Stratton Mountain, VT – I just can’t help
but to smile.
Let’s just ignore the fact that I was grunting
up the side of a ski slope with two broken vertebrae in my lower back, struggling
to hold some form of traction in the snow. Forget that, all the while, an
image of me losing my balance and sliding down the hill a la the hapless ‘Agony
of Defeat’ skier on Wide World of Sports was playing over and over in my head.
Disregard that, long ago, I had lost interest in organized snowboarding competitions,
yet here I was at the premier snowboarding event of the year.
I’m grinning like a constipated octogenarian whose
prune juice cocktail just kicked in.
Wait a minute. If I’m so indifferent to competitions,
not to mention disgusted by the inane posturing and mainstream media sheen
seen at so many events, then what the heck was I doing at the 2001 U.S. Open
– a virtual who’s who of snowboarding? And why the heck am I so psyched? Well,
maybe it’s the tradition here. Maybe it’s the caliber of athletes. Maybe it’s
the overall excitement in the air.
Then again, maybe it’s the 20mg of Cyclobenzaprine
I downed with my coffee in the media room.
The ‘how’ and ‘why’ of my arrival in southern
Vermont for last year’s event is an inconsequential story of its own. However,
I will mention my rump-rupturing cliff drop a week earlier in Whistler for
the sake of the prior references to broken bones and seriously heavy-duty
muscle relaxants. And since I’ve largely precluded myself from being an expert
on modern-day snowboard competitions, I will say this: talk to me ten years
ago and I could rattle off the top ten finishers of any contest throughout
the year. I knew where all the pros were from and what their signature tricks
were. I knew everyone’s sponsors and what kind of board they all rode. I went
to a few competitions, but never The U.S. Open. Why am I proclaiming this?
Because it’s 2002, I’m pushing 30, and aside from still being an avid rider,
snowboarding culture with its seemingly daily issuance of new trends and tricks
has passed me by like a herd of semis past a broken-down Volkswagen on the
side of I-91.
Most importantly, even though I’ve shunned snowboarding
competitions and the sport’s meteoric rise through the mainstream for the
good part of a decade, the U.S. Open and the excitement surrounding Stratton,
Vermont welcomed me like a greeter at Wal-Mart. In the same way, The Open
welcomes everyone to its annual party in the hills – even if
they can’t tell the difference between a switch 540 rodeo and a…um…something
else besides a switch 540 rodeo.
The U.S. Open began, quite literally, as an event
by snowboarders for snowboarders. Initially held at Suicide
Six in 1982, The Open was both a proving ground for the fledgling sport and,
more or less, an excuse for local riders to gather with their friends and
party. The Open later moved to its present home at Stratton, where it grew
in popularity, talent and notoriety. This year’s competition is right around
the corner, scheduled for March 14-17, 2002. Now in its 20th year,
the U.S. Open sees several hundred athletes from almost two dozen countries
compete each year. Far from the days of winning a hunk of snowboard wax, competitors
will vie for $150,000 in prize money. And since this is truly an "open"
event, competition ranges from elite pros on the circuit and local favorites
to virtual unknowns.
Although things got underway last year on
a Tuesday with pre-qualifying and qualifying rounds, the real excitement kicked
in on that Friday night with the quarterpipe finals. New to The Open last
year, the event sees riders cruise full-speed toward a sloped wall of snow
some 20 feet high and pull off absolutely mind-blowing maneuvers and spins
only to return down the same slope. As a decision by the riders themselves,
this event replaced the Big Air event held at previous Opens, where riders
pulled off similar tricks on a huge “kicker” in the middle of a hill. Second
only to the insane tricks are the occasional gasp-from-the-crowd wipeouts,
followed immediately by the thought of, “oh, that’s gonna hurt in the morning.”
The frenetic enthusiasm of the crowd coupled with the chest-thumping beat
of music from the PA system truly set the tone for the weekend. Annie Boulanger
from Canada took home the title in the women’s quarterpipe final, while Terje
Haakonsen, one of the most innovative and respected pros on the circuit, won
last year’s men’s quarterpipe. Terje’s mere presence at The Open defined the
significance of the event, as he is notorious for his extreme selectivity
of competitions and elusiveness with the media. For some fans, The Open could
have ended there – seeing Terje pull off his astounding array of tricks in
person was simply enough.
No way did it end there, though.
After getting torqued on the sight of massive airs on the mountain, the party
moved down to The Foggy Goggle, a local nightclub, to get torqued on Jagermeister
and a night of live music. The lineup was as diverse as the spectators and
athletes at The Open itself, with perennial NYC punk favorites Murphy’s Law
getting things going followed by the rough hip-hop sounds of Cappadonna from
the legendary rap group Wu-Tang Clan. It was sick! Well, I heard it
was sick from a very hungover-looking photographer on the mountain the next
day. While I don’t recall my orthopedist actually saying it, I surmise
that drunken stagediving would be one of the things that would fall within
the parameters of “forbidden activities.” I myself went back to my friend
Christian’s house and got torqued on Oxycocet and reruns of Who’s The Boss?
Saturday was a day spent alongside the banks
of the halfpipe under bluebird skies and 50-degree weather. For those readers
who’ve been buried under a rock the last ten years, the halfpipe is a U-shaped
snow structure that runs roughly the length of football field down a ski slope.
It’s about 25 feet wide and the walls are anywhere from 10-12 feet high. Riders
work their way down the pipe, thrusting themselves up the vertical walls and
performing various tricks several feet above the edge of the wall. The rider
with the highest combined score of two runs is the winner. The halfpipe is
the showcase event of the weekend, and the sea of spectators that day certified
A scheduling conflict from the previous day
moved the men’s quarterfinals to the morning and the men’s and women’s semifinals
and finals to the afternoon. In between rounds and after events, The U.S.
Open takes on the element of a Lollapalooza concert – spectators mill about
the tent area, grabbing autographs from some of the athletes (who make themselves
easily accessible) and filling their mitts with free goodies from the many
sponsors, which last year included Burton Snowboards, Sobe, Motorola, Fuji
Film, Right Guard and Sports Illustrated for Women.
Perhaps it was repressed the night before by the
long drive up and the annoying traffic, but standing amongst the thousands
of spectators on that absolutely beautiful afternoon – St. Patrick’s Day,
in fact – at my very first U.S. Open, I began to remember what drew
me to competitions so many years ago. Sure, you’ve got your fair share of
media madness and your garden variety of idiots here, too. But as soon as
I saw that first rider hoist a 15-footer out of the halfpipe, the hair stood
up on the back of my neck, my spirits lifted and all my cynicism quickly dissipated.
Aah, it’s all about the riding.
By one o’clock, the pipe had softened up nicely
and the crowd had swelled to maximum capacity, hungry to see such names as
Daniel Franck, Keir Dillon, Shannon Dunn, Danny Kass and Natasza Zurek, as
well as local favorites Abe Teter, Ross Powers, Kim Stacey and Tricia Byrnes
– all Vermont natives. And the people got what they came for.
Amid the backdrop of blaring hip-hop and alternative
music, the riders took turns wowing the crowd, pulling gigantic McTwists,
720s and rodeos over the heads of slack-jawed spectators. Keir Dillon took
the excitement up a notch in the semis when he misjudged a blind landing and
ended up landing in the media pit. Every rider garnered loud, raucous applause
form the throngs of onlookers, many of whom had such “perma-grin” from being
so close to all the action. Whether you’re standing at the base of the run
or standing three deep along the edge, there really isn’t a bad place to be
during the halfpipe competition.
Ross Powers’ local-kid-makes-good story line and
huge Indy grabs earned him the early respect of the crowd. But a crucial fall
in the finals cost him the title. Not so in the 2002 Winter Olympic Games
in Utah. Abe Teter’s countless spin rotations and monster airs almost made
him a lock for the championship. But in the end, Jersey boy (and therefore
my personal favorite) Danny Kass narrowly beat out Teter for first place with
his flawless style and solid landings. In the women’s halfpipe finals, Shannon
Dunn’s impressive back-to-back McTwists on consecutive runs weren’t enough
to stave off 2000’s U.S. Open champ Natasza Zurek. With a solid frontside
540 and a McTwist of her own, Zurek walked away with yet another title.
If you thought the Foggy Goggle rocked on Friday
night, you should have been there on Saturday! Memphis Bleek, DJ Stretch Armstrong
and a whole bunch of other people I’d never heard of rocked the house ‘til
the wee-wee hours. Well, at least that’s what I heard happened. I didn’t actually
make it to the club, but boy did I cut loose that night! I upped my
dosage of Oxycocet, drank a wine cooler and kept my housemates awake until
three in the morning with my slurring, throaty renditions of Sex Pistols songs
on the acoustic guitar. I rock.
By Sunday, the crowds had largely thinned, eager
to beat the traffic back to suburbia. But had they known what they were missing,
they probably would’ve stuck around – boardercross! Let me explain boardercross
in no uncertain terms: boardercross is one of those extreme sport ideas undoubtedly
conceived during a night of binge drinking. “Let’s strap on helmets and ride
our snowboards straight down an icy hill! YEAH! But let’s get six guys to
do it all at once! YEAH! Let’s build insanely huge jumps in the middle of
the course that’ll launch us into the air, into each other and, if we’re lucky,
into the woods! YEAH! And let’s put huge turns in the course that we’ll never
be able to make at those ridiculous speeds! YEAH!” And so it was done. The
name boardercross comes from the chocolate-in-my-peanut-butter combination
of snowboarding and motocross. Pretty accurate description, actually. Racers
compete in six-person heats on a course containing a series of banked turns
and large platform jumps. The top three racers from each heat advance to the
next round, and so on all the way to a final race. It’s basically the Chinese
downhill scene in the movie Hot Dog…but on snowboards.
As with all the events at The U.S. Open, spectators
are part of the action in bordercross, and on that Sunday last year they lined
the course from top to bottom. Saturday’s sunshine and spring-like temperatures
had given way to overcast skies and bitter cold, making the course a sheet
of all-too-familiar Vermont boilerplate. During the men’s finals, the focus
was on local rider Brendan Foster who was riding for the Stratton-based snowboard
company Hayes Bros. The action was most intense toward the top of the run,
where the pitch of the slope was steepest. After jockeying for position out
of the gate, riders bumped each other through the first series of turns and
over the tabletop jumps. Tricks are held to a minimum, as competitors are
most concerned about their time and winning their heat. The course flattened
out considerably towards the finish line, offering up several, what they call
in horse racing terms, photo finishes. In the end, Canadian Scott Gaffney
took the trophy last year for the men, while local rider Lindsey Jacobellis
took home the purse for the women.
For those who attend The U.S. Open, be they athletes,
reporters or spectators; snowboarders, skiers or couch potatoes; young, old
or somewhere in-between, the sights, sounds, and most of all the fun leave
a lasting impression on everyone. Todd Richards, arguably the most accomplished
and recognized snowboarder today, was quoted in Transworld Snowboarding
as saying, “The first memory of snowboarding that really sticks in my head
is seeing Ranquet, Roach and Duckboy at the 1990 U.S. Open. They were doing
half-Cabs off the rollers under the gondola and grabbing them. I was blown
away. I owe a lot to that day – or should I say, to that weekend.”
Like most people, I think a lot when I drive.
On my drive home to New Jersey that Sunday night I realized two things: McDonalds
fries can’t be beat and the U.S. Open is a damn good time…even with two
compression fractures in you back. And since I’m getting a little long in
the tooth and the time I can spend attending competitions is scarce, like
Terje, I must be selective. The U.S. Open stands alone in that regard. You
can take the X Games, the Gravity Games and all the other mass-marketed, meaningless
competitions held every year across the globe and throw ‘em into a paper bag,
light it on fire and toss it on your neighbor’s doorstep. The U.S. Open is
the real deal.
Indeed, it’s all about the riding.
Always has been.