Why the ESPN Winter X Games (and the Olympics) Inspire This Mom

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Snowboarder Scotty James, with Judy’s son, Sam, right after he’d completed his silver medal run. Photo: Judy Berna

One of our first priorities when we moved to Colorado was to check out the ESPN Winter X Games in person. My kids have grown up watching these games on TV, and enjoyed them as much as they did the Winter Olympics, which don’t come around as often. This year was our third trip to watch the Winter X Games in person and it was a double bonus that many of the athletes we saw there later climbed on planes and flew to Russia.

I’ve always loved how the Winter X Games inspired my kids. They’ll never be podium-seeking athletes, but watching others excel at sports they love pushes them to do their own personal bests. Once we caught the spirit of X Games in person, my love for them grew exponentially.

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Having athletes fly over your head as you stand on the edge of the Superpipe is a very special feeling. Photo: Judy Berna

I’ve written about the X Games a few times before. My post from 2012 can be found here. And last year, after watching the summer X Games, I told you seven things I love about the games. Last year’s Winter X Games impressed me once again. And my theme continues–these are the sporting events that show an athlete’s true character. Time after time I’ve been deeply impressed by what these young people are like when they are up close and personal. They might inspire my kids by their athletic prowess, but they inspire this GeekMom by their incredible daily life examples.

The X Games are a unique event. In an age where professional athletes are bubbled off by body guards and security detail, Winter X Games is a place where a kid (or star struck mom) can stand right next to the big dogs, high five them after a great run, and sometimes even take a selfie with them before they do their next run. The kids on the front row, who went home with cherished selfies, paid nothing for the experience.

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At Winter X Games the athletes glide through a chute lined with fans after each run. It’s encouraging to the athletes (especially after a not so great run) and a thrill for the fans. Photo: Judy Berna

The Winter X Games are free to the public. Even the shuttle from the parking lot is free. The only catch is that you get there a little early if you want a good view. The stands are set up to allow as much front row access as possible. When it would have been just as easy to have athletes shuttled off to the sidelines to catch their snowmobile ride back up the mountain, the event organizers instead set up a long chute that athletes glide through, that is lined with energetic young people, thrilled to be high five-ing their favorite riders between runs.

The practice sessions are open to the public. There are fewer spectators, meaning a closer view, and the jumps are just as high. It’s almost like everyone has a backstage pass.

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The snowmobilers line up and get ready to do their jumps and races. Photo: Judy Berna

Once again this year I noticed the amazing camaraderie between the athletes.  The older ones encourage and cheer on the younger ones, who will some day take their place. Sure it’s a competition. They all want the top spot. But these kids understand the concept of being a human being first, an athlete second.

One of the bright stars of the women’s snowboard Superpipe was a girl named Chloe Kim. She got the second best scores at the Olympic trials in California the week before X Games, but will not actually go, because she’s…wait for it…13 years old.  She’s beating some of the top women in the sport and she’s still a middle schooler.

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GeekMom Judy with silver medal X Games snowboarder (who is 13 years old), Chloe Kim.

There is no age requirement for the X Games, so after she’d had her fun at the Olympic Trials, she headed to Colorado to compete against the big girls again. I met up with her during practice one day and she’s the gem I’d hoped she would be. Sweet, polite, and apologetic when she was late for our meeting because she had to meet with her medical team about an injury at the last minute. I assured her I understood. Her time was much more important than mine that day, but she didn’t seem to realize it.

When she stood at the top of each run she was surrounded by women she’s grown up watching, the heroes in her sport. They weren’t icing her out and trying to get in her head. They were hugging her and wishing her luck. This little girl who had the skills to take their medals, and they treated her like she was a little sister. She left the 2014 X Games with a silver medal in her pocket.

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Scotty James, stopping to take pictures with fans between his runs during competition. Photo: Judy Berna

Then we have a kid named Scotty James. He’s from Australia and ended up with a fourth place finish in the Ski SuperPipe at Winter X Games, but his bright smile and great attitude won this mom over. After each run during the competition Scotty made his way through the chute slowly, taking pictures with dozens of fans along the way.  You would never know he’d just come off a huge run in a world famous competition. The first time I met him, in the media tent a few hours before the competition, he was surrounded by reporters and yet still calm and collected. On his way out I asked him for a picture and he flashed that relaxed smile and said, “Sure!” before throwing his arm around my shoulder. “This…,” I thought to myself, “this is the kind of kid I love my boys idolizing.” He has every right to be fussy and demanding, and yet he’s as comfortable in a room full of reporters as he is hanging out with friends.

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Snowboarder Scotty James, humoring this GeekMom with a quick picture, before he headed off for his competition. Photo: Judy Berna

This year, with the double dose, I’m seeing the same thing play out on our nightly recap of Olympic events. Many of the same faces we saw in Aspen are now fighting for a medal that honors their country. And I’m seeing the same character diamonds that we saw in Aspen.

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One of the biggest examples is the story of Shaun White. If you don’t know the name Shaun White, I fear you’ve been living under a rock (or in a tropical location) for the past decade. Shaun White is the rock star of the snowboarding world. He’s won more medals and competitions than I have space to name. He’s got an stylish boy’s clothing line at Target stores that saved my preteen from having to wear clothes that better suited six year olds. My son finally enjoys shopping for new clothes, because they are great boarder styles, designed by his hero, Shaun White.

One of Shaun’s biggest accomplishments was winning the gold medal in two consecutive Olympic Games in the SuperPipe competition. This was going to be his year to get his three-peat. He’s been training for years, perfecting specific tricks, so that he could come to Sochi and earn his next gold.

Spoiler Alert coming: Shaun didn’t win gold. In fact, he didn’t even make it to the podium. The biggest name in snowboarding didn’t get a medal. It was humbling. It was sobering. It was hard to watch, in this house full of Shaun Super Fans.

Then the inevitable interview afterward. It felt a lot like the interview with Payton Manning after the Super Bowl. Everyone watching knows that all that athlete wants to do is go away, get some time alone, and maybe scream for an hour or two. But instead there is a microphone stuck in their face and silly questions are asked, like, “Are you disappointed?”

Just like the iconic quarter back after his Super Bowl loss, Shaun White showed his true character. He didn’t blame the horrible conditions of the Superpipe, that was designed wrong and filled with slushy snow. He could have. It was a known fact that conditions were bad.

He didn’t blame his coach. He didn’t get mad at the young men who did have medals around their necks. Instead he did the right thing. He did the winner thing. He hugged the kid who stood in the spot he’d become so comfortable in, and he accepted that he just hadn’t earned that medal. He said he was frustrated with himself, because he knew he could have done better, and it just wasn’t his day. Then he walked away with his head held high and our family’s respect still firmly in his camp.

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Superpipe snowboarder Louie Vito, graciously takes a picture with GeekMom Judy’s son after winning the silver medal. Photo: Judy Berna

The Olympics, and the Winter X Games, are about so much more than a sport. They stand for more than just years of hard work and sacrifice. To this mom, they are a reflection of those athletes’ character. Win or lose, who will you be? That’s something I’ll drag my kids to Aspen to see and something that makes me forget about school night bedtimes. My kids can stay up late to watch, when their heroes (and mine) are front and center on the screen.