Adults in ski boots would approach Terrie Carver as she sat eating
lunch in the lodge at a Lake Tahoe ski area. Wide-eyed, they'd
point to the tiny five-year-old boy sitting next to her and say,
"Is that your son?!"
Terrie would sigh and think, Oh, God, what did he do now? The
phone calls had started earlier that year--from teachers, from
parents, from other wide-eyed adults: "Roger can't sit still!"
"Roger can't keep his hands to himself!" "Roger is in trouble,
again!" So she'd look at the inquiring people and answer them,
"Well, he is really, really good!" they'd gush. "We just had to
stop and watch him!" Terrie heard this with a mix of delight
and dread. On the one hand, snowboarding might be just the
positive activity she and her husband, Dave, had been trying to
find for Roger. On the other, she was a warm-weather person;
every time she was in the snow she longed for the beach. It
only took a few comments from Roger's new admirers to convince
her that she was going to be consigned to the white stuff for a
long time to come.
Roger Carver is 13 now and at that awkward stage in a young
phenom's life when he has both an agent and a bedtime. Though he
is only 5'3" and 110 pounds, he is the best snowboarder his age
in the country. He is good at all disciplines, including
boardercross and the freestyle events of halfpipe and slopestyle.
But he excels in the less glamorous Alpine events, the slalom and
the giant slalom. Until he blew out a binding and placed fourth
in the giant slalom at the United States of America Snowboard
Association (USASA) nationals in Maine last March, he had not
been beaten in an age-group race since he was seven. At the South
Tahoe Snowboard Series Alpine races, which will start up again on
Jan. 3, he often beats everybody, including men twice his age.
Altogether he has won 22 national snowboarding championships.
December 22, 2003
On top of that, Roger is what the late San Francisco Chronicle
columnist Herb Caen would have called a namephreak: His name is
his occupation. Thanks to his natural balance and years of
coaching and practice, Roger can perfectly carve a turn, the tail
of his board following the exact path of the tip, leaving a trail
as thin as a wheat stalk. "Roger's talent is a special feel for
the snow," says Trevor Brown, one of Roger's coaches at the
Heavenly Ski and Snowboard Foundation at Tahoe. "He has an
understanding of the terrain that some people spend a lifetime
trying to find. He is an artist. He was born with the gift of
knowing how to use that paintbrush under his feet."
Roger was also born with a lot of methamphetamine in his system,
thanks to the addiction of his biological mother, and he has to
deal with the ramifications of that every day. Studies on meth
exposure in utero are just starting, but research on adults
suggests that drugs like meth and cocaine do two things in the
brain: They act on neurotransmitters, affecting things like
self-control and impulsivity, and they stimulate the brain's
pleasure centers, which can lead to a greater need for more
pleasure, and more risk-taking. If Roger forgets to take one of
the Adderall pills he takes every morning and every noon, his
behavior spins out of control. If he doesn't take his clonidine
pills, at bedtime, he can't sleep.
Terrie, a 44-year-old who works summers in the office of a
photography company, and Dave, a 49-year-old concrete contractor,
are Roger's adoptive parents. The Carvers have one biological
son, Dustin, who was born in 1980, but they weren't able to have
any others. When Dustin started longing for siblings at age five,
Terrie and Dave became foster parents to a string of infants,
kids and teenagers--as many as nine at a time--in their
three-bedroom house outside Placerville in California's Sierra
foothills. Roger joined the parade in early 1990 just 10 days
after his birth, which happened to fall in an experimental
two-week window during which El Dorado County, a hotbed of meth
use, tested every newborn for drugs. Roger's positive toxicology
report gave Child Protective Services the right to monitor his
mother; when she didn't cooperate, the CPS authorities took her
baby away. After Roger had been with the Carvers for six months,
his mother was ready to take him back. Three months later he was
skinny and undernourished, and CPS sent him back to the Carvers,
who eventually adopted him.
As a baby Roger was small, blond, cute and endlessly energetic.
He'd lie awake at night, and he never napped. As a kid he was
caught snoozing so rarely that both occasions are part of family
lore. "One time we were driving back from Telluride, and he fell
asleep in the backseat," says Dave. "We have that one on
videotape." The other time Roger put his head down on a table
during a family reunion and dozed off as his parents and a circle
of relatives looked on, agape.
Roger's pediatrician had told the Carvers that the meth exposure
had probably changed Roger's brain chemistry and that he was
likely to suffer from hyperactivity and other behavioral
problems when he hit school age and had to sit still for long
periods of time. Sure enough, as soon as Roger started school,
he wanted to quit because all he did was get in trouble. Terrie
resisted medicating him and tried herbal remedies. They didn't
work. Neither did Ritalin, which only made him bounce off the
walls twice as fast. When the Carvers settled on a
pharmacological routine that gave Roger some focus and
everyone else some peace, he did well in language and
writing--he now reads at the high school level--but struggled
in math and in that category they used to call "citizenship."
"For Dustin, school was always a positive; for Roger, we knew it
wouldn't be," says Terrie, who homeschools Roger during the
snowboarding season and sends him to public school the rest of
the year. "We knew something else would be the positive. We just
didn't know what it would be."
When Roger was five, a parent at his Montessori school offered a
package ski deal to students: $10 for a day of rentals and
lessons up at Sierra-Tahoe, a 45-minute drive away. The other
kids took ski lessons; Roger wanted to snowboard because that was
what Dustin did. That first day Terrie saw Roger getting air on
the bunny slope, his face split by his Alfred E. Newman grin.
"That was the first sign I was in trouble," she says, laughing.
Neither Dave nor Terrie, both avowed beach bums, skied or
boarded, so Terrie told Roger he could snowboard with 15-year-old
Dustin and his friends on the condition that he never whined,
asked for help or got lost. He didn't, nor did he follow the big
kids for long; soon they were chasing him.
Roger started competing in USASA events at six; by seven he was
winning regularly. He seems to have a knack for everything--in
freestyle he has "amplitude," maintaining great height on his
jumps on successive tricks, and in Alpine events his quick feet,
great balance and reflexes allow him to take chances and still
win. "He is on the edge of crashing a lot, so naturally there are
a bunch of recovery moves. Or crashes," says Ed McClain,
snowboard director at the Heavenly foundation. "More often than
not, Roger ends up going faster than everybody else, landing a
trick higher and bigger and better than everybody else."
When he is focused, Roger is fun to be around and highly
coachable, "one of the few kids who actually applies what you
tell him," says Brown. And he is helpful to younger kids, giving
them tips before the start of races. But if he forgets to take
his pill, he becomes, well, a pill. He is loud and having more
fun than everyone else, wrestling, pulling little pranks, putting
kick-me stickers on the backs of other kids and starting snowball
fights. Says Brown, "I can work with 20 kids or just Roger and
burn the same energy."
When he is snowboarding, Roger carries his noon pill in a plastic
bag in his pocket, but often he forgets to take it. From his
point of view, it makes no difference whether he takes it or not.
It's not like taking aspirin for a headache; he gets no relief
from anything. He only realizes he forgot when people start
getting mad at him.
"It's a big hassle having to take the pills," says Roger. "Kids
tease me all the time. They have no idea what it's like. I don't
care though. I just laugh with them."
Unless you see Roger in certain moments, there is little about
him to suggest he is any different from other 13-year-old boys.
He is bright, inquisitive, confident, funny, opinionated and wary
of projecting a dorky image. He is good at a lot of
things--basketball, skeet shooting, skateboarding, trampolining,
driving boats, fishing, shooting pool--but he doesn't want people
to know singing is one of them. Crocheting, though, is cool.
Since Terrie's mom taught him how to crochet two summers ago,
Roger has made several handsome ski hats; last season he sold one
to a woman at a ski resort for $10.
During the season Roger trains or competes at Kirkwood or
Heavenly--both resorts sponsor him--four or five times a week.
Both places are more than an hour away from Placerville. The
commute drives both Terrie and Roger crazy because Roger has a
hard time sitting still and Terrie won't let him touch the radio.
"Getting him up here is a huge effort on the part of his
parents," says McClain. "You see a lot of kids with talent and
potential who aren't getting that kind of backing."
Says Dr. Barry Lester, a professor of psychiatry and pediatrics
at Brown who is conducting the first large-scale longitudinal
study of the effects of meth exposure on children, "His parents
must be fabulous. Here is a kid who was able to take whatever the
drug did to him and channel it into something positive."
That, of course, raises the question that Roger himself ponders:
Did the meth exposure make him a better snowboarder?
"We'll never know that," says McClain. "Maybe he would have been
even better without it."
How much better he can be remains to be seen. Next month Roger
turns 14 and will become eligible to join the USASA Junior
National Team. Beyond that? "His potential is limitless," says
McClain. "He has all the right tools. I think if he can focus on
it and if that's what he wants, then the Olympics are definitely
within his reach."
There is one other big if: Adderall contains amphetamines, which
are on the IOC's banned-substance list. If an opportunity to
compete in the Olympics rolls around, Roger would have to wean
himself from the pills. If he can't function without the
medication, there is still a possibility he could compete with a
therapeutic exemption. In any case, the Olympics are not a
driving force in Roger's life at the moment. "If he decides to
quit tomorrow, that's fine by us," says Terrie. "We didn't get
into this because of the Olympics. We got into it because he has
fun doing it."
He has so much fun doing it, it's hard to imagine him not
continuing, though he has stopped doing other things he was good
at. When he was nine, Roger announced that he was too old to
continue playing soccer. Amused, Terrie asked him if he thought
he'd ever be too old for snowboarding. "Oh, no," he said with
confidence. "When I'm 90, you can come out and watch me."
"Here is a kid who was able to take whatever the drug did to him
AND CHANNEL IT INTO SOMETHING POSITIVE."