Winter X Games Preview: Who and What to Watch in 2012

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Kazu Kokubo hits the halfpipe. Photo: Riccardo S. Savi/Getty Images

This week, 200 of the world’s best snowboarders, skiers and snowmobilers are headed to Aspen, Colorado for the Winter X Games, where they’ll battle on the slopes, rails, ramps and half-pipes for spots on the podium and the glory of gold. If you can’t set aside the time to watch every run over the four days of competition, here’s a sneak preview of the athletes and contests that are sure to make the 2012 X Games worth remembering.

The Up and Comers

Sebastien Toutant in action. Photo: Christian Pondella/Getty Images

Sebastien Toutan: Because the Olympics are held only every four years, most breakout athletes make their big debuts at the X Games. Last year, rookie Sebastien Toutan (better known by his handle, Seb Toots) made quite a splash, winning silver in the Big Air (and missing gold by a single point) and top honors in the Slopestyle (which he won by 23 points). This week, we’ll see whether the 19 year old Canadian can live up to the promise of his great start in his sophomore year. He’ll be competing in those two events again in Aspen.

Kazu Kokubo: at 23 years old, Kokubo has been riding professionally since the age of 14. But despite an appearance at the Vancouver Olympic Games (where Japan refused to let him participate in the opening ceremony because of his sloppy dressing) and consecutive wins at the Burton U.S. Open of Snowboarding, he’s never had much luck at the X Games.

Kokubo is best known for his free-wheeling style, and many were astounded when his X Games halfpipe run last year didn’t land him on the podium. Look for him to correct the mistake this week.

The Returning Champions

Snowboarding royalty: Shaun White and Kelly Clark. Photo: Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Shaun White: White has been the top dog in the snowboarding world for a while now- long enough that he’s also taken the time to win X Games gold for skateboarding and start his own home collection with Target. But don’t think he’s not as much of a threat this year as ever before. White comes into this year’s Winter X as a four-peat superpipe gold medalist and record holder for best run ever, with a near perfect score of 97.33. It’s his medal to lose in 2012.

Kelly Clark: On the women’s side of things, Clark is as close to White as they come. Last year, she became the first woman to land a 1080 in competition, and she’s won the last 12 contests she’s entered. But the competition will be fierce as Clark looks to add to her collection of eight X Games medals. The field includes the always dangerous Gretchen Bleiler and 15-year-old Maddy Schaffrick, who is the youngest X Games competitor for the second year in a row.

The Events:

Photo: Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Real Snow: Not much has changed since the 2011 X Games, but there’s still some new stuff to check out. This year, ESPN started a new event called Real Snow, inviting eight snowboarders to ditch the terrain park and make videos of themselves riding in urban settings. They jump off buildings, ride down staircases and bounce off walls. The eight were split into a bracket, pitting each video against one other, calling for the public to vote on the winner of each face off. Real Snow is now in the final round — it’s Halldor Helgason against Louis-Felix Paradis — but all eight videos are worth watching.

Freestyle Skiing: The big news in the freeskiing world last week was the tragic death of Sarah Burke a week after she was severely injuring during a practice run. Burke was a pioneer in the sport and played a major role in getting it admitted to the Winter Olympics for 2014. It will be interesting to see how the X Games competitors will approach the event this year: with caution, worried that they, too, could be injured or killed, or with Burke’s attitude: bigger is better, and more air is more fun.

The X Games will run from January 26-29, you can watch on ESPN, ESPN2 and online on WatchESPN.com.

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