An American Original

Born in the U.S.A., the Olympics' most free-spirited sport will soar to new heights in Turin. So will U.S. riders
January 16, 2006

In the coming weeks you will hear much about snowboarding, not the least of which will be Bob Costas trying to say "massive alley-oop McTwist" with a sufficient measure of gravitas. All of this will underscore how far the sport has come in the last 25 years, since the days when riders weren't allowed on the slopes at ski resorts and kitchen tables were flipped over, packed with snow and used as starting gates in competition (grab two of the legs for leverage and off you go). The courses weren't much better. Former rider Paul Sundman, the national sales manager for Burton Snowboards in the 1980s, remembers one early downhill race in Vermont: He was flying toward the finish line when a dog ran out in front of him. Sundman wiped out; the dog, best as anyone can remember, was fine. ¶ Back then, the idea that snowboarding would one day be an Olympic sport seemed about as plausible as turning on the TV today and hearing that beer pong has been added to the 2008 Summer Games (though considering how eager the IOC is to appeal to young folk, you never know). Now the Olympics embrace snowboarding, the quintessential American winter sport, a homegrown pursuit born of rebellion and innovation that revels in individuality, freedom of expression, creativity and--it wouldn't be American otherwise--frequent shout-outs to the sponsors.

Of all the winter sports, snowboarding is both the coolest--just ask any 14-year-old at a ski resort, provided you can jimmy the iPod headphones from his ears--and the one the U.S. is best at. Consider: In 2002 Americans took four of six medals in the men's and women's halfpipe. Next month at the Turin Olympics that number could be even higher; U.S. halfpipe coach Bud Keene thinks the team has "a definite shot at five or maybe six." The U.S. stable of riders is so deep that Ross Powers, who won gold in '02, estimates that "there are 10 guys on our team who could podium."

Those 10, plus 130-odd more, were on hand last weekend for a U.S. Snowboard Grand Prix at Mount Bachelor, south of Bend, Ore., the third of five qualifiers for the Olympic halfpipe team. (A qualifier for the newest medal discipline, snowboardcross, was held in Austria earlier in the week.) The Mount Bachelor event was noteworthy both for the enthusiasm of the riders--whose predecessors used to diss the Olympics as too stodgy a venue for their sport--and their collective youth. Standing at the bottom of the pipe during the men's competition, fans looked up to see a stream of skinny, tangly-haired boys, some as young as 14, swooshing down the icy barrel, McTwisting and 1080ing and frontside airing and occasionally faceplanting their way to the bottom. Upon exiting the pipe, many pulled off their helmets to reveal themselves as ... Frodo from Lord of the Rings. Well, maybe not that small, but certainly that baby-faced. These are (some would say sadly) not the hard-partying, dope-toking boarders of yore; many spent last Thursday night ice skating at the hotel rink. Others watched DVDs. Up in Smoke, it was not.

"These kids talk about nutrition and weight training, and that was never mentioned in the past," says Jake Burton, who founded Burton Snowboards, the sport's leading equipment company, in 1977. "They see this as a career, and they're planning for the future." And why not? Riders such as 19-year-old halfpipe star Shaun White (page 65) came of age after the blood feud between skiers and snowboarders was settled; according to the National Sporting Goods Association, there are now more recreational snowboarders than skiers in the U.S. (6.6 million versus 5.9 million). Whether or not this number is accurate--some in the boarding community think it sounds high--the point is that snowboarders are no longer outsiders. It is impossible to be antiestablishment, after all, when one is sponsored by State Farm.

Inevitably this mainstream acceptance has meant a dilution of the sport's original ethos, which borrowed from the surf and skateboard cultures that birthed it. Snowboarders were a breed apart. Banned on the slopes, they hiked in or took to the trails at night, leaving tracks under the lifts for the country-club set to see in the morning. As it slowly made inroads, the sport flourished on both coasts; Burton was the pioneer in the East and riders Tom Sims and then Shaun Palmer in the West, pushing freestyle boarding. This year Palmer is back, at age 37, only six months removed from a yearlong bender that left him in a near-fatal coma. Last Friday he took second in a snowboardcross World Cup event and appears primed to make the Olympic team, quite a feat for a man who hadn't competed in six years. (Keene's uncoachlike take: "He's a frickin' badass!")

Palmer's story--the ultimate anti-institutional icon fighting to qualify for the ultimate institutional event--and the scene at Mount Bachelor are indicative of how the sport has evolved. "[The 2002 Olympics] were the turning point, where snowboarding found out that we could be mainstream and not lose our ideals," Keene said between pulls on a pale ale last Friday night. "It's changed a lot. People used to hear what I did for a living, and they'd say, 'Wow, you must be a wild and crazy guy.' Now it's like I'm the coach of the Yankees."

The revolution, clearly, is over, the battle won. Last Friday, during qualifying runs, the deejay at the Grand Prix dusted off a double shot of Twisted Sister, perhaps harking back to the sport's early days. As We're Not Gonna Take It blared from the speakers, one of the younger competitors sat on his board, singing along to the lyrics. Oh, we're not gonna take it, NO! We ain't gonna take it!

One had to wonder: You're not gonna take what? The throngs of adoring fans? The corporate sponsorships? The Olympic medals? The era of snowboarding as an outlaw sport is over; its time as part of the national identity is upon us. As Burton puts it, "Snowboarding may not be forever, but it's certainly right now."

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Read more about snowboarding and the Turin Games at SI.com/olympics.

"These kids talk about nutrition and weight training," Burton says of the new breed. "They see this AS A CAREER, and they're planning for the future."

PHOTOPhotograph by Brian Bahr/Getty ImagesRARE AIR Kass, the '02 silver medalist, is one of several Americans talented enough to win the halfpipe in Turin. PHOTOBRUNSWICK (SNURFER) PHOTORICHARD PALMER (MILOVICH) PHOTOBURTON SNOWBOARDS PHOTOERIC PARSONS/SAN BERNARDINO SUN/AP (X GAMES) PHOTONANCIE BATTAGLIA

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)