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X Games an island in a competition desert for Canada's top boarders, freestyle skiers

The X Games are Rachael Karker's first and perhaps only chance to compete this season. The Canadian freestyle skier's breakout performances in Aspen, Colo., the last two years launched her into the world's elite in halfpipe.

The X Games are Rachael Karker's first and perhaps only chance to compete this season.

The Canadian freestyle skier's breakout performances in Aspen, Colo., the last two years launched her into the world's elite in halfpipe.

This season, however, the COVID-19 pandemic has decimated her schedule. Karker will drop into the Buttermilk Mountain halfpipe Friday for her first competitive runs of the winter.

"This is our first event and our only scheduled event at this point," Karker told The Canadian Press. 

The 23-year-old from Erin, Ont., finished second in women's halfpipe last year in Aspen. 

Karker was a rookie on the Canadian team in 2019 when she placed third in Aspen and fourth in the world championship.

What international competition is happening in snowboard and freestyle skiing this winter varies widely across disciplines. Freestyle halfpipe has been a desert so far.

The pandemic forced the cancellation of the Dew Tour and Karker's planned World Cups. She doesn't yet know if, when or where a world championship will be held in her event.

Considered the competitive and commercial Super Bowl of extreme snow sport, Aspen's X Games will be held Friday to Sunday without spectators at Buttermilk's terrain park for the first time because of the pandemic. 

"It's weird. It almost feels sort of like an alternate reality," Karker said. "It definitely has a different feeling to what it normally does."

The world's top freestyle skiers and snowboarders rank ESPN's annual invitational X Games as their top competition outside of Olympic Games, in part because it's where their personal sponsors get a lot of television bang for their buck.

"It's kind of insane it's the only event, or the first one we're doing and it's the biggest one," Karker said.

Karker is among 11 Canadians invited to Aspen this year.  

The big three of Canadian men's snowboard — Maxence Parrot, Mark McMorris and Sebastian Toutant — will be minus two.

Regina's McMorris withdrew because he tested positive for COVID-19. No other snow-sport athlete owns more X Games medals than McMorris with 20, including nine gold. 

He surpassed American snowboarder Shaun White's 18 medals in 2020, but White is back in that race. 

The three-time Olympic halfpipe champion returns to the X Games for the first time since 2017.

Parrot dropped out Thursday after getting conflicting one positive COVID-19 test and one negative result within 48 hours of each other. He was waiting for the result of a third test when he made the decision to withdraw.

“Of course, I'm disappointed to be missing out on the X Games,” Parrot said in a statement. "But in view of what’s going on with the pandemic, this was the right decision."

Toutant of Repentigny, Que., is the reigning men's Olympic big air champion and Parrot of Bromont, Que., won men's big air in Aspen last year.

Calgary snowboarder Brooke D'Hondt was just 14 in her X Games halfpipe debut in 2020. An alternate called up to replace an injured competitor, D'Hondt placed sixth.

The teenager earned another invitation this year. D'Hondt will perform Friday alongside reigning Olympic champion Chloe Kim of the U.S.

"X Games is a pretty crazy event," D'Hondt said. "Super hyped up under the lights and everything, but I try to think of it as a normal comp because you're competing against the same people you're competing against in World Cup, only the best ones."

D'Hondt is coming off her first competition of the season having placed 15th in a World Cup in Laax, Switzerland on Sunday.

Previous Canadian X Games winners invited this year include snowboarder Laurie Blouin of Stoneham, Que., and freestyle skiers Megan Oldham of Newmarket, Ont., and Cassie Sharpe of Comox, B.C.

Sharpe's snowboarding brother Darcy, winner of last year's men's slopestyle in Aspen, is unable to compete because of a knee injury. 

Freestyle skiers Noah Bowman of Calgary, Evan McEachern of Oakville, Ont., and Olympic slopestyle bronze medallist Alex Beaulieu-Marchand of Quebec City will also compete in Aspen.

Calgary's Brendan MacKay is an alternate for men's freestyle halfpipe.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 28, 2021.

Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press