- Alyssa Roenigk, ESPN The Magazine senior writer
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There was little upside to the Dec. 14 training crash that ended four-time Winter X Games gold medalist Levi LaVallee's hopes of setting a world snowmobile distance-jumping record live on ESPN on New Year's Eve. Unless you're four-time Winter X Games competitor Daniel Bodin. Shortly after arriving home to Minnesota to rest and recover from his accident, LaVallee called Bodin, his Red Bull teammate, and asked if he'd be interested in riding for Team LaVallee, since he would be unable to compete himself. "I know Levi is so serious about riding and I wanted to be a part of that," Bodin (pronounced: Bo-deen) says. "Now I have the best machine and the best mechanics and all I have to focus on is my riding. That's how it should be."
For three weeks in January, that's exactly what he did. Although the 26-year-old Swede has competed in freestyle for seven years, until three weeks ago, he'd never jumped his sled into a foam pit. In the past, he learned all of his tricks straight to snow. When LaVallee heard this, he invited Bodin out to his place in Minnesota to use his personal foam pit. "Without a foam pit, it's so hard to push yourself to your limits," LaVallee says. "When I found out he'd learned all he knows without a foam pit, I was like, 'You're insane. And you're welcome to come out to my place.'" During the time Bodin spent in Minnesota this month, LaVallee was still hobbling around with the assistance of a walker, so he was unable to offer feedback from the top of the pit or spend too much time out at the jumps while Bodin practiced. Instead, a mutual friend filmed the practice sessions and Bodin and LaVallee watched the videos the next morning. "He was really receptive to any input I gave him," says LaVallee, who is in Aspen, Colo., this week without the walker. "He really wanted to get better."
According to Bodin, he has. Although he's saving his biggest tricks for Sunday's Best Trick contest, he says he learned a few flip tricks he'll debut in Freestyle. In his four Winter X Games appearances, Bodin has finished fourth every year, so those new tricks could finally jump him onto the podium. "Don't even talk about it," Bodin says. "This is my year. I'm not talking bronze. I'm not talking silver. I'm going for gold. I have never been as ready as I am now."
Which is a good thing, because the field is as stacked as it's been in years, despite the absence of LaVallee.
For the uninitiated, the young sport of Freestyle Snowmobile is much like its summer counterpart, Freestyle Motocross. (Think: Travis Pastrana, Brian Deegan, Metal Mulisha.) Riders perform one at a time on a course designed to showcase their trick ability as well as their sled control, cornering and speed while hitting jumps ranging from 65 to more than 100 feet long. The judges score the riders on overall impression, trick execution, variety of tricks, use of the course, landings and style. Twelve riders will compete in the elimination round, eight in Round 1 and four in the final, which takes place Thursday night. In the four years since Freestyle Snowmobile was added to the Winter X lineup, there has not been a repeat winner. But last year's winner, Justin Hoyer, is hoping to buck that trend. "Last year was last year, and just because I won then doesn't mean anything now," Hoyer says.
"You have to re-earn that win every year. Everyone else is working twice as hard trying to catch you. But if I can land the run I want to do, I can win this event. It will be close, but it would be a dream come true to repeat."
In last year's Best Trick contest, Hoyer attempted an underflip (an off-axis, tweaked backflip that looks similar to a 360) but bailed three-quarters of the way through the trick. After the event, he promised he would return this year and throw the underflip in his Freestyle run. So, will he make good on that promise? "It's a possibility," he says. "It could happen."
One of the reasons it might not is because, besides dealing with the pressure of competing on their sport's biggest stage, these riders are also dealing with extreme conditions. It is extremely cold during the night events and the elevation -- the base of Buttermilk Mountain sits 8,000 feet above sea level -- means dry, thin air, struggling motors and overworked suspensions. "We use our first practice just to dial in our sleds," Hoyer says. "It always takes awhile to get them running well here."
Let's just hope they're humming come Thursday night.