Simon d'Artois set himself up for a heck of a 23rd birthday party.
Being another year older wasn't all he was celebrating.
d'Artois, who turned 23 on Monday, Jan. 26, had an X Games gold medal dangling from his neck the day before after emerging as the victor in men's superpipe in Aspen, Colo.
It's a scenario that would have been difficult to imagine a year ago, as he was on the Canadian Freestyle Ski Association's B team and fundraising to make his way to the events. He earned a promotion to the A team in the offseason.
d'Artois, who finished 14th at last year's X Games, was the only skier to lay down three consistently good runs in the final, setting the tone with a 90.33 score in the opening round and following it up with an 87.66 to hold the pole position with a single run remaining.
American Alex Ferreira put the pressure on d'Artois, scoring a 91.66 that eventually gave him the bronze. When d'Artois was given his chance, he shone through putting down an even 93.00 to snag Canada's first ever X Games gold in the men's superpipe, holding off a late challenge from France's Kevin Rolland, who passed Ferriera for silver. Squamish resident Mike Riddle was eighth.
"When I got to the bottom of the pipe, it was pretty special for me," said d'Artois. "I'm just happy to put it down.
"I definitely thought that Kevin did a good job. I was a little nervous when his board got to the bottom and he stomped his run."
In a run filled with switch skiing, d'Artois punctuated his showing with a gigantic double cork that drew hoots and hollers from those in attendance.
"When you get to the bottom and you've put down three great runs, it's pretty cool to see that," he said. "It's not like it came as a surprise for me that I was able to put it down. It was 'OK, I did it again.' I was super stoked to do it three times in a row, actually."
d'Artois explained being on the CFSA's A team, and having fewer financial pressures, has freed him up to focus more on his training. At the top of the list, he sought to become a more consistent competitor, something he displayed in spades Sunday afternoon, Jan. 25, in Aspen.
"The first (run) set the bar, and in the second one, there were a couple little things I could have picked up, and I really put it down on the third one," he said.
d'Artois said he feels he's made some noise on the world scene over his career, but feels he's now served notice that he plans to be a fixture for years to come.
"I would say I've been somewhat of a presence, but to finally grab a gold at X Games, that's just crazy," he said. "It shows people that I'm here."
And he hasn't forgotten everyone that's helped him climb the podium, as he was grateful for those who chipped in some cash to allow him to keep competing last season.
"I wouldn't be here today without the help of all my supporters who have supported me and helped my fundraiser become a success," he said. "It's a pretty big thing for me to be where I am now and I couldn't be more thankful for the people who have backed me."
The great showing for d'Artois capped an encouraging weekend for Canadians in Aspen. Regina snowboarder Mark McMorris won both the big air and slopestyle events, beating out Montreal's Max Parrot in the big air event.
Vernon's Kevin Hill took snowboard-cross gold and Victoriaville, Que.'s Vincent Gagnier did the same in the ski big air event.
Petite-Riviere-St-Francois, Que.'s Dominique Maltais earned the women's snowboard-cross silver.
Meanwhile, Alex Bellemare of Saint-Boniface, Que. and Dara Howell of Huntsville, Ont. took the respective men's and women's ski slopestyle bronze medals.
Ex-Whistlerite just off the podium
Para-snowboarder John Leslie, a former Whistler resident now living in Ottawa, was fourth in the adaptive snowboard-cross event, just behind Barrie, Ont.'s Alex Massie.
"You have certain goals coming into the competition and you just really hope that you meet those goals," he said. "I met most of my goals which was to make it into the final and come top five.
"On top of that, I got to watch my teammate, Alex Massie, come third, which was super sick."
Being fairly early in the season, the 22 year old and his competitors are still getting up to speed. He noted the earlier season heats have been primarily two-man head-to-head runs, but expanded to four racers and later, to a six-man battle royale for the final in Aspen.
"The biggest thing was trying to stay on your line, getting used to racing in a heat with four people, so that was my biggest challenge," he said. "(Alex), the other Canadian (and I), had a pretty good strategy going into our final heat. We were right beside each other and we were going to give each other room.
"I went off my first jump and there was a line I wanted to take. Unfortunately I was a little behind out of the pole and my line got a little snaked, and that's just the way that boarder cross goes."
Leslie, who lived in Whistler for three years, feels he's improved this season not only on the course with better access to coaching, but through journaling, better board-care techniques and more intense focus. Entering X Games, Leslie was coming off a fifth-place showing at the IPC Para-snowboard World Cup at Big White Ski Resort near Kelowna on Jan. 17 and 19.
Leslie is gunning for a medal at next month's IPC Para-Snowboard World Championships in La Molina, Spain from Feb. 23 to 28.
Acknowledging the sport is, at best, unpredictable, Leslie feels his attention to proper nutrition and commitment to the sport will pay off if the variables break in his favour.
"I'm going to give it my all, and then boarder cross is boarder cross," he said. "I'm just hoping to keep on the path I'm going on."
Leslie explained even though he's no longer locally based, he's still receiving support from Whistler businesses like Sandbox. He's living with his parents pursuing a business management degree with the eventual goal of opening up a hardware store, building off his eight years of experience with Home Hardware. Noting he didn't mean it as a slam on his hometown, he acknowledges training is tougher than it was out here in Whistler, though, as the local infrastructure allows for more intense training.
"It's something that I realized from moving back to Ottawa — I need to get my ass back to Whistler," he said. "The resources in Whistler are so close and easily accessible.
"In Ottawa, I do so much travelling and commuting to get to where I need to go, it almost feels like backtracking."
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