Soaring in the Slush

Despite days of torrential downpours, the Snowboard World Championships in British Columbia were a feast of 720s, 1080s and, to quote Jaymo, tweakarama
January 31, 2005

It's right there in the Book of Genesis. After the ark ran aground on Mount Ararat, the Almighty promised Noah to never again flood the earth. Inhabitants of southern British Columbia could be forgiven for wondering last week if He'd had a change of heart. ¶ Besides triggering a fatal mud slide and flooding rivers, which forced road closures and mass evacuations, the Old Testament rains that fell on the Canadian province transformed the Snowboard World Championships, held at Whistler's Blackcomb Mountain, into a prolonged exercise in slush management. To the vast credit of the event's organizers, led by the redoubtable Mark Taylor of IMG Action Sports, the competition proceeded smoothly, if not drily. Like General Patton with his bull terrier, Willie, Taylor patrolled the venues with his German shepherd, Lulu, cutting the gloom with his smile and blond mane while buoying waterlogged volunteers with such verities as, "There is no bad weather, there are only bad clothes."

Taylor was right. The weather wasn't bad. It was atrocious. The downpour on Sunday, Jan. 16, gave way to Monday's torrential rains, which ushered in the deluges of Tuesday and Wednesday. A 24-hour window of mist and fog closed on Friday evening, ensuring that Saturday's halfpipe would take place in pelting rain.

If the conditions seldom varied, the competitors' attitudes toward them did. "It's actually kind of fun," said halfpipe artist Danny Kass. Growing up in New Jersey and honing his craft on a hill called Vernon Valley, Kass recalled, "It was easier to learn new tricks when it was raining. Slush makes for a softer landing than packed snow. The first time I ever went upside down, it was raining."

Kass left Whistler with different feelings about slush. Like two of the three other U.S. men who were there to ride the pipe, he failed to make the finals. In an uneven performance that did not bode well for next winter's Olympics in Turin, Team USA saved its best for first, sweeping gold in the opening discipline. That was snowboardcross, a new Olympic event combining elements of motocross and Roller Derby. Four riders jockey for position over a steep course featuring whoop sections (a sequence of big-ass speed bumps), banked turns, double jumps and gaps. Coming off one such jump "in the backseat" (meaning with too much weight over the back foot) at the 2001 Winter X Games, Lindsey Jacobellis found herself gazing up at her board and the sky beyond it. From a height of 10 feet she landed on the back of her head and neck. "I tried to get up and just fell back down," says Jacobellis, who was then 15 years old. "My whole body was numb and tingling." After regaining feeling in her extremities, she earned a small measure of renown when a clip of her crash ended up on a popular snowboarding blooper reel.

These days Jacobellis is known for more than a spectacular wipeout. Now 19 and a graduate of Vermont's Stratton Mountain School, she has become the planet's most dominant female snowboardcross rider. She did not lose a race in that event on last year's World Cup circuit, and she has won it at the last two Winter X Games. Jacobellis trailed in none of her heats at Whistler and easily beat France's Karine Ruby, the reigning world champion, in the final.

Seth Wescott had to work a little harder. The 28-year-old Mainer, who spent time last spring heliboarding Alaskan glaciers "to expand my comfort level and make snowboardcross races seem tame," arrived at Whistler a bit gimpy. In a race the previous week an opponent had fallen on him, opening a gash on his right shin and stretching his left MCL. After executing a nervy pass midway through the semifinal at Whistler, Wescott finished comfortably ahead of Canada's François Boivin for gold. Joining them on the podium was California's Jayson Hale, who in an earlier heat had survived a collision with a strapping Austrian, Alex Maier--the Herminator's little brother. "He passed me," said Hale, "but he crashed, and I ran him over."

Boivin's silver complemented the bronze earned by his countrywoman Maëlle Ricker, the Mark Schlereth of snowboarding, who medaled despite having undergone her eighth knee surgery in October. While casting rose petals before those two, however, Canadian reporters clucked their tongues at Jasey-Jay Anderson, 29, who failed to make the semis in snowboardcross. Anderson, a four-time overall World Cup champion, was once thought to be Canada's brightest snowboarding light, but with disappointing results in the last two Olympics, he had developed a reputation as a rider who wilted on the biggest stages.

Some snickered when, after Anderson's 29th-place finish in the parallel giant slalom at Salt Lake City in 2002, he claimed his equipment was holding him back. The Europeans had an edge, he insisted, because of their superior board technology. Anderson showed up for the parallel giant slalom (PGS) in Whistler with a custom-made Coiler board that contains a layer of aluminum alloy where standard boards have fiberglass. The alloy conforms more readily to the surface of the snow, reducing chatter and helping the rider hold his edge. When Anderson predicted that the new rig would help him break through, one competitor "laughed in my face," Anderson said. On Tuesday, after sleeping with his new board, he won four two-run elimination rounds and gold.

That night the Coiler was Anderson's bedmate again. On the first run of his first heat in the parallel slalom--a non-Olympic event that's basically a 100-meter dash to the PGS's 200--Anderson fell, staking Markus Ebner to a 1.2-second lead going into the second run. But the German went down hard on that run, and Anderson advanced. His edge, and luck, held: In the quarterfinals Anderson's opponent, Harald Walder, jumped the gun. Like a subway rider with a defective token, the overeager Austrian folded at the waist over the metal arm in the starter's gate and never recovered. Anderson won two more heats and his second gold medal in two days. The Vancouver Province dubbed him Rain Man.

Anderson's double gold gave a much-needed morale boost to a nation bummed out by the all-but-sure cancellation of the NHL season and to the citizens of this stunning resort town, who had looked forward to showing Whistler's best face to the world. Vancouver will host the 2010 Winter Olympics, many of whose venues will be at Whistler. That made last week's world championships the wettest dry run in the history of sport.

As the rain rinsed away much of the snow on the mountain, people who'd come to Whistler to ski shopped or caught afternoon matinees or had long liquid lunches at Buffalo Bills or the Savage Beagle. A marker board in the lobby of the Tantalus Lodge offered suggestions for WHAT TO DO ON A RAINY DAY (get a massage; work out at the Meadow Park Sports Centre; try rock-climbing at the Great Wall Climbing gym). Michele Comeau Thompson of Tourism Whistler, after pointing out that such record rains were highly anomalous in January, said visitors could see one of the continent's most majestic waterfalls nearby, the 1,100-foot Shannon Falls. Or they could drive 30 miles to Brackendale, the winter home of thousands of bald eagles, who roost in the cottonwoods along the Squamish River and feed on salmon tired from laying their eggs. Glancing through the skylights of the Telus Conference Center on Friday, Thompson interrupted herself and exclaimed, "Oh, my God! Is that blue?"

A sliver of the sky was, indeed, visible through the stratocumulus. The rain had stopped for the only other non-Olympic event of these championships, the big air competition, in which contestants launched themselves off a 25-foot ramp and performed various maneuvers while soaring 60 feet above the ground. The event, won by a wiry, wide-eyed little Finn named Antti Autti, was at once crowd-pleasing and crowd-baffling. Public-address announcer Kris (Jaymo) Jamieson's take on one jump: "He's tweakin' the jeebers out of that thing! Unbelievable tweakarama!"

The manic expostulations of Jaymo and the pungent smell of cannabis wafting from the crowd could not disguise what this was: an FIS-sanctioned event. It continues to rankle many hard-core snowboarders that their Olympic governing body is the Fédération Internationale de Ski, presided over by, in their eyes, a bunch of stuffed-shirt double-plankers who know nothing of their sport or its culture. The atmosphere at this event was more businesslike than it will be, say, at next week's Winter X Games in Aspen or at the U.S. Open at Stratton in March.

At a halfpipe training session last week, many Americans were struck by the unsmiling faces on riders from other countries. "They all seemed ultra, ultra serious," said Tricia Byrnes. "They had the eye of the tiger going, and we were trying to keep it loose."

Maybe the eye of the tiger was the way to go. Byrnes's fourth place was the second-best U.S. performance in the pipe, behind the bronze earned by Hannah Teter, a hugely talented Vermont teenager who turned in an uncharacteristically conservative routine. With many of the women playing it safe because the rains had made the pipe dangerous, the event was won by one who didn't hold back. France's Doriane Vidal, a vintner's daughter who'd won the halfpipe at each of the last two world championships, capped her final run with an insanely difficult maneuver. The Haakon Flip (named for its originator, Terje Haakonsen) is an inverted aerial in which the boarder approaches the wall riding backward. At the lip of the pipe Vidal flipped backward, rotating 720 degrees before landing. The judges loved it: They gave Vidal 45.7 points, 2.3 more than silver medalist Manuela Laura Pesko of Switzerland.

Vidal, a former gymnast, had done a Haakon in her first run, with somewhat less success. She had come down hard and been forced to adjust her goggles on the fly. As she described it, "My landing was all sketchy, and I fell on my ass."

There was a lot of that going around. Despite the heroic efforts of pipemasters Steve Petrie and Dave Nye, who did constant battle against the corrosive effects of rain and warm temperatures, the halfpipe "had a lot of holes in it," as Vidal put it. That was the consensus of many riders. But the uneven conditions didn't ground everyone. Autti, the diminutive Finn, came out of the gate on his first run with two huge straight airs, followed by ... well, Antti, what were those hellacious spins and flips?

"Frontside 1080, cab seven, frontside seven and cab nine," he ticked them off happily. Rather than explain what that means, let's just say it was a tweakarama.

The rain decreased throughout the evening. "It was a shower--now it's more of a misty sprinkle," observed Teter. That was the thing about these championships: Everyone was a meteorologist. If you looked at it long enough, the falling moisture against the lights above looked almost like snow.

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In snowboardcross, four riders jockey for position over a STEEP COURSE WITH WHOOP SECTIONS (a series of big-ass speed bumps), double jumps and gaps.

When Anderson predicted that the new rig would help him break through at the world championships, one competitor "LAUGHED IN MY FACE," he said.

The big air competition was at once crowd-pleasing and crowd-baffling. P.A. announcer Jaymo's take on one jump: "He's TWEAKIN' THE JEEBERS out of that thing!"

COLOR PHOTOPhotographs by Carl Yarbrough FLYING FINN Autti launched himself into the fog in the big air competition and ended up with a gold medal (inset). COLOR PHOTOPhotographs by Carl YarbroughFLYING FINN Autti launched himself into the fog in the big air competition and ended up with a gold medal (inset). THREE COLOR PHOTOSJED JACOBSOHN/GETTY IMAGES (3) YANK CRANKERS Wescott (7) and Jacobellis took the men's and women's snowboardcross and were all smiles after. COLOR PHOTOANDY CLARK/REUTERS BOARD LOVER After sleeping with his new equipment, Anderson won two slalom golds and quieted his critics in the Canadian press. COLOR PHOTOJED JACOBSOHN/GETTY IMAGES (INSET)BOARD LOVER After sleeping with his new equipment, Anderson won two slalom golds and quieted his critics in the Canadian press. TWO COLOR PHOTOSPhotographs by Carl Yarbrough RISKY BUSINESSWOMAN While her opponents played it safe in the halfpipe, Vidal took chances and reaped the reward.