just a little kid, maybe 8 or 9 -- nails it: "That was sick," he says, like it's a word in French, like it's a made-up word you use to keep secrets, like it's a sacred word that can't be translated.

Sick. Smooth and sick. Like Robert Frost's fire and ice or something, only with more play and abandon in it.

The silent glide of a SnoCross sled mid-jump, and the churn and crunch of that same sled busting out of a corner and making a mid-hill pass.

Lo-fi and high fly at once.

It's the combination that gets me, makes me want to come back for more.

Random Xtra Notes

  • The subtext of the whole event, the flipside of big air, is in evidence everywhere in the presence of dozens of Red Cross workers on skis. What goes up must come down -- sometimes hard.

  • Best line I heard about falling came from U.S. National Snowboard coach Bud Keene: "Sometimes I want a good fall, just to remember that I can do it and survive it."

  • By the way, as I anticipated, folks routinely play hurt here -- gritty, gutty cut-me-Mick-cut-me stuff, at high speed, on skis and boards and amped-up snowmobiles that careen at and over the edge of control.

  • Average age of an X Gamer: 16. When I think about how much life there is ahead of me, when I think about having plenty of time to save up for retirement, to watch my daughter grow up, to buy a house, write the great American novel, and travel the world, I don't feel all that old. When I see a 16-year-old (one little guy from France, named Gigi Couttet -- how good is that? Gigi? Ladies and gentlemen, the French Fireball, the Satellite of the Seine, Gigi Couttet! -- is actually 14) casually hurling himself into an airborne ballet and landing like it ain't nothing but a thing, I feel ancient, I feel bone-weary and soul-tired, just two steps from death.

    Boyd Easley
    The equipment may be clunky, but couple all this scenery with all this grace and it's downright serene.

  • All the equipment is so clunky, but all the moves are so graceful. Makes me think of birds busting into flight.

  • Awkward moment: A boarder gets too much air and crash-lands on the deck. "What did she do wrong," I ask Keene, fishing for a semi-technical explanation having to do with trajectory and timing and such. His answer: "She landed on the deck. That was wrong." Oh, right. Thanks. I'll just be over here in the corner with my idiot cap and clown shoes onů

  • The "James Brown Hardest Working Men in Show Business Award" goes to the guys who ski down the courses behind the athletes while carrying large, heavy camera-on-handle-bar contraptions. Talk about composure.

  • X Games is a family joint. Kids everywhere. Most of them are working out at the snowboard training area, or hanging around for free stuff at the concession and display stands.

    But one little girl, 7-year-old Taylor, is building a snowman late in the day. Not just any snowman, mind you, but one with sweet shades, coins for eyes, a plastic necklace for a mouth, and arms and shoulders and cheeks and a chin -- a chin, I'm saying, and a totally believable one at that; bit of Rodin in it, almost -- she sculpted with her hands.

    The SnoCross trials were raging not 10 yards from her, people were shuffling and standing, singing and talking all around her. Taylor was oblivious. She was focused. She had a vision and there wasn't nothing going to stand between her and the artful, stylish articulation of that vision. When she was finished, she sat next to it, with her legs tucked behind her and just stared straight ahead, as if to say, yes, I did this, this is what I did. Look upon it and be impressed.

    And I was. I saw a lot of cool creativity on the hill today, but everything I see from here on out will be measured against Taylor's snowman.

    Eric Neel is a regular columnist for Page 2.



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