After flipping and crashing to learn the wildest tricks yet, new star Kevin Pearce, his band of "Frends" and a red-haired gold medalist are ready to battle for berths on Team USA and big air in Vancouver
This is an article from the Dec. 7, 2009 issue
Three years after the 2006 Olympics, snowboarding found itself in a bit of a rut. The daredevils of the halfpipe seemed fresh out of good ideas for new tricks. Halfpipers had gone from 720-degree spins to 900s to 1080s, the holy grail of the Turin Games, but rotating like the propeller on a beanie had reached a point of diminishing returns. That reality was clear last January when Olympic champion Shaun White won the superpipe event at the Winter X Games in Aspen with the same tricks he'd been trotting out since '06. He edged runner-up Kevin Pearce with a spin-intensive run that broke zero new ground.
"Pearce got robbed.... His second run was redonk, way cooler than robot spins," opined one commenter on transworldsnowboarding.com. Wrote another, "White threw a stock run that shouldn't have even gotten eighth place." With the Vancouver Olympics a year away and even the sport's biggest star looking a tad stale, snowboarding was in need of a jolt: the Next Big Thing.
Ten months later that breakthrough is upon us. To oversimplify: The guys who will win medals in 2010 are now concentrating on off-axis spins—diagonal flips, if you will—called corks. Double-corks, and a host of variations on them, will be all the rage at the Olympic halfpipe at Cypress Mountain near Vancouver. Since the end of the'09 season, White and Pearce (and a few other international stars) have found a way to make those new tricks their own. The divergent paths by which they reached that goal are a story unto itself.
Residents of the remote mountain town of Silverton, Colo., thought nothing of the distant booms echoing off the 14,000-foot peaks of the San Juan Mountains last winter. Explosives are routinely used for avalanche control. The locals might have been surprised to learn, however, that many of those 25-pound charges were being detonated to drive massive amounts of snow into a backcountry bowl, where it would be bulldozed, shaped and cut into a 540-foot-long halfpipe for the private use of White, who had come to Silverton to escape his rut. There to assist him was his sponsor Red Bull, which picked up the tab for this top-secret training session, dubbed, without irony, Project X.
By jumping first into a foam pit that had been schlepped up the mountain, White was able to get the hang of those tricks before trying to land them in the pipe. Over six weeks last February and March he mastered, or came close to mastering, the front double cork ten, the switch back 900, the double back rodeo and the cab double cork ten. If he throws three of those in his final run at Vancouver, it's likely that he'll defend his gold medal.
Pearce also rated his own private halfpipe. It was built in June by Nike, one of his sponsors, which had asked how it could help him prepare for Vancouver. Just because Pearce's pipe was considerably shorter than White's, and he had to access it by Sno-Cat rather than by a helicopter emblazoned with the Red Bull logo, doesn't mean it was any less appreciated. The biggest difference between White's pipe in Silverton and Pearce's at Mammoth Mountain in California? Rather than keep it to himself, Pearce, a 22-year-old Vermonter, got on the phone and invited a bunch of friends—Frends, actually—to come on up and bring their boards.
About 2½ years ago Pearce and six of his boarding buddies dubbed themselves the Frends—the missing i denoting selflessness and sublimation of ego. They see themselves as an antidote to the cutthroat, corporate vibe creeping into their sport. In this way, and despite the youth of most of the Frends—Mason Aguirre is 22; Danny Davis, 21; Keir Dillon, 30; Scotty Lago, 22; Jack Mitrani, 20; and Luke Mitrani 19—they're old-school: living together on the road, supporting each other at contests, listening to bands whose heydays, for the most part, preceded the riders' dates of birth.
In truth they are a confederacy of cutups whose motto might as well be Boom, Roasted (borrowed from The Office), a crew bound together by a determination to make each other laugh as often as possible. The Frends like to say they came together "organically," rather than in direct response to, say, a dominant, ginger-haired multimillionaire rider with a tendency to Bogart media attention and sponsorship dollars. In a moment of candor last March, Pearce told The New York Times, "I feel the last couple years, Shaun has kind of dominated snowboarding. I think that people are getting sick of it, and they're getting sick of seeing him."
After recently admitting that he regretted the harshness of those comments—"That definitely came out the wrong way," says Pearce—he made the point more softly. "People love watching Shaun, and I think what he's done for our sport is amazing, but I also know that we're up there at the same level, doing the same s---, and we're not really seen for it."
The best way to be seen, he knows, will be to knock off the champ next February. Thus the private pipe.
Project X had the bigger budget, but the Frends had a better time. Between runs on this mid-June morning, Jack Mitrani explains how he and Luke came to the sport. "We started as martial arts prodigies," he declares, straight-faced, "but were so advanced that the state forced us to register our hands as lethal weapons. So our mom took us out of that class, and we got into this."
The conversation turns to missing Frend Scotty Lago, who is injured but on their minds, having recently opened a can of carbonated Rockstar Energy Drink and placed it in a pneumatic tube at his local drive-through bank. Innocent tellers were sprayed, and the cops were summoned, though Lago was not arrested.
Amid the levity it's easy to forget that Pearce may have squandered a competitive advantage by inviting them. In the series of five Olympic trials events that start on Dec. 11 at Copper Mountain in Colorado and end in late January, only four male riders will make the U.S. halfpipe team. Of course, that's not how he sees it. "What's happened," says Pearce, "is that we've pushed each other to a place we might not have gotten on our own."
Luke broke the ice. He's a dangerous and fearless rider, which is why, during their mid-June training, he was the first of the Frends to attempt a double. After watching Luke pull off a double Michalchuk—a pair of twisting backflips—"it was on," says Davis. "I just told myself, You need to step your s--- up." And he did, pulling off a seriously technical trick called a cab double cork.
Next up was Pearce, who nailed a double McTwist—a contortion involving two front flips. He, Luke and Davis spent that day and the next dialing those tricks in, euphoric in the wake of their collective breakthrough.
The giddiness ended abruptly on the afternoon of June 18. Attempting a switch double Haakon flip, Pearce catapulted himself 10 feet over the lip, all the while flipping forward. Coming out of his second rotation, his board hit the deck hard, torquing his ankles and pitching him back into the air. He rag-dolled to the bottom of the pipe, where his older brother Adam leaned over him, taking inventory. It was not the first time one of them had inspected the other after an epic wipeout.
American Pia McDonnell met Irishman Simon Pearce in 1977; they were married two years later. After two years of living in his native country, where he began a successful blown glass and pottery company, the couple bought a 200-year-old building in Quechee, Vt., and converted it into a glassblowing factory and studio. Three decades after setting up shop, Simon Pearce, the company, has 300 employees and a sterling reputation throughout New England and beyond.
Pia and Simon had four boys in six years—Andy, now 28; Adam, 25; David, 24; and Kevin. Like their dad, Kevin and two of his brothers are dyslexic. (David has Down syndrome.) With a Master's degree in human development and a doctorate in education, Pia knew enough to be proactive, getting the boys tutoring before kindergarten and working with administrators to find creative solutions and individualized education programs.
The Pearce boys never lacked for fun at their home in Norwich, Vt. Across the driveway from the main house is a giant white barn. When Andy was 16 he asked his parents if he could convert the barn into a dorm for him and his brothers. Simon and Pia agreed, with the proviso that if the boys abused this privilege, it would be taken away.
The end result is a local legend: a two-story man-cave with a big-screen TV and pool, Ping-Pong and Foosball tables downstairs and sleeping quarters upstairs. Just outside sit a skateboard ramp and a basketball hoop. Walls are covered with vintage snowboards and banners heisted from the Vermont-based U.S. Open Snowboarding championships dating back 15 years.
"I'd be disappointed if they hadn't stolen them," laughs Jake Burton, whose company still sponsors the annual event. Before Burton became known as the godfather of American snowboarding, he used to go "snurfing" (a primitive, short-lived precursor to snowboarding) with Pia's brothers. He rode with Adam and Kevin when they were boys and knew they dreamed of making a career from the sport. "But I never really thought that much would come of it," he admits.
Others saw glimmers. Kevin's instructor at Vermont's Stratton Mountain School was Mike Jankowski, now a coach for USA Snowboarding. Even in his early teens, Jankowski recalls, Kevin rode with a "clean, smooth, almost Terje-like style"—a reference to boarding pioneer Terje Haakonsen. In 2003 Kevin switched to the Okemo Mountain School, also in Vermont, in large part because it would allow him to move to Mammoth and keep up with his coursework online.
It was after this move that the curve charting Kevin's progress "went much more vertical," says Burton. "[In Mammoth] he was always around this crew of great riders—Mason and Danny and the Mitrani boys—and they pushed him, and he started thinking, I can do what they can do. And the next thing you know, he's a world-class rider."
A world-class rider in a sport whose top competitors, in recent months, have elevated their performances to a new level. Burton has seen video of Pearce's bad crash in Mammoth, and he cringes at the mention of it. "Every time these guys go for it, it's a leap of faith," he says. The halfpipe "is just getting more challenging. And dangerous."
After studying his X-rays in Mammoth, doctors told Pearce that his tender right ankle was sprained. When it was still killing him a week later, he flew to Vail's Steadman-Hawkins clinic, where it was found to be fractured. He was off the board for four months. He missed the New Zealand open in mid-August, which provided the sport its first long look at the New World Order.
Luke Mitrani nearly stole the gold with a run that included a pair of double-cork hits. Pushed to his limit, White responded with a sequence even more electrifying, with multiple double corks. The ante had clearly been raised, and the Games were still six months away. "It will be insane," says Burton.
Can Pearce get his form back in time? "It's all good now," he says. "I'm feeling great, my ankle is all better." Then he adds, "It was a long summer, though."
Call it a corkage fee.
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