The 1997 X-Games

As soon as I stepped off the plane, I caught the fever. Banners, give-aways, limos, Hari Krishnas, television crews ... like somebody was holding a lighted Olympic torch under the city of San Diego. Only this wasn't the Olympics. Far too many bike-toting, sneaker pimpin', tattooed twentysomethings were crawling around baggage claim for this to be the Olympics. (I had to laugh at the airport's lame attempt at beefing up security in honor of my generation's presence. Give us a break, guys. The Unabomber wasn't an X-er, was he?)
As I followed the flow of traffic and pennants south on Interstate 5 to the site, the intensity escalated. Traffic cops, "undercover" narcotic cops, regular cops, skateboard cops. I don't think Alcatraz was this well-guarded. Yet officers of the law aside, it seemed that for every one of the hundreds of "athletes" there were at least five autograph-book-carrying, pierced teenage punk fans. And for every one of those fans, mixed among the Generation X crowd (and looking distinctly out of place), were at least two Bob Sugar-esque agents, sponsors and other moochers looking to take a piece of Tony Hawk's pie. Bewilderment notwithstanding, I could only think of one thing: Aaaahhhhhhhhhhhhh... .....we've arrived.
The ESPN X Games isn't just another wakeboard contest. It's the only wakeboard contest.
Format discussions aside, the X Games is the only contest that truly epitomizes what our sport is all about. Soul. Fun. Partying. Guts. Bruised bodies. Glory. Anyone who's ever eaten it really bad on a Raley knows the gut-crunching pain you can feel. But anyone who's ever stuck an unreal move off the double-up also knows that stoke is something you can actually touch. Who better to understand a stunt biker's pain as he grovels in the dirt spitting blood than an army and audience of his peers? I guarantee you that the X Games in person is much better than the made-for-TV action you channeled though your Magnavox simply because you could witness the blood, sweat and tears.
For the first time, all the main events were held in one venue - Bonita Cove at Mission Bay Park. Skateboarding (street, vert and inline, women's and men's) was right next to BMX (stunt dirt and stunt vert), which was right next to snowboarding, which was right next to wakeboarding. An extreme sports fan's wet dream come true. The 10 days of the actual event, June 20 through June 29, were structured into prelims, semis and finals for all events. By programming wakeboarding into the second weekend of action with skateboarding and BMX being the main draw, we were assured a good crowd.
Although the on-the-water portion of wakeboarding was virtually identical to a tour stop, it wasn't without its fair share of controversy. The 1997 X Games were fraught with virtual disasters. First off, the women were in an uproar over the format. WWA rules mandate that no trick be performed twice - each rider must perform 10 different maneuvers - however, the ESPN crew wanted to see inverts and full spins. They weren't keen on grab 180s counting as a competitive measure, so the women were gathered together and, as a group, decided that in this instance, they would be allowed to repeat tricks for full value. (I think you can see where this is going.) For the few girls not capable of doing 10 inverts this was great news - they could actually be competitive with Andrea Gaytan and Tara Hamilton, the obvious front-runners. However, it was conceivable that, for instance, someone who performed two back rolls per pass and stood up could defeat the girls who completed all different tricks. From this point details get sketchy, but after the fact it was suggested that 1/2 credit be given for repeat tricks. Blah, blah, blah, a few tears here, a tirade there, and nothing was resolved. ESPN and World Sports & Marketing stuck with thhe original plan. This was Day 1.
Day 2 brought forth a fresh level of anxiety as the riders jockeyed for position among the top 10 that would advance. Byerly fell. Harris fell. Necrason fell. Obviously this X Games would serve as another example of how the world's best riders aren't necessarily the world's best competitive riders. But falls count as they may, and none of those three guys has anyone to blame but themselves. However, once again this is where things begin to get a little sketchy.
Cobe Mikacich stuck a solid pass, definitely enough to get him in, but when the results came through he was locked in 11th place. The reasoning: The Mikker had failed to perform his last trick within the given 25 seconds. Fair enough except that one WSM official had stated, albeit out of his jurisdiction, that this event wasn't going to be timed. Think about it. You'd be angry too if your hopes at winning the biggest event of the year were dashed by a verbal mistake. Blah, blah, blah, a little yelling here, a few apologies there, and nothing was resolved. ESPN and World Sports & Marketing stuck with the original ruling. This was Day 2.
Day 3. The finals. The group of 10 was narrowed down to four and, without question for a change, the four most consistent riders advanced. Kovak looked unbeatable. His passes included three mobes, a whirly bird (seeing a 6-foot-tall guy do a whirly bird is pretty impressive) and, of course, his signature Raley. We hadn't seen any double-ups yet, but Kovak's slowball was surely the call here today. Shapiro looked more intense then I'd ever seen him. Nothing short of a win would be satisfactory for this four-time tour champion out to prove a point. For the second year in a row, Parks Bonifay assured himself a place on the medal stand. He easily pulled off his run, hitting five versions of a Raley: S-bend, vulcan, Raley, switch versions and whirlybird. And pulling up the anchor leg was surprise entry Hunter Brown. Just another in a string of young'uns shedding their junior images, Hunter impressed everyone including me with his super clean passes and difficult tricks.
At this point you all can take it from here. You saw the footage. You know the outcome. Shapiro crammed himself so far into the "zone" that he mentally misfired. He bobbled a few tricks and missed the speedball. Parks stuck a solid run, saving his trump card for last as he unveiled the double tantrum. Unfortunately he didn't ride it away, and that cost him the victory. Hunter rode conservatively, sticking with his original pass. It wasn't enough to launch a career winner, but this is one rider that has definitely come of age.
Nope, the story that day was Jeremy Kovak. You may or may not like him personally (Kovak is like a good stiff drink - a little hard to handle at first, but by the time the waitress comes around you're ordering another), but the guy knows how to ride in a contest. He goes big, he does hard tricks (air mobe 5, come on, give the guy some credit here!), and he's consistent to boot.
So what does that say for wakeboarding? The fact that a self-proclaimed skier can win the biggest wakeboarding contest of the year? Absolutely nothing. The nay-sayers out there that are hassling contests and format and skiers versus boarders should take a step back and look around. It's taking skating what, 30 years to get the respect it deserves? We're a blank slate. Kovak, like anyone else in this stage of the game, is just a blip in history. And if indeed his ESPN interview is anything to take seriously - "I've won every big contest out there - the Masters, the Canadian masters, the pro tour, and now that I've won the X Games, I can retire a happy man" - he won't be around for much longer. We should all lift a good, stiff drink in his honor and enjoy the party.