In the action sports world, gravity-defying feats of acrobatics are par for the course. When athletes successfully execute these mind-bending tricks, glory rains down on them. When they don’t, things can get ugly very fast. This is true for all three disciplines at the Winter X Games, but no more so than in snowmobiling, where any mishap involves a 500-pound chuck of plastic and metal.
Accidents will happen, and one will not always be able to walk away. If you ask freestyle snowmobiler Levi LaVallee, how an athlete reacts during times of adversity is what separates the greatest from the rest more than any victory.
Last year’s Winter X Games was tough sledding for LaVallee. The 33-year-old Minnesota native came into Aspen as the reigning gold medalist in three of the four snowmobile disciplines. He was the defending champion in the Long Jump, and had won the most recent Speed & Style gold (the event wasn’t held in 2014; LaVallee won in 2013), as well as the most recent snowmobile Hillcross, an event that hadn’t been featured at X Games in a decade before returning in 2015.
LaVallee placed fourth in the Speed & Style competition. It was the first time in his X Games career that he didn’t podium in that event. After the defeat, defending his gold medals in Long Jump and Hillcross became even more important. On his final practice attempt in the Long Jump, some 20 minutes before he was set to compete, LaVallee crashed his snowmobile into the back of the jump, badly bruised both of his heels, and just like that, his 2015 Winter X Games was over.
“As I was coming into the jump, I had a spark plug fail like 20 feet before the ramp so the sled came off the ramp on one cylinder instead of two. I had no power,” says LaVallee. “I crashed right into the back of the landing and fortunately I’d only bruised my heels—I thought I’d broken them. I broke my heel in 2009 and it was that same sensation. I jumped off the sled, slid down, and I couldn’t touch my heels they were just barking.”
LaVallee is no stranger to missing the X Games due to injury. He was able to compete in 2009 after breaking his heel earlier in the year, but in December 2010, while training to break his own snowmobile long jump world record, LaVallee suffered several injuries, a broken pelvis among them, that kept him out of the 2011 X Games and out of commission for most of the year. He missed the 2012 X Games because he split his tibia from shin to ankle while practicing his famous double back flip, which he was planning to bring back to competition. Despite the precedent, 2015 holds a unique sting for him.
“Tough X Games, but that’s part of the deal,” he says. “I think part of the thing with X Games and the best athletes is that adversity. You’re going to go through stuff like that. It can’t frustrate you when things don’t go right. It has to motivate you for the future. I think that’s one of the things that separates the best from the rest.”
In a sport in which a crash and a near-death experience are virtually synonymous, the toughest injury one can suffer is the one that seems minor enough to power through, but isn’t. In the moments after the crash, LaVallee's bruised heels felt broken to him. Finding out they were not brought relief, but knowing his competition was done because of what, on the LaVallee spectrum, is considered a lighter injury was its own challenge.
“When you have that injury, you want to get back to riding right away,” he says. “I’ve been injured two handfuls of times over the years. The one thing I learned was that you have to give yourself the time to heal. If you try to go out right away, you make the problem worse and making it take longer to heal. Last year I could barely walk, but I’m still thinking ‘maybe I can do it.’ But there’s no way I could have been competitive. You have to eat it and use that energy to regroup for next year.”
LaVallee walked on crutches and tiptoes into the early summer before he felt competition-fit again. While he’s excited to return and compete in both of the snowmobile events, SnoCross and Freestyle, his focus is different this year from what it was in 2015. LaVallee was confident in his ability to defend his medals last year. This year, he sees himself as just another challenger in the field. His concentration is much more on execution than on results. That “house money” mindset could end up serving LaVallee well against what promises to be stiff competition from Tucker Hibbert in SnoCross and Colten Moore in Freestyle, the reigning champions in their respective events. Free from the pressure that he was feeling to defend his medals, LaVallee is in a position to perform more like the rider who is still the only snowmobiler ever to land a double back flip in competition. The prospect is something Moore can get excited about.
“[In 2012] I won Freestyle and [LaVallee] wasn't in it so I was kind of bummed. I look at him almost like the Travis Pastrana of the winter sport, so to have the opportunity to go out and ride the same course and competition is amazing,” says Moore. “With him out there, he'll help push everyone else.”
LaVallee isn’t known as one of the world’s best snowmobilers because he always crashes in practice; he has 10 X Games medals, seven of them gold. He won double gold in the freestyle and speed and style events in 2008, and capped a triumphant return to Aspen after his injury-laden 2011-2012 seasons by repeating the feat. Levi crashes, get injured, gets healthy and comes back strong as regularly as the changing seasons. Looks like winter is here again.