At an elevation above 8,000 feet, Aspen Ruggerfest is taking the sport of rugby to new heights.
This four-day tournament attracts athletes of all ages and genders, with players looking to show off their skills against some of the best competition in the country.
“There’s a lot of US players still out here in Ruggerfest,” said Alec Parker.
Parker is an Aspen legend. He’s played for his hometown team, the Gentlemen of Aspen Rugby Football Club, and represented the United States in four Rugby World Cups.
Now, retired from rugby, Parker says playing in the Aspen Ruggerfest is equally as important as playing internationally.
“I love this weekend. It’s the best,” Parker said of Aspen Ruggerfest. “Best weekend of the year for sure.”
Now in it’s 52nd year, Aspen Ruggerfest continues to grow by attracting athletes from across the country and across the world.
“The sport is fun as hell,” said former Aspen RFC coach Freddie Waititi.
Waititi says rugby is the fastest growing team sport in the country, and the numbers support it.
In 2014, the Sports and Fitness Industry Association reported a 350 percent growth in participation over a five-year period.
“It’s fun watching the young guys that we coach being able to pick up the things that we are trying to pass on to them and actually use them,” Waititi said.
Despite more people now playing their favorite sport, the Aspen team is mourning the loss of one of its own.
“It’s quite a weird one this year,” said one an Aspen player. “We’re missing one very important person that’s been a part of Aspen rugby for longer than I can even remember.”
On the night before the Gents first match, the team held a team dinner and dedicated it Jerry Hatem, a former Aspen player-coach, who lost his life in a snowmobile accident this summer.
“(Jerry) would be sitting here having a beer after lining the field for the whole day with bruises blood all over his face,” the Aspen player said. “He just loves rugby and is a great guy.”
This a game that transcends athletics, with players saying their teams are more like their families. And when the Aspen Gents took the pitch, Hatem’s family was watching from the sidelines, saying jerry would be proud.
“(Jerry’s) saying it by what we’re witnessing here,” said Mike Hatem, Jerry’s brother. “This whole community just comes together.”
Because whether rookie or old boy, local or import, rugby culture is all about camaraderie, and Aspen Ruggerfest embodies that, at a higher level.