X games preview | TahoeDailyTribune.com

X games preview

It rained hard all day and then the freezing temperatures set in.

As if the Winter X Games boardercross and skiercross competitors needed another element of danger for their already outrageous and perilous courses.

The fifth Winter X Games opens today in Mount Snow, Vt., with boardercross qualifying and finals, skiercross qualifying and big air qualifying and finals.

As the five-day event opens, the pressure is, without a doubt, on the brave snowboarders and skiers who must negotiate 50- to 60-foot gaps, additional jumps and enhanced speed brought on by an icy top layer left by Wednesday’s rains and late freeze.

“It’s going to be a very exciting race with high speed and big elements and it’ll be potentially dangerous,” said South Lake Tahoe’s Janez Demsar, who is making his third appearance in the X Games.

Part of the danger is the treacherous gaps the skiers must jump in order to remain in the thick of the competition. A caught tip, mid-air collision or loss of control can be potentially fatal.

“The guys in boardercross are starting to build courses that are pretty insane, and it’s all made for TV,” said South Lake Tahoe’s Mike Dill, who retired after finishing third in ultracross at last year’s X Games. “They have 50- to 60-foot gaps with an 80-foot vertical drop if you miss. If you miss, you’re going to the hospital.”

Sarah John, 23, a 1995 graduate of South Tahoe High who works as a dental assistant in Meyers, wears as much protective gear as possible because the danger of her sport has increased.

“The airs are always bigger at the X Games. They’re putting the athletes on the line because that’s what grabs the spectators’ attention,” said John, who has invested in a solid health insurance plan, full-face helmet and mouthguard.

At least, the purses have grown exponentially with the danger.

“I’ve seen it go from $600 to $6,000 to $10,000 to win,” Dill said. “It’s nice to see where the industry is going. And to be honest, the athletes deserve it.”

While the X Games are changing every year, some of its stars are not.

South Shore’s Shaun Palmer has been the king of these games from the outset and he’ll try to add to his five overall gold medals this weekend.

Palmer, the defending skiercross champion, won’t try to defend his title, Demsar said.

The three-time boardercross gold medalist will also compete in ultracross if he finishes among the top 16 in his favorite event. In the 2-year-old ultracross, the top 16 in boardercross and top 16 in skiercross are randomly paired for some additional sparring with danger.

With Palmer not entered in skiercross, Dill expects last year’s runner-up, Bill Hudson, of Squaw Valley, to win the gold.

“Billy is a stronger skier than Palmer and has World Cup experience, and Janez, too,” Dill said. “Last year the course was flat and favored the gliders. Out here in the West, we’re used to the steeps. If they make the course more technical and more challenging, it’ll definitely favor the West Coast skiers because we’re already used to that big stuff, and not to say Palmer isn’t.”

Dill, however, is pulling for Demsar and Sierra-at-Tahoe’s Corley Howard.

“Janez has had a spate of bad luck in recent years and he’s probably the best skier technically in South Lake Tahoe. I’d really like Janez to step it up and have a promising showing.

“Corley has worked his way up the ranks and I hope he does well because he’s got the gusto, the fight and the fire inside to do well.”

Demsar, a member of the Yugoslavian National team from 1986-90, was fifth in skiercross qualifying a year ago, but finished a career-best, but disappointing, 12th.

“Because I did so well in the qualifier it put me in a tentative position. I thought it would be easier to achieve good results without trying really hard,” Demsar said. “This time my goal is to race the way I can and give it my best and wherever it brings me, I’ll take it.”

Two hundred seventy-six athletes from 12 countries are entered in the games, and while most of them are between the ages of 22 and 29, there are a few exceptions: Kirk Hibbert, whose son, Tucker, won the SnoCross last year, is 43. The youngest competitor is 14-year-old Shaun White in snowboarding big air.

ESPN begins television coverage on Friday and will show events on a tape-delayed basis through Feb. 6. In all, ESPN will feature 8.5 hours of coverage, while ABC will air 2.5 hours (on Saturday and Sunday) and ESPN2 (on Monday) will air 2 hours.

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