Thursday June 11th, 2015

Walking down the streets of Vail during the GoPro Mountain Games is a trip. The Colorado ski town on I-70, just west of the Continental Divide, was built with a Swiss mountain village in mind. But right now, there’s a mother pushing a stroller down one of the stone-lined streets. She’s covered in dirt from head to toe. Her hair’s tucked up under her hat and she’s looking athletic in her sports top, shorts and running shoes, having just competed in the mud run.

Further down the street, two dudes with paddles carrying a giant rubber version of a standup paddleboard together on their heads hurry toward Gore Creek in the center of town. They’re late for their heat in the two-man SUP Cross, where standup paddlers are timed on their runs through a series of slalom gates.

If there’s one thing decidedly different about the Mountain Games, it’s that the pros aren’t the only heroes here. While many big-time alternative sports events like the X Games focus on the upper echelon, the average Joe (and Jill) plays just as integral a part in this festival, which draws more than 60,000 people to Vail Valley annually.

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​"It’s one of the few outdoor athletic events that’s totally inclusive,” says Rick Loughery, GoPro’s head of media relations. And that’s not spin. Loughery says the Dock Dogs competition, in which dogs compete in a giant game of fetch in a man-made-pool to see which canine has the longest leap, draws the biggest crowds of the weekend. “You can compete in an event, watch the pros at lunch, do the mud run in the afternoon and then enjoy a cold beer while watching the free concerts,” he says.  

The Games definitely capture all that is mountain culture and lifestyle. A man-made wave in town where kayakers compete in a freestyle event is ground zero for the water competitions. Fly-fishermen cast into the stream. Slackliners highline between two bridges, carefully balancing while suspended directly above the river feature and the icy waters of Gore Creek below. And at night, concert goers groove to the vibes of acts like G-Love and Special Sauce, longtime mountain town favorites.

But that’s not to say there isn’t serious competition. On opening day, 25 minutes from town, some of the best whitewater kayakers in the world race down Homestake Creek on a manky, 300-yard section of rapids. The creek drops 480 feet and a missed line here can mean an incredibly painful beatdown, or worse. “I’m pretty afraid of all the rocks and places you can get stuck,” says Nouria Newman, a French paddler who won gold at the 2014 World Championships in whitewater slalom racing. “It’s not the hardest racecourse, but the consequences are bad.” Dane Jackson, considered by many to be the best whitewater paddler in the world at the moment, wins the men’s competition.

Joe Carberry for Sports Illustrated

​Perhaps the most important event to its respective sport at the Games is the climbing competition, a bouldering contest on a man-made wall at the base of the ski resort. It’s the only U.S. stop on the International Federation of Sport Climbing’s World Cup. Coming into the event Austrians, British and Japanese names top the rankings. But then a thing of utter sporting beauty happens: a la Tiger Woods at the ’97 Masters (albeit with much less fanfare), a 17-year-old American from Colorado Springs, Megan Mascarenas, upsets the top-ranked climbers in the sport and seals her first World Cup victory, becoming the only U.S. woman to win a WC event this year. “It’s still sinking in what just happened,” says Mascarenas, who’s just finishing her junior year of high school. “The crowd was great. You’re on the last two holds and you feel like your hands are about to slip off and the crowd gets even louder and you’re like, ‘I have to keep going.’” The roar of 2,500 fans screaming for the kid who grew up just down the road fills the evening air, which at this point has become chilly. And they’re even more delighted when Salt Lake City’s Nathaniel Coleman scales his way to second place on the men’s side.

The Mountain Games show off a sport that has seen significant growth recently. And that has a lot to do with indoor climbing gyms, constructed using the same man-made walls these climbers compete on. Not just a way to train to climb outside anymore, gyms are a fitness movement in and of themselves. Indoor walls have opened in such unlikely places as San Diego and Orange County, Calif., and Brooklyn, N.Y. In 2014 climbing gyms created some $150 million in revenue for the sport, and according to the Climbing Wall Association, there are nearly 400 across the country.

The gym phenomenon is spawning a youth movement: not one of the finalists here, male or female, was born before 1985. And with the crowd erupting each time a competitor makes another handhold, it’s easy to see why young climbers want in: they’re getting the rock star treatment. “It was the loudest crowd I’d ever heard,” says Coleman, 19. “This was the best moment of my life.”

Several World-Cup caliber events are on offer during the games, including a slack-line competition in the heart of the Vail Village.

But the Mountain Games are really about the nine-to-fivers. On Saturday morning, a well-built man in his late 40’s paddles across the finish line of the downriver SUP race. He hands his paddle to his wife and sets his board to the side. He’ll do this twice more before lunch, catching a shuttle to the top for the kayak race then again for a two-man raft race (he has persuaded a friend to join him). He’s vying for the Ultimate Riverman title, a sponsored-event at the Games. As she leaves to follow her husband, the wife leans over and says with a knowing look, “I just hope it doesn’t take him two days to get out of bed. He’s got to work Monday.”  

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