The seminal moment in The Wild One comes when a woman asks the
outlaw biker played by Marlon Brando, "What are you rebelling
against?" and he answers, "What have you got?"
Professional snowboarders tend to fancy themselves as
cliff-jumping Wild Ones--young, extravagantly antiestablishment
nomads. Clad in flannel shirts and oozing suburban angst, they
rebel against what they see as the conformity and commercialism
of the mainstream ski culture and of sports in general.
"Snowboarding is about fresh tracks and carving powder and being
yourself and not being judged by others," says Terje Haakonsen,
the self-styled Brando of the Boards. "It's not about
nationalism and politics and big money."
Worlds will collide in February when snowboarding makes its
debut at the sporting nexus of nationalism, politics and Big
Money: the Winter Olympics, in Nagano. Although those who market
snowboarding are eager to turn it into the next NBA, the rah-rah
ethic of the Games appalls much of the shredding crowd.
"Snowboarding is everything the Olympics isn't," Haakonsen says.
"I don't really want to be part of them."
Haakonsen, a 23-year-old Norwegian, and his ambivalence toward
the Games might easily be dismissed were it not for one fact:
He's the master blaster of the half-pipe, the freestyle event in
snowboarding. (The giant slalom will also be contested in
Nagano.) The half-pipe itself--a U-shaped tube of slick snow
approximately 350 feet long and 20 feet wide, with walls about
12 feet high--allows riders to "catch air," to barnstorm back
and forth like skateboarders on a lacquered ramp. Most pros are
either stylists who "rip the pipe" (pulling off radical
maneuvers with elan) or aggressive huckers (launching themselves
off jumps or cliffs into space) who grab "big air," frequently
soaring 10 or 12 feet above the pipe's coping. Haakonsen is both
a technical wizard and the sport's biggest air-head. "Over the
last five years Terje has single-handedly elevated the level of
riding," says snowboard guru Jake Burton of Moscow, Vt. "He's a
pioneer, continually doing newer and bigger stuff."
Haakonsen began ruling the pipe in 1992, when he won the event
in both the U.S. Open and the World Cup championships. Since
then he has won two more U.S. Opens, another World Cup title,
two World Half-Pipe crowns and the heart of every teenager who
has ever attempted a Frontside Ollie (a maneuver involving
catching air off a ramp in skateboarding or out of a pipe in
snowboarding). "He goes faster and bigger than any other rider,
and his tricks are far more powerful," says veteran boarder Dave
Downing, of Cardiff, Calif. "There's nobody even close to Terje."
His extraordinary athleticism was evident last year at the Mount
Baker Legendary Banked Slalom, a more traditional gate-running
race of the sort he usually disdains. In the qualifying heats
Haakonsen nailed first place on his initial run down the course.
On a lark he rode his second qualifier "fakey" (backward) and
still turned in the fourth-best time. This is roughly the
equivalent of Steve Young's throwing three touchdown passes
lefty and then, out of boredom, heaving a fourth righthanded.
Haakonsen is an engagingly modest and diffident fellow with a
sharp sense of humor. He has a loose, lanky build, a thatch of
curly dark hair, wolfishly sad brown eyes and a wide mouth that
turns up at the corners, giving him a puckish air. Afflicted
with coolness unto death, Haakonsen registers emotion
wordlessly, through subtle eyebrow calisthenics. He expresses
amusement by arching a single brow, consternation by lifting
both. "I'm into riding," he says, "not talking."
To the teens who revere him, his actions speak loudly. For
snowboarders, a dicey trick is pointless if it isn't videotaped.
There is a nearly inexhaustible market for snowboard videos set
to thrash-metal songs, and many riders live off the cash and
equipment that manufacturers give them to ride in promotional
films wearing their gear. Footage of Haakonsen's best moves has
been compiled in a slickly produced half-hour film by the
clothing manufacturer Volcom called Subjekt: Haakonsen--Life and
Times of a Sprocking Cat. What's sprocking? "Moving like a
rocket," says Haakonsen. "A big, jumping rocket."
As the video documents, he sprocks so high over the pipe partly
because he bends so low on the board. The flex in his knees and
hips gives him tremendous torque when he snaps free to make a
move. Squatting sideways, arms extended like outriggers, the
Sprocking Cat torpedoes off Alpine peaks, backflipping and
double backflipping and helicoptering in high 540-degree spins.
He swerves and swivels, sending sprays of snow rooster-tailing
past his head.
Haakonsen grew up in Amot, 30 miles west of Oslo, where his
father was a chef at a hotel and his mother taught special
education. Because neither parent was eager for him to
snowboard, Terje bought himself a board when he was 13 with
money he earned cutting grass and sorting mail at the hotel. A
hard-core skateboarder and a soft-core ski jumper, he became
hooked on shredding after borrowing a pal's swallow-tailed
Burton Elite. "You could do so many more tricks on it than on
skis," he recalls. "You had no sticks in your hand, and you used
the terrain way better. It was more like surfing."
He became such a phenom on the European freestyle circuit that
Norway's top rider, Einar Lofthus, took him on as a protege.
Haakonsen effortlessly mastered the gnarliest half-pipe tricks,
from the Cabalerial (a 360-degree turn starting fakey and
landing forward) to the McTwist (a backflip with a 540). In
1990, at the maddeningly precocious age of 15, he placed fifth
at the world championships. Two years later he won it all.
"Terje has become the Michael Jordan of snowboarding," says Todd
Richards, the reigning U.S. Open king and America's best hope in
the half-pipe. "Depending on his mood, he'll put in the most
amazing runs. He does what he wants to when he wants to, knowing
that he can win whenever he wants to."
At times Haakonsen doesn't seem to want to. Most half-pipe meets
are judged somewhat the way figure skating is (with points
awarded for various maneuvers), but there's a crucial
difference: If a snowboarder falls, he is out. That prompts many
riders to load up on the standard moves. Not Haakonsen, who
often goes straight to never-before-attempted jumps. "For me,
it's not that important to count points," he says. "I don't need
to win titles or be Number 1. I just need to please myself."
When not shredding the world's slopes or surfing its swells--he
spends the off-season in Laguna Beach, Calif.--Haakonsen happily
slashes away at those he sees as bores and pious ninnies. He
likens Juan Antonio Samaranch, the president of the
Internationale Olympic Committee, to Al Capone. He compares the
Federation Internationale de Ski (FIS), the organization that
the IOC chose to oversee Olympic snowboarding, to Capone's
Chicago mob. Until now, Haakonsen has ridden almost exclusively
in events sanctioned by the FIS's more talent-rich rival, the
International Snowboard Federation, which was the sport's
original governing body. "Instead of helping young riders get to
another level," he charges, "the FIS is trying to use the
Olympics as a stepping-stone to take over the sport."
In the end, though, Haakonsen isn't as concerned with power as
with having fun, and the Olympics don't look like much fun to
him. He chafes at the regimentation, the uniforms, the
nationalism. "The Olympics may be ready for snowboarding, but
the sport's organizers aren't ready for the Olympics," he says.
"Their format hasn't caught up with the riders." In Nagano each
of the 16 finalists will get two runs down the pipe. Haakonsen
favors a so-called jam setup that would have seven or eight
runs. "Having only two is boring for the spectators and means a
lot of sitting around for the competitors," he says. "With more
runs the action doesn't stop, and riders get to show more of
Still, Haakonsen is under pressure from his sponsors and from
the Norwegian snowboard federation to compete in the Games.
Whether he will is unclear. Richards, for one, is aghast at the
idea of an Olympics without Haakonsen. "If I won the gold medal,
it would be by default," he says. "I would have been cheated out
of the best competition."
Haakonsen needs one victory to qualify for the Olympics (unless
Norway's coach decides to simply add him to the roster, which is
permitted), and he says he may compete in a qualifying meet or
two in January. "Or I may not," he says. "If I do go to Japan,
I'm not going to have flags sewn on my clothes. And if I do
well, I'm not going to run around waving a flag. Where I come
from, nobody has national pride. I don't ride for my country. If
I did win, I'd celebrate with my friends from Finland and
California, not Norway. American riders are more into the whole
Olympic thing. Personally, I think it's not a big deal."
It is to his buddy Eric Kotch. Last month the two sat around
Kotch's Southern California beach house debating the pros and
cons of participating in the Olympics. "If you don't go," said
Kotch, "your protest will be noticed by a really small
group--the tight community of snowboarders. But the average
consumer who watches the Olympics on TV isn't going to know that
the best rider protested the Games by not showing up. If you do
go, and you win--which is probable--then you can stare straight
into the TV cameras and say, 'This is all bulls---.' And people
will have to listen to you."
Haakonsen smiled gently. "That would be perfect," he said. The
eyebrows rose, and you could see the whites of his eyes more
clearly. "But what if I finish second?"
Don't Try This at Home
Haakonsen's specialty is the half-pipe, one of two snowboard
events to be contested in Nagano. (The other is the slalom,
patterned after the gated ski race.) A variety of moves are
performed in the half-pipe, including the one shown here, in
which a boarder rides fakey when he launches off the lip (1) and
does a front flip (2) followed by a full rotation (3-6). The
ever-modest Haakonsen refers to his signature move as "what
other people call the Haakonflip."