It's been said that next to the Olympics, the annual Winter X Games is the biggest winter sporting event in the world. In some ways you could argue that X Games is even more important, having included sports like ski halfpipe and slopestyle for a decade before this year's decision to make them Olympic events.
In that light, an X Games medal ranks among the biggest achievements in snow sports, and Canada is doing more than holding its own. Over the course of the weekend, Canadians earned 12 podiums including seven gold medals — despite missing some key athletes in sports we usually do well in.
The X Games got off to a good start with Kaya Turski winning her third consecutive ski slopestyle title, landing the first ever switch 1080 by a female competitor in a competition.
Like other Canadians, Turski dedicated the win to her fallen teammate Sarah Burke, an X Games champion who passed away on Jan. 19 as a result of a training injury.
"We have someone watching from above whom we need to make proud," she said. "She constantly pushed the sport, even when she didn't need to, by doing new and harder tricks. I think now it's our turn to keep pushing for her."
In her post-run interview, Turski said: "I always looked up to Sarah, I always will look up to Sarah, and just heading into the first rail I even said to myself 'let's do this Sarah.' She was with me the whole run."
Americans Devin Logan and Anna Segall were second and third. Also for Canada, 17-year-old Dara Howell was sixth overall and Kim Lamarre made the finals to place 10th.
Also taking place on Thursday were the Snowboard Street competition, the Snowmobile Freestyle final and the men's ski slopestyle final. The top Canadian in Snowboard Street was Phil Jacques in fifth. In Ski Slopestyle, an event Canada typically does well in; several of the athletes have been sidelined with injuries or, like JF Houle, are returning from injuries. Houle placed 10th overall. The podium was all-American with Nick Goepper first, Tom Wallisch second and Bobby Brown third.
On Friday, the big event for Canada was the snowboard big air, where 18-year-old Mark McMorris and 21-year-old Sebastien Toutant were first and third after four runs. Torstein Horgmo of Norway picked up the silver medal.
In the women's snowboard slopestyle the top Canadian was Spencer O'Brien, who had a few miscues in all of her runs. The top spot went to American Jamie Anderson, followed by Enn Rukajarvi of Finland and Kjersti Oestgaard Buaas of Norway.
Americans also dominated the women's snowboard superpipe on Friday — a sport where Canada has not been as competitive as in past years. Kelly Clark, Elena Hight and Hannah Teter were first through third in the rankings.
Saturday was a big day for Canada.
In ski superpipe, Roz Groenewoud defended teammate Sarah Burke's X Games title. She was sitting in third after her first run, but came back with a huge run that including a big straight air (14 feet), back-to-back 900 tricks a switch 720 and a switch 540.
Groenewoud also dedicated her run to Burke:
"I just let all that love lift me up," she said. "I definitely had my teammate with me today, she's been with me for so long."
Americans Maddie Bowman and Brita Sigourney were second and third. Also for Canada, Keltie Hansen was sixth, Dara Howell seventh and Megan Gunning eighth.
In the men's ski superpipe, Canada's Noah Bowman had the run of his life after being called in at the last minute as an alternate. His run included a new trick called an alley-oop double 900 that he literally only perfected the day before, propelling him to the finals first and to the second spot on the podium between Americans David Wise and Torin Yater-Wallace.
"Well, I just learned that trick a couple of days ago and it seems to be working out, so I'm going to stick with it," said the 19-year-old Bowman.
Mike Riddle was seventh for Canada, but was hoping for more until he pulled his ski off in his final run while making a grab. Justin Dorey was eighth, dislocating his shoulder after a fall on his second run.
In women’s snowboardcross, Canada earned two medals with Dominique Maltais and Maëlle Ricker placing first and third overall, with Bulgaria’s Alexandra Jokova splitting the two.
While Maltais is an overall World Cup champion she had never won an X Games medal before Saturday.
"Winning at the X Games was one of my goals this year and I'm really happy to have achieved it," she said. "I have been to the X Games three times and this is my first win at this major event."
For Ricker, a third at X Games represents her first podium since returning from a knee and shoulder injury she sustained at the World Championships in January 2011. She's been improving from week to week.
"It feels good to be back on the podium," she said. "I put a lot of pressure on myself this week. Even if I'm not totally happy with the way I rode, I couldn't be happier with the result."
The Canadian men's snowboardcross team has been rebuilding after the retirement of several athletes, and none of the racers qualified for the final — despite Rob Fagan posting the top time in the qualifier. Nate Holland, Nick Baumgartner and Jayson Hale of the U.S. took the podium after avoiding a crash on course.
The medals kept coming for Canada with Mark McMorris adding a gold in the snowboard slopestyle event, winning by five points over Sage Kotsenburg of the U.S. and Peetu Piiroinen of Finland. Sebastien Toutant, the reigning champion, just missed the podium in fourth.
In the ski big air, Bobby Brown placed first overall, followed by Swiss skier Kai Mahler and New Zealand's Jossi Wells.
On Sunday, Canada picked up another double podium in the men's ski cross with Chris Del Bosco taking gold and Whistler's Dave Duncan in third.
While Del Bosco has struggled so far this year, this was one event he wanted. He didn't have the fastest start but was aggressive on the jumps and managed to pass his way to the lead spot with a long air over a section of three rollers.
"It's been kind of an up and down season and I was hoping to come here and have a big day," he said. "I'm feeling good about my skiing and it all came together. To come here and win gold with Duncan on the podium, it's a great day."
Duncan was himself sitting in fifth (there are six skiers at X Games versus four for World Cup and Olympic races) at one point, but passed his way onto the podium.
"It was close all the way through," said Duncan. "The guys were all side-by-side. It was a definite battle out there."
Brady Leman and Tristan Tafel made the semi-finals but didn't advance.
In the women's ski cross, the team has been deciminated by injuries with Kelsey Serwa joining Olympic Champion Ashleigh McIvor and world champion bronze medallist Julia Murray on the sidelines. Whistler's Marielle Thompson has stepped up to earn her first career World Cup podiums and made the finals in the women's event where she was in contention for the podium until she lost control in a tight corner and crashed. She finished her day in fourth, behind Marte Bjerfsen of Norway, Hedda Berntsen of Norway and Jenny Owens of Australia.
"I skied really well and I'm happy about that, but not so happy with myself for making a mistake," said Thompson. "I just got kind of squeezed in that turn."
In the Mono Skier X race, a time trial event on a parallel cross course for sit skiers, Whistler's Sam Danniels placed first overall after passing his way to the front. Canada's Josh Dueck was third behind American Gregory Peck.
The final event was one for the record books, with American Shaun White winning his fifth consecutive gold medal in the snowboard superpipe — while landing the first perfect "100" score in the history of the sport. Iouri Polladtchikov of Poland was second with Ryona Aono of Japan placing third. More impressive, White didn't even need to compete — he had already sewn up the win at that point with a 94.0 in his first trip down the pipe. No Canadians were in the competition.
The Winter X Games started out with a tribute to Sarah Burke, including a moment of silence and a candlelight vigil in the halfpipe with her husband Rory Bushfield and family looking on. The tributes continued through the weekend with videos and reflections from other athletes, posted online at EXPN.com.
A Whistler tribute is in the works, but as yet no date has been confirmed.
The week was not without its controversies. In the women's ski cross event it was reported that American Langley McNeal was disqualified after the semi-finals for wearing an armband with Sarah Burke's name, reportedly after a French coach protested. In the rulebook, athletes aren't allowed to wear anything that makes them more aerodynamic.
The truth came out a day later after the story had been reported on Facebook with thousands signing on to protest: in fact the disqualification was not due to the arm band, but as a result of a hair tie McNeal had around her boots. It's doubtful the tie would have made her faster, but it did break the rules.