Born to ride

Local snowboarder goes for gold at 2003 X Games

— Silver looks great on Erin Simmons' racing helmet, but not around her neck -- at least not anymore. Simmons wants gold, and the Steamboat Springs resident is considered a favorite to win the Women's Snowboarder X at the upcoming 2003 X Games on ESPN and ABC.

Petite in stature but fiery in nature, Simmons, a two-time silver medalist in the X Games, is eager to race in Aspen on Thursday, representing a struggling sport she longs to inject with life.

"I hope it does get recognition," she said. "I definitely think having it in the X Games will make the average Joe Blow more interested."

Cactus Nemec, freestyle snowboard coach for the Winter Sports Club, compared Snowboarder X, or boardercross, to auto racing. Speed is a necessity but crashing is a possibility in both.

Boardercross pits riders against each other on a course with a variety of rollers, big jumps and hip jumps.

Style isn't important; there are no judges and no clock. The first racer to the bottom of the course wins, much like the first driver to the checkered flag claims victory.

NASCAR is one of America's most popular spectator sports, but the similarities between auto racing and boardercross haven't been enough to consistently lure sponsors and their monetary support to boardercross in North America.

Simmons, a member of Steamboat's Mavericks Freeride Team, qualified for her first X Games by placing in the top six on the Vans Triple Crown Series three years ago. That series no longer exists. Her reputation earns her an invitation.

Simmons could have leaned toward freestyle when she began riding 14 years ago, but the pipe didn't whet her appetite for competition like boardercross.

"When I started, my friend and I weren't into jumping," Simmons said. "I knew I was competitive. I knew I could go fast, and I knew I could control myself on jumps."

The daughter of ski patrollers, Simmons started skiing at Whistler, British Columbia, when she was 2 years old.

In 1989, she stepped into the bindings of a rented snowboard for the first time and never looked back. As Simmons grew more comfortable and confident on her board, her interest in boardercross increased. Her fearless demeanor made her a natural for the sport.

"I'm aggressive," Simmons said. "I'm not scared to try anything."

If you put a field of 60 women on a course with a 50-foot tabletop jump and a 70-foot tabletop jump, and give them their choice, Nemec said, three might pick the latter. One certainly will.

"Erin will fly off the bigger one," he said. "You will not meet a greater tomboy."

Simmons takes that as a compliment, agreeing quickly. But after being mistaken for a boy as a child, she vowed to never look like one.

Her long blonde hair, pink-rimmed goggles and Powder Puff sticker on her racing helmet make her obviously, identifiably female, but they don't change one thing.

"She's the girl that rides like a guy," Nemec said.

Reaching speeds of up to 65 mph, Simmons returns to Buttermilk Mountain this week for another shot at X Games gold and a large cash payout of more than $10,000 should she win. Leading up to Thursday's race, Simmons has been training on Buddy's Run, riding rails and off jumps to get more comfortable on her board.

"I ride every day," Simmons said.

This is the second year Aspen has hosted the X Games, which Simmons called "without question, the Olympics of extreme sports."

And in some circles, it's better.

"For snowboarders, it is the Olympics," Simmons said. "There's a paycheck and you're free to do what you want to do."

But Simmons would like to see boardercross follow the lead of other snowboard disciplines and join the roster of Olympic sports. There is talk of adding it in 2006, particularly since boardercross is popular in Europe. A vote is tentatively scheduled for February.

"How much better can you get for the Olympics?" Nemec said. "There is no clock and no judges."

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