By Dante A. Ciampaglia
January 27, 2016

Hard to believe now, but there was a time when cold-weather action sports weren't considered, well, sports. Snowboarders and extreme skiers were just skate rats in coats and gloves, pulling tricks on slopes instead of grinding on railings.

But that was 20 years ago. When the top winter athletes converge for X Games Aspen 2016 on January 28-31, they'll hit the mountain as pros.

ESPN held the first Winter X Games in 1997, showcasing snowboarding, shovel racing, and ice climbing. The competition evolved over the years, but what remained constant was the giant stage created for some of the world's top — and for a time, unknown — boarders, skiers, and snowmobilers.

Action sports' most talented athletes have always used the X Games as a showcase for sick tricks, with some launching themselves into superstardom. Shaun White, for example, made his X Games debut in 2000. From there, the Flying Tomato won 23 medals and became the face of snowboarding. And then there's Kelly Clark. One of the most dominant boarders ever, the American is a four-time Olympian who has Olympic gold and bronze to go with her 13 X Games medals. And how about Chloe Kim? The 13-year-old boarder grabbed silver and was a SportsKid of the Year finalist in 2014. She's the youngest X Games medalist ever and the future of snowboarding.

Today, athletes like White and Clark are household names and the sports themselves are part of the Olympics. None of that would’ve been possible without the X Games.

The competition completely transformed winter action sports. And they continue to push them in new directions with bigger jumps, faster courses, and more dazzling tricks. All of which is to say that this year's competition is set to be the most extreme yet.

To get you ready for the 2016 X Games Aspen, we spoke with athletes who compete in cool competitions you might not be too familiar with:

Superstar snowboarder Hannah Teter shares her experience as a Special Olympics ambassador in helping shape Special Olympics Unified Giant Slalom. The event debuted in 2015 and returns this year, bigger and better and, naturally, more extreme.

Special Olympian Henry Meece won the inaugural Unified Giant Slalom, and he spoke with SI Kids about taking part in the X Games.

And Snocross star Tucker Hibbert walked us through the world of competitive snowmobiling and why it’s a sport worth trying.

Photos: Gabriel Christus/ESPN Images (ski), Peter Morning/ESPN Images (Kim)

​Snowboarder Hannah Teter is an Olympic gold medalist, a six-time X Games medalist, and one of the biggest names in the sport. She’s also a Global Ambassador for the Special Olympics. And it was in that role when inspiration struck: pair Special Olympians with X Game pros. It took a couple years, but at the 2015 X Games Aspen she saw her idea become a reality with the introduction of Special Olympics Unified Giant Slalom.

The race groups 10 able-bodied pro snowboarders with 10 Special Olympic athletes. Each boarder makes a run — pro vs. pro, Special Olympian vs. Special Olympian — and the best combined team score wins. In the inaugural event, X Game vet Chris Klug and Special Olympian Henry Meece narrowly defeated Teter and Dana Shilts. “I was pretty stoked!” Meece says of winning gold. “I didn't know I got it until one of the coaches pulled me up. I loved it.”

The event was an instant success, and it’s returning in 2016. But because the Special Olympians are so skilled there are some adjustments being made. We talked with Teter about the race, her involvement with the Special Olympics, and what fans can expect from the race in 2016.

When did you start working with Special Olympics, and when did you get involved with the organization?

I got involved probably almost four years ago now. I grew up with a special needs brother, so I saw a lot of challenges he faced growing up and just always wanted to be a part of Special Olympics to change the barriers that are put up to people with intellectual disabilities. So it was always a passion because I saw, first and foremost, with my own brother the boundaries and the barriers that people put up.

What's your role as an ambassador? How do you work with athletes and talk about what the Special Olympics mission?

I get to be a part of all of it. I get to go to events and to the Unified competitions with the athletes. We were just in LA at the World Summer Games. I was in South Korea for the World Winter Games. I get to do the panels and brainstorm ideas to get Special Olympics more mainstream and more involved with the youth. My target audience is the youth, so I reach out to that category and have gotten to go speak at schools and do a bunch of cool stuff.

When you work with the athletes, what's that experience like? How do they react with you, and how has your work the organization changed since you started working with them?

Working with the athletes is just an incredible experience because there's just so much passion and so much gratefulness in the athletes who work so hard to be good at their sport. And it's just a different dimension, almost, because I'm used to being with athletes who, you know, can be a little egoic and not have as much fun as they should be having. So it just changes up the perspective of taking it more back to the roots of why we all started doing our sports in the first place, which is because they're fun.

At the Special Olympic event at the 2015 winter X Games, how did the able-bodied athletes interact with the Special Olympians who were there?

it was just so much fun. Ten Olympic action sports athletes partnered up with 10 intellectually disabled snowboarders who shred and they don't even — you wouldn't even think they were any different because they're just so good and kicking our butts most of the time! They're just so fast and committed and so driven that I was, like, "I better work on my game! My girl's, like, way better than me!" (laughs) So it just showed how much talent they have and just to showcase on a nation-wide, world, global stage and they just couldn't be more proud of themselves, which is, like, it's just a reminder for all of us to be more grateful and to have more fun.

Sometimes, if a person's not used to working or interacting with someone with a disability, they can get awkward or self-conscious about what to say or how to act. Was there any of that among the able-bodied athletes at the X Games?

No, everyone immediately just clicked. We all got our partners and it was just so — I keep saying fun, but it was just... Everyone was so comfortable and ready to compete together and put it on the line for a medaled event. Because we all want that gold! Once there's a medal put out there, everyone's game face gets put on. So people were strategizing, me and my partner, Dana, were just having our pep talk before hand trying to figure out how we were going to take this thing home...

You guys almost did it!

Yeah, we were so close! And I kind of messed it up for us. Luckily we still got silver. People were hungry! Nobody wanted to lose.

Did you have any involvement in the organization of the event itself in terms of how it was going to run and who the athletes were going to be on the able-bodied side?

I helped a little bit with that. When I was in South Korea for the World Winter Games, I was on a panel with all these incredibly intelligent, smart people. The plan was to come up with an idea of how to get Special Olympics more mainstream. And sitting in a circle with high-end people, I had this idea of, "Hey! Why isn't Special Olympics in X Games?" There's no better stage to showcase these amazing athletes. So that was my idea. And [Special Olympics] founder Tim Shriver was sitting front row drawing up a logo of the Special Olympics X Games while I was talking about it, and it just manifested from there. I mean, they did all the work, but I had the idea! It just made sense. After hanging with the athletes and just seeing how hard they push it and how talented they are, it was just a no brainer.

As the person who came up with the idea, how did you react when you saw it all sort of rolling along and moving?

I wasn't surprised because it just made sense. How could they say no to this idea? It belongs in X Games. So I was obviously super happy and like blown away, like, "Oh my God, it happened and it happened pretty fast." Two years later it was going to be in X Games. I was surprised that it did move so quickly. But it just made sense.

​​So did you help organize it this year as well? What's your involvement this time around?

We had some feedback from last year, which was to put the course somewhere else and make it longer. Make it a little bit more challenging because everyone is so talented, so it could be more hardcore. So this year I think it's going to be on that extreme X Games level because that's what X Games is all about.

Can you see this expanding into something bigger? Maybe it's own thing that runs parallel to the X Games, not just a one-off event?

Yeah! It can apply... It could be it's own thing. I think it's easy to put it in with something big, that way it gets that big platform. But, yeah, I mean, it's so fun and people love watching it that it could be its own thing.

When you started competing professionally and getting involved with Special Olympics, did you imagine you'd be sitting with world leaders and coming up with these big events that would show up in the X Games?

I didn't have any idea the scale of things that I would be involved with when I was younger. But I was a big dreamer. There was a rock I'd go to every day or every couple days to just sit and ponder and be, like, “Hey, if I make it big, I want to do something meaningful and be a good role model.” So I kind of manifested that in a way when I was young because that's what I would think about and focus on, doing well but for a higher purpose. So, hey, you gotta dream big — or start small and then... I started small, and the dreams got bigger and bigger.

Do you have a favorite moment or memory from last year's event?

There are so many... Probably the best was going on stage with my partner Dana when they called me and her out and the DJ's rocking some tune and the crowd's cheering and Dana's ecstatic and I was just lit up. It just had a different feel to it, just more high energy because my partner was on top of the world and that just reminded me, like, "I'm on top of the world, too!" 

Photos: Gabriel Christus / ESPN Images (Teter), Tomas Zuccareno / ESPN Images (Shilts), Kaitlyn Egan (Teter and Shilts)

At the 2015 X Games Aspen, a new event was introduced called the Special Olympics Unified Giant Slalom. The race groups 10 able-bodied pro snowboarders with 10 Special Olympic athletes. Each boarder makes a run — pro vs. pro, Special Olympian vs. Special Olympian — and the best combined team score wins. In the inaugural event, X Game vet Chris Klug and Special Olympian Henry Meece narrowly defeated Hannah Teter and Dana Shilts. “I was pretty stoked!” Meece says of winning gold. “I didn't know I got it until one of the coaches pulled me up. I loved it.”

When Meece was born, he suffered a brain trauma that caused a learning disability. But that hasn’t stopped him from achieving — on the slope and off. He’s an accomplished Special Olympian and a fixture in his community, whether at work or through his volunteer work.

The Special Olympics Unified Giant Slalom is returning in 2016. And so is Meece. We talked with him about the race, how he began snowboarding, and what he wants to accomplish in 2016. (Hint: He’s not satisfied with just one medal.)

What was the experience like competing in the X Games?

I loved it, especially when I found out that I got the gold.

That was a pretty close race, wasn't it?

It was.

Did you think you were going to win? What was it like being up on the mountain with Chris?

Pretty exciting, because it was my first time... Pretty exciting to pair up with him in real life.

Had you seen him before?

Yeah. On TV, but not actually in person.

So what was it like to compete with him? You snowboarded down the mountain together, right?

Yeah. Each athlete got paired up with different pros and that's the one I got paired up with, Chris Klug.

How did you start snowboarding? Did you want to be a skier? Or did you always want to try snowboarding?

Well, I wanted to board but I started off skiing first and that's when I decided to snowboard, or eventually switch to snowboarding from skiing. I started off skiing and then I changed to snowboarding.

What was the hardest part of going from skiing to snowboarding?

The hardest part is getting used to it. And the other thing is skiing is you're forward, which means that you get up on your skis and you're still forward and snowboarding, the difference I think is the position where you stand. Like I said, skiing is you're standing straight ahead and then snowboarding is to one side and I just had to get used to it. When I switched skiing to snowboarding I had to switch my position because snowboarding is to one side.

For you, what is harder, skiing or snowboarding?

Snowboarding. But when I got used to it... Snowboarding was challenging more, but when I got used to it and I did I kept on snowboarding.

What was it like for you when you won the gold at the X Games last year?

I was pretty stoked! Because, once again, I didn't know I got it until... I think it was one of the coaches pulled me up or was just so excited.

What's it like to compete in front of the big crowds at X Games?

Pretty fun and exciting because, to meet new people and maybe make friends, more friends than... or at least get acquainted if not friends... I guess there's a better chance to meet more people.

What are your hopes for this year's X Games?

Try to get another gold. I know I got one last time when I was there, but trying to get another gold.

Photos: Tomas Zuccareno/ESPN Images (Meece action), Eric Lars Bakke / ESPN Images (Meece and Shilts), Kaitlyn Egan (Meece post-race)

​You've probably seen snowmobiles, but racing them might be new. So we talked with Snocross star (and nine-time gold and 13-time X Games medalist) Tucker Hibbert about how he got into the sport, what it’s like to compete in the X Games, and how his sled differs from what you'd ride on the trail.

You're first race was at 2 years old. How did you get into racing so young?

It was because my dad raced himself, and I just kind of grew up in that whole atmosphere. So obviously when I'm 2 years old, I'm not like... I don't really know what a snowmobile is, but fortunately my dad was into racing and snowmobiles and motorcycles, so he get me started when I was really young and it was something that I fell in love with. And even when I was 2, 3 years I was just super excited about and just couldn't get enough ridings. So it was something I've done since a really young age.

With something like a bicycle, there's a learning curve where you learn how to ride on two wheels without falling over. Is there something similar on a snowmobile? How do you learn to ride?

With a snowmobile, the machine will stay upright, unlike a bicycle. It pretty much doesn't crash unless you make it crash. But it's no different. You figure out how to ride it, you have to learn how to control the throttle. A tendency people have when they're first learning is they kind of panic and grab the throttle and hold it on and don't stop until they hit something, you know? So that's kind of something you have to learn. And then obviously going too fast and crashing, you hit a bump or a jump or different things. When I started out, when I was 2 years old all the way through probably 4 or maybe 5 years old, I rode a really small snowmobile called an Arctic Cat Kitty Cat, which was the mini snowmobile for little kids. I started riding that thing and managed to roll it over enough times that I broke the hood and windshield more times than my dad wanted to fix it, so he ended up just taking the hood and windshield off so the engine and everything was just kind of exposed so he didn't have to keep replacing all the parts every time I crashed it.

For a while, you were the youngest gold medalist at the X Games. What does that do to you, not only as a racer but also the way people like other racers interact with you outside the X Games?

Well, I guess it's cool — it was cool — to be the youngest X Games gold medalist for quite a while. I was fortunate to get my first win when I was 15, so it was a really cool experience for me. And I guess being the youngest wasn't necessarily as cool as just having that gold medal and that experience. But last year, Chloe Kim beat me out for that record, which I'm totally fine with. It was never a goal of mine to be the youngest gold medalist, but it was really cool.

​​​In terms of what you ride for a snocross event, how does the sled differ from what you would use if you were just riding a snowmobile.

They're not much different at all. Obviously, with snowmobiling there's a lot of different types of riding. There's mountain riding, which a lot of people do, they just go out in the backcountry in the mountains and ride just through the woods in the mountains. And then there's trail riding, which is a generally done on a grooved trail that's kind of a marked trail that people would just ride down, kind of sitting down going for a cruise. And then you can do anything in between. A lot of people enjoy hitting jumps and snowdrifts and different things when they're just out recreational riding. So with those kind of variations of riding, there's a lot of different types of snowmobiles. The ones in the mountains are built with longer tracks and deeper lugs on the tracks so they can go in the deep snow. A lot of times bigger engines for more power, compared to, maybe, a trail sled that might have softer suspension and maybe a bigger windshield to keep you warm, some more comfort oriented things on the snowmobile. And then our race snowmobile is kind of in-between those two snowmobiles. It's got more performance-based parts on it, stiffer suspension for taking the big jumps, lighter-weight parts maybe, higher-powered engine parts. Basically the normal stuff that you would see in a racing environment. Racing forces you to get creative and try to get the most performance out of what you're racing. And with snocross, it's no different. We're just doing everything we can to have the best-performing snowmobile, the highest power, less weight, best suspension, all those kind of things.

Are there are particular parts of your sled that you focus on to give you the edge over your competitors?

Yeah, there's a lot of things that we focus on. Obviously all parts of the snowmobile have to be the best they can be to hopefully have the best snowmobile out there and have the best of chance of winning a race. Some of the main things, though, that we focus on probably the most would be the suspension, front and rear suspension. With different race tracks, we go from one track to another and it might be a lot smaller jumps or bigger jumps or maybe flat corners and it takes a different suspension setup for each race. So we're always tuning and changing our suspension to make the snowmobile do what we want on different race tracks. So that's a big thing we look at. And then one of the other things is the clutching. They have clutches on the snowmobile that are kind of an automatic type clutch, but you can tune them and we do that a lot. Mostly, with the clutch tuning, we're working on trying to get a better start right at the beginning of the race to try to get out front early, ahead of the other guys.

How about in terms of the engine? Is there a race engine that you then modify? Or do you take a standard snowmobile engine and modify it to how you want it?

The engine we use is built specifically for racing, and the rules that we have, we can't modify the engine very much at all. It's pretty limited. So, we're not able to do a ton of modifying. But we can change the exhaust, so we do a lot of work on the exhaust system of the engine to make its performance as good as it can, and then we change the tuning of the carburetors to work at different elevations and different temperatures. You can gain and lose a lot of performance in carburetor tuning.

And then the treads in the back, do you change them based on the conditions, or are they kind of standard across...

We do change them. It's called the track, and we don't have a lot of different patterns. They're called lugs on the track, and they have different profiles and patterns and stuff. But we can switch from maybe three different patterns, and we do change those depending on the snow conditions. If it's icy or if the snow is really loose, we'll sometimes use a different track. And then we also add studs to the track. We drill holes in the track and put in metal studs that are about almost two inches long, and they help a lot with traction when it's icy. So that's a huge advantage if you have the right amount of studs or the right kind in the right places, they can help you a lot with traction.

​​Do you do anything to the exterior body of what you ride in a race to make it lighter or more aerodynamic than, say, a trail snowmobile?

We definitely try to keep it as minimal as possible. We don't have any parts on the snowmobile that aren't necessary. So, we remove some things and we modify parts and lighten parts up and also, for sure, we're trying to keep it aerodynamic and as small as possible so it isn't any bigger than it has to be. All those things.

I grew up in western Pennsylvania where we have some skiing and snowboarding, but not a lot of snowmobiling — certainly not racing, or not very much. So it's interesting to learn more about snowmobiling as a sport, not just a recreational activity.

Snowmobiling is a really cool sport in that anyone can do it. You see grandma and grandpa out for a cruise on some of those touring snowmobiles, just putzing down the trail, maybe only going 15 or 20 mph. And maybe they've got their grandkids with them. And then you've got a 20-year-old kid who wants to go super fast and he gets a high-performance snowmobile and he's out hitting jumps and having a fun time with his buddies. And anything in between. It's really a sport anyone can do.

What advice would you give to a kid who watches the X Games and maybe is being exposed to snowmobiling for the first time and thinks, "That's really cool. I want to do what Tucker does"?

Well, I would encourage them to try it out because it is a ton of fun. It's a super fun sport, like I said, that the whole family can be involved in, whether you're going to the races as a family or just trail riding and enjoying the sport as a family. It's a lot of fun. And you never know if you're going to like it or be good at it unless you try. So, just go out and try it and have fun. And for those who want to race and be competitive, it's just like any other sport or activity you want to succeed at: you have to work extremely hard and practice a lot and sacrifice other things if you want to succeed at it. So it's just a matter of getting out there and doing it and having fun and working hard.

Is there a progression? Should a kid start of on, like, a trail sled and then work their way up? What advice would you give in that regard?

Yeah, for sure, you want to start out just riding a snowmobile on a trail or out in the fields or somewhere, not going straight to a track and trying to hit jumps and all that right away. If that's something you want to do, you need to work into that and work your way up. But just getting a feel for riding a snowmobile and figuring out how it reacts and how to ride it and keep it in control and slowly working your way into jumps and bumps and corners and eventually go to the track and start riding on an actual track. It's definitely something you don't want to... You don't want to just go right to the track and hit the biggest jump you can find because it's not super easy. It takes some getting used to and some practice.

Photos: Joe Wiegele / ESPN Images (jump, action) Gabriel Christus / ESPN Images (medals)

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