The Playboy Club of New Jersey, a pleasure palace once the scene
of much hanky-panky with chicks and cats and bunnies, has lately
taken on the look of a worn family resort. Which seems only
fitting: Hugh Hefner's old East Coast hutch was shut down 20
years ago and converted into a kid-friendly ski chalet. The
circular beds are gone, and nobody stalks the halls in silk
pajamas anymore, but the cavernous bar, dark and oppressive,
still stands as a shrine to the black arts of bacchanalia.
This is an article from the March 18, 2002 issue
On this March evening the room echoes with the lusty cries of a
new generation of sybarites, the snowboarding crowd. They're in
town for an exhibition featuring the sport's new golden boy,
Ross Powers, who led a U.S. sweep of the Olympic halfpipe event
last month in Salt Lake City by soaring an astounding 18 feet
above the tube's 17-foot ramp. The buzz at the bar has Powers
and five Manhattan strippers among this evening's patrons. The
strippers never show, but Powers wafts in just as the moon
flashes over the pines, a Bud in one hand, a highball in the
other. "The strippers aren't coming?" he says forlornly. "That
The 23-year-old Powers has a skinhead haircut and gangsta togs,
and his eyes are hard and clear like shards of broken blue
glass. His boyish face looks anything but golden. It's a
scabrous stew that bubbles up and boils over. "A carpet bit
Ross," a member of his posse more or less explains.
A couple of nights before, in his hometown of South Londonderry,
Vt., Powers had been celebrating in a saloon with some pals, one
of whom was named Jack Daniels. Before long the merrymaking moved
next door, where Powers met up with Alex Alexander, a friend and
karate instructor who flipped the sozzled snowboarder face-first
into a carpet. "The blood wasn't gushing," Powers recalls, "but I
was bleeding pretty good."
Snowboarding's high-flying eminence makes his way to the bar,
where a six-pack of his friends is telling tales on him. Wild
tales, lunatic tales, hard-to-believe tales. One is set at a
press conference during the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, where
Powers took bronze. When his tongue was tied by the word
"rivalry,'' he blurted an expletive that rhymes with pluck. "I
was the first medalist to use the f word at an Olympic press
conference," he halfpipes up proudly.
In another yarn Powers wakes up in a Costa Rican hotel after a
lost weekend. "I must have had a great time last night," he says
while staggering to the bathroom. "I've got no money in my
wallet, and my shorts are on backward."
Powers embodies the "spirit of snowboarding," says his best bud,
pro rider Frank Knaack. That spirit has something to do with
excess, indulgence and Warp Factor hedonism. "In snowboarding
you want to work hard, be serious and, afterward, celebrate,"
says the shredder whose gold medal run was set to the
speed-metal beat of Metallica's Whiskey in the Jar and the
Beastie Boys' Fight for Your Right (to Party). U.S. national
team road manager Carter Alcott adds, "Snowboarding is all about
the party, and at parties, Ross holds his own."
To the everlasting consternation of the Federation
Internationale de Ski--the hidebound governing body that has
overseen Olympic snowboarding since its introduction at the
Games in 1998--pro snowboarders tend to be big, bad-tempered
babies who make a production of being extravagantly
antiestablishment. Trashing hotels, abusing substances and
misbehaving are de rigueur. "You want to know the difference
between Ross and other pros?" asks his friend Marisa Pierce.
"The difference is that Ross isn't a jerk."
For all his party-animal magnetism, Powers has one virtue most
other pro snowboarders seem to lack: a social conscience. The
Ross Powers Foundation provides financial aid to young, talented,
underprivileged Vermont riders. "Ross is trying to make sure
snowboarders of the future aren't all rich academy kids," says
John Cavan, a national team official. "He's a kind, humble guy
who hasn't forgotten where he came from."
Powers came from "the school of hard knocks," says Jeanie Forbes,
his first-grade teacher at Flood Brook Union School in South
Londonderry. "He didn't have it easy by any means." Born eight
weeks prematurely with a medical condition that would make him
trip over his own feet until age five, Powers spent two years of
his childhood in leg braces. "He looked like Forrest Gump," says
childhood friend Lucas Hughes. "His knees and ankles were going
in all sorts of directions."
Ross was in kindergarten when his father, Barry, a hard-drinking
Vietnam vet, left home and never returned. Ross hasn't seen him
in 13 years or heard from him in four. "My dad sent me a
congratulatory letter after Nagano," he says. "I didn't send
anything back, I guess because he's never been a part of my life
and my mom's treated me nice."
Nancy Powers supported her two sons by working in the cafeteria
at Vermont's Bromley Mountain, a job she still holds. In 1986 she
gave seven-year-old Ross a snowboard for Christmas, hoping to
keep him occupied and within her sights. "Ross never got in
trouble in school," says Forbes, "but he used to ride the swings
too high in first grade. He rode his skateboard out in the
parking lot during recess, trying to do jumps off a tar ramp,
scaring the bejesus out of me."
The first child prodigy of U.S. snowboarding competed in his
first competition, the U.S. Open, in 1989, at age nine. His
entire fourth-grade class showed up to cheer him on. As a high
school freshman he won a scholarship to the Stratton Mountain
School, a private ski academy. Powers was one of five kids in
Stratton's inaugural snowboarding program. At 15 Powers joined
the U.S. team. By 16 he had won a national senior championship.
Ruling the pipe with big air and raw aggression, Powers
effortlessly mastered the gnarliest moves and invented others
such as the Switch McTwist 900 (backing into the backside wall
and doing two sideway flips). "Ross was phenomenally quick at
learning new tricks," says Scott Palmer, his coach at Stratton.
"He has a real natural feel for the snow."
Though he won a world championship in 1998, seven of the nine
FIS events he entered in 1999 and gold in Salt Lake City, Powers
is still not considered chairman of the board by his peers. The
world's two most prodigiously gifted shredders--true sports
punks Terje Haakonsen of Norway and Kevin Jones of the
U.S.--seldom compete. In fact, they skipped the last two Winter
Games altogether. The majority of pro boarders regard the U.S.
Open, which begins on Thursday at Stratton and will feature
Haakonsen, to be the sport's real Olympics.
Powers can hardly wait to compete on his home court. "The top 10
or 12 riders are about equal," he says. "In Salt Lake City I
figured any one of us could have gotten the gold." It came down
to him and countryman Danny Kass, a flamingly rude, crude
technical wizard who pulls off radical maneuvers with eclat. But
Kass lacked conviction. "At the top of the pipe in the finals
Ross had ice in his veins," national team official Cavan says.
"Danny was pissing-his-pants nervous."
Before launching himself into the 450-foot-long Park City
superpipe on the first of two runs, Powers told Cavan, "There
are so many people watching, I just wanna go f------ huge." He
succeeded on his very first trick, an 18-foot Method Air (going
in heelside and grabbing his backside edge). "I heard the Army
had a 20-foot grid above the entire Olympic complex to keep
Osama bin Laden from buzzing the place in a small plane," says
Knaack. "When Ross broke 20 feet, he supposedly showed up on
He also blipped the judges' radar, earning the high score of
46.1, of which 9.4 was for amplitude. Kass had more stylish spins
and riveting rotations but less hang time. His 42.5--a mere 6.6
for amplitude--snared second and outraged those who thought the
weighting of the points system was too height-heavy. The buzz at
last month's Sims world championships in Vail, Colo., was that
Kass should have won gold and Powers silver. Powers maintains he
would have been happy with either result. "Winning isn't the
important thing in snowboarding," he says. "What's important is
to hang with your friends, ride the pipe and have a good time."
For him the good times keep rolling and rolling. Since his
Olympian victory Powers has partied at the Daytona 500 and on
Late Night with David Letterman, where he was ragged about
autographing a female fan's bare breast. "I just signed my name,"
he says with a small shrug. "I didn't write anything too crazy."
In the Olympic Village he had a presidential powwow with George
Bush before the opening ceremonies. "I was like, 'Can I get a
picture with you,'" says Powers. "And he was like, 'What sport
are you?' And I was like, 'Snowboarding, dude.' And he was like,
'I don't know if I'm cool enough to get a picture with you.'"
Powers gets a larky gleam in his eye. "Yeah," he says, "he was
In a sport notorious for its bad-boy anti-endorsers, the
relatively unthreatening Powers used to have a hard time landing
big-time sponsorships. Now that he's struck gold, he's got tons
of deals in the halfpipeline and is seen as the rider who'll
carry shredding into the commercial mainstream. According to a
source close to Powers, he is negotiating a six-figure
endorsement deal with Coca-Cola--the biggest Coke deal ever
scored by a snowboarder.
There's an unwritten rule in the pros that 10% of your winnings
are tithed to the bar. "We figure Ross's gold medal should net
him about $10 million," says Alcott. "Which means he owes about a
million in drinks."
How long will it take Powers to settle his Olympic bar tab? "With
my friends," he says, "not that long."
was like, 'What sport are you?' And I was like, 'Snowboarding,
asks a friend. "The difference is that Ross isn't a jerk."