Chatfield native headed to race in X-Games this weekend
Tuesday, January 22, 2013 7:22 AM
It is during the winter, if there is snow on the ground, when the familiar whining of snowmobile engines echo across the rural landscape of Minnesota.
Chris Heppding of Elgin, formerly of Chatfield, will be competing this weekend in the sport of adaptive Sno-X during ESPN's Winter X-Games.
A leisurely pastime of many families in the area, snowmobiling is that and much more for Chatfield native Chris Heppding who will be taking his competitive passion for the sport of adaptive Sno-X (snow-cross) to ESPN's Winter X-Games.
Located near Aspen, Colo., the X-Games' various competitions span a four-day period from Jan. 24 to Jan. 27 with most events being broadcast live on the main ESPN channel. Heppding's Sno-X race will take place on Jan. 27 among several different events and have a projected start time of 2 p.m. Central Time.
For Heppding, the X-Games race is "as high as I can go; this is the top."
Chris Heppding, 41, currently lives in Elgin with his wife Colleen, and his two children, 6-year-old DJ and 4-year-old Danica, but his roots lie firmly in Chatfield soil.
According to his biography on his personal website chrisheppding441.com, Heppding grew up riding snowmobile for as long as he could remember although it was never just for racing purposes. At age 7, he was stuck by a car going full-speed down the highway near Chatfield and suffered, among other things, a spinal cord injury that paralyzed his right hand and part of his upper right side.
Through several surgeries that manipulated his wrist muscles, he was able to regain some movement in his fingers, which allowed him to grasp again.
"There was a lot of rehabilitation," Heppding recalled while adding, "I learned to deal with it since I was younger." To most people, it would appear that he more than overcame his disability.
Heppding was a star athlete in high school; he was the starting running back and cornerback in football and won first place at the state track and field meet with his Spring Medley Relay team. He also held the Chatfield records for the 400- and 200-meter dashes. His athletic participation didn't diminish after high school as he continued to run in college until he broke his foot. He also played rugby with the Rochester Rogues for four years, and he even got into bodybuilding.
Throughout his entire life, Heppding has maintained a love for the extreme sports, particularly with motor sports. He has helped on a dirt stockcar team for 10 years, although he has never owned one for himself. He also has developed an interest in Moto-X racing in the past couple years, since he enjoys dirt biking.
"I'm an absolute junkie when it comes to this stuff," stated Heppding, whose biggest love in the motor sports world is still his snowmobile racing.
He got into racing Sno-X in 2002, and realized he would be starting from ground zero in learning how to race a snowmobile.
"I was really bad and my wife was thinking why I was doing it," laughed Heppding. Because of his disability, his sled's handlebars had to be custom-built and Heppding also started to develop a sleeve that that would allow him to get a firmer grasp on the handlebars, but would also allow him to disengage from the sled in the event of a violent crash.
He is pleased with the setup he currently has, but said his sleeve doesn't always come off in a less severe crash, which caused him to be dragged down a hill at a race in Mankato. Both the gas and the brake are now located on his left handlebar, a change that has a made a huge difference for Heppding who noted, "I've improved light years since 2002."
Many of the athletes who race in the adaptive Sno-X event are former professional Sno-X racers that are coming back from, many times, severe injuries.
"Many of the adaptive athletes tend to be older," shared Heppding, "but now younger guys are racing more."
He noted that he is one of the few Sno-X racers who have grown up with a disability instead of coming back from a race-induced injury.
"Some people think that I have the advantage because I've grown up with it, but, no, it's still a disadvantage," he said.
Heppding considers himself an underdog since he is relatively new to the sport, and admits that most times he feels like he's more of a fan than a competitor. Even so, you would be wrong to question his competitive spirit.
"I am ultra-competitive," stated Heppding. That competitive nature has driven him in the past decade as he has continued to race Sno-X events in a district circuit, even though he has been hampered by injuries.
"Getting injured in Sno-X isn't an 'if' it's a 'when'," he shared, adding, "There are always inherent risks you have to accept."
Heppding has learned to accept that fact ever since a 2005 injury to his kneecap, which he described as "massive destruction."
After getting his IT Band, ACL, MCL and LCL replaced, Heppding decided to ease back into Sno-X by doing Sno-X Country for a year. After considering quitting Sno-X during that time, Heppding got the itch to race again and soon got back onto the district circuit he continues to race in today.
"It's taken me a long time to learn how to race," he said, "I'm more of a learn-as-you-go person."
That mentality, along with his drive to be a better racer, led to Heppding's first-ever win in 2011 at the Elk River Sno-X track, which is where he trains for regional and national races. He also got second in a national race at Lake Geneva. Those circuit races are separate from events like the Winter X-Games where the best in the world come to participate.
ESPN has been hosting the Winter X-Games for 16 years, but adaptive Sno-X has only been an event for three years. "I didn't know it was an event the first year they did it, and then I saw it on TV," recalled Heppding, "I knew I wanted to do it."
But getting invited to the X-Games is sometimes a difficult process that includes some "who-you-know" criteria.
Heppding knew some of the racers who had participated in the first year of Sno-X and asked them if he had a chance to get it.
"They hold camps for adaptive riders to go to and it just so happened that I went to one where a promoter for the X-Games was at," he shared.
Through that connection, Heppding was able to show that he could race through his disability and then send in a resume that a committee would then either accept or reject. "The competition is unbelievably tough," described Heppding. Despite the stiff competition, he was invited to the Winter X-Games in 2011.
"I had high hopes for my first time," Heppding said, "but I was so nervous since everything was new."
His race did not go at all the way he wanted it to go; his sleeve became detached on the first turn and left Heppding riding one-handed the rest of the race. But now, having been invited back to Buttermilk Hill in Aspen, he said he will have a much more enjoyable time and is hoping to bring home a medal.
The entire X-Games is free for spectators, but the athletes are granted a bit more privilege. They are provided breakfast, lunch, and dinner at an athlete tent and can mingle with other athletes from all the other events.
Heppding said he is looking forward to seeing the other snowmobile events as well as the extremely popular snowboarding event called the SuperPipe. All the big names in the extreme winter sports world show up to the annual event that would not be possible for many athletes like Heppding to attend if not for their sponsors.
"Without sponsors, I wouldn't be able to do it because it can get really expensive," shared Heppding. "It's already expensive!"
The kinds of snowmobiles that are used for racing are very different from the sleds used for leisure. With everything purpose-built for performance and abuse, the sleds can get very pricy. Heppding usually buys his sleds new and straight from the Arctic Cat factory, but at a year old since that saves on the cost.
This past year, Heppding got on the Arctic Cat racing team, which means he will have his sled transported to the X-Games for him and he will also be able to use the knowledge and experience of the factory team that built his sled in case something goes wrong before the race.
Heppding is also sponsored by FXR, which takes care of all his apparel; GForceInk, which handles the advertising; Nitrocarts.com, which is a racing shop website; Motoproz, which is an Arctic Cat dealer in Mazeppa, Minn; and Christian Brothers Racing, which has sponsored Heppding for most of his career.
"I save thousands of dollar through these guys," stressed Heppding, "With two kids, it's not financially feasible to race 100 percent out of my pocket."
With the money he has saved, Heppding has made sure his kids have the opportunity to ride snowmobiles. "I don't push them," he said, "if they don't want to ride they know they don't have to."
But Heppding admitted that they do like riding a lot, so it wouldn't surprise him if they decided to race when they are older. For now, they will watch their dad do what he loves to do.
Heppding will fly to Aspen on Jan. 24 and take in the X-Games before his practice day on Saturday before the Sunday race. The racers all get a chance to feel out the course and figure out what technique they will have to use during the race.
On Sunday, there will be another short practice session in the mid-morning with the race beginning a mere half-hour after the practice ends.
Even though the event is nationally televised on ESPN, Heppding said he didn't even notice the attention and lights the last time he was there. "You have to be so focused on what you are doing and what's ahead of you," he commented, "The guys that are racing are doing it to prove to themselves that they can still race."
A requirement for the event is to show proof of insurance in the event of a crash and trip to the hospital. Heppding hopes for a medal instead of a crash because this may be the last time he would be able to go to the X-Games. His responsibilities as a husband and father to his kids, as well as to the track and field student-athletes he coaches are things he would like to focus on.
Having been the Chatfield High School track coach since 2004, Heppding coaches with the same mentality he has while racing. He stresses in practice that winning is fun, but the real world is competitive everywhere and you must put in the hard work in order to see success.
"When I was growing up, I felt like I had to work harder and be better in order to be equal," he recalled. "It was more of a mental thing, but I benefited from it because it pushed me harder to be more successful."
The story is the same for all the adaptive racers, and with them, win or lose, Heppding will be proving a point when he races on Jan. 27 in Aspen.