A short 30 hours after my scheduled flight out of Jackson Hole, I arrived at Tamarack Resort in midwestern Idaho for the second stop of the U.S. Snowboard Grand Prix. I thought no place on earth could have more snow than Jackson Hole. I was wrong.
For most of the two-hour drive from the Boise airport to Tamarack, the snowpiles on the sides of the roads reached 10- to 20-feet tall. Houses were blanketed to their second stories. The condos at the resort were covered in puffy white mushroom tops that looked weighty enough to crush in the rooves. It was like walking around in one of Alice’s wonderlands. And it was beautiful.
I don’t know what I’m going to do when I get back to the snowless concrete of New York City. Actually, yes I do. I’m going to fall into seasonal depression. Or watch a lot of snowboard and surf videos.
The weeked was a lot of fun, and now that the new ESPN The Mag website is launching today, I have another outlet for my thoughts and observations. I spent the weekend working on blogs for the site, but since our new fancy site didn’t launch until this afternoon, they were too late to post. So if you care to read them, click HERE or on the “continue reading” link at the bottom of this story. I’ll leave this entry with a photo I took from the top of the halfpipe during snowboardcross finals.
Reporting From … The second stop of the U.S. Snowboard Grand Prix in Tamarack, Idaho, February 9-10, 2008
Saturday, February 9, 2008 – Women’s Halfpipe qualifiers
Gretchen Bleiler did not make finals.
It’s not a sentence I’ve written in a few years. It happens, sure. But not lately. Bleiler won the first Grand Prix stop of the season and the X Games two weeks ago. So when the contest emcees announced Bleiler’s pitiful second-run score in prelims (it wasn’t a surprise; she threw straight airs down the entire pipe), the inevitable question began floating through the crowd gathered at the bottom of the halfpipe: What happened?
The answer: Bleiler didn’t want to make finals. Which begs a new question: Why?
Last year, the Tamarack stop of the Grand Prix tour was considered to be, by far, the best of the three events. The 22-foot halfpipe was about as well cut as a giant mound of snow can be, and the level of riding was at its highest all tour. This year, the riders arrived to a pipe with uneven walls cut two feet short of 22. It’s like Ben Roethlisberger showing up to Heinz Field and finding out, in warm-ups, that he’s got only 90 yards to cover.
Except a shorter field means less work for Big Ben. A too-short pipe means no vert (the vertical top portion of the wall between the transition and lip of the halfpipe), which makes it difficult—or at least a lot more work—for riders to get much height out of the pipe. It also means the women who were working the transition enough to get decent height were decking out a lot—and few were landing even their stock halfpipe runs. The level of riding from the women was shockingly mundane, especially coming off the X Games, and few people at the bottom of the pipe knew why. They just knew they were watching a snoozer of a contest.
“It was dangerous,” says Bleiler, who made a decision after her first run to essentially protest the contest by goofing her second run. “I’ve been doing this too long to ride in these kind of conditions,” she says. “I don’t want to be in a final, on NBC, looking like I don’t know how to snowboard.” She also wanted to send a message to contest organizers that it’s not okay to skimp on the necessities, like a proper halfpipe. And she knew if the message came from her, it would be heard.
Bleiler also knew that if she let her competitors in on her plan, they would want to join her. “When she got to the bottom of the pipe, I was like, ‘Gretchen, I didn’t know we were doing straight airs,” says Ellery Hollingsworth, 16, who finished third in finals. “But she said, ‘Ellery, you’re not. I am. You’re young. You need to compete today. I’m going to ride powder.” It was a strong statement. Hopefully the USSA was listening.
A BIT OF BACKSTORY …
In a recent issue of the magazine, we reported that the FIS (Fédération Internationale de Ski), snowboarding’s governing body, is attempting to once again require halfpipe snowboarders to attend their contests and earn qualification points for their in both Olympic and pre-Olympic years. As it stands, the Grand Prix events serve as the qualifying series for the United States Olympic team, and the USSA is not interested in sending their best riders overseas, to far-away contests notorious for poorly cut halfpipes and shoddy judging, when the best contests are held here in the States. That argument was tested this weekend, in Tamarack. It seems FIS isn’t the only organization with work to do.
Bleiler explains herself to WCSN reporter Carrie Sheinberg …
AND SPINNING AHEAD …
Bleiler’s absence opened the door for a new rider to step onto the podium and take her spot in Saturday afternoon’s final. Which is exactly what 20-year-old Clair Bidez of Minturn, CO, did, finishing second and grabbing her first Grand Prix podium. Ellery Hollingsworth, 16, and in my opinion the most promising young rider on the women’s tour, took third.
Winter X Games silver medalist Kelly Clark who, like most of the men, adapted well to this halfpipe, won the event with her first run. For her victory lap, she attempted a 1080 (three revolutions), a trick no woman has landed in competition and one Clark came close to nailing at Winter X. Considering the state of this halfpipe, the fact that Clark even attempted the trick—and had the height and spin, to boot—is commendable. She landed low and slid out, but the trick is coming, possibly at the next Grand Prix stop in Killington, VT, in early March. “I want to be the first female to land a 1080 in competition,” Clark said after her final run. “That’s the goal.”
Saturday, February 9, 2008 – Men’s Halfpipe finals
If the philosophy of The Mag is NEXT, the men’s halfpipe final was a two-hour NEXT-off. Many of the halfpipe heavies were missing from the event—Shaun White, Danny Davis, Danny Kass, Steve Fisher, to name more than a few—which turned this stop of the Grand Prix into a showcase of up-and-comers. Most notably: three 14-year-olds who finished in the top eight and a 15-year-old silver medalist. Remember their names. You’re going to be reading a lot about them in the next few years …
Trevor Jacob, 14, Mammoth Lakes, Calif. (8th place)
Last year, Jacob became the youngest rider to make finals at the U.S. Open in Strattton, Vermont. At this event, he qualified into finals in fourth place. I met him and his parents at the hotel gym, where mom Lynn (a Pilates and spin instructor) was helping Trevor with his post-practice stretches and dad Jerry, who travels to all contest with Trevor, was working out on the machines. Mom, who is in better shape than most of the 20-something competitors, is Trevor’s trainer and, clearly, his biggest fan. Dad is his biggest cheerleader: “Did you know Trevor was signed by IMG? Only snowboarder other than Shaun.” You know, the redheaded kid from the Olympics.
Ben Watts, 14, Bend, Ore. (6th place)
This kid was just so much fun to watch ride. He’s been winning events on the junior tour for a couple years, including the junior slopestyle and halfpipe events at the 2006 Burton European Open in Switzerland at age 12. He finished every run by slashing his board across the lose snow at the base of the pipe, and roosting the fans. Then every competitor under the age of 18 who rode after Watts followed his lead.
Brennen Swanson, 14, Stillwater, Minn. (7th place)
Unlike the majority of NEXTers, Swanson is a Midwest kid who still lives in the Midwest, at home with mom and dad. He wakeboards and skateboards in his free time and throws a stock halfpipe run that includes back-to-back 900s and a frontside 1080.
Greg Bretz, 15, Mammoth Lakes, Calif. (silver medalist)
The best thing about watching Greg podium at this event was hearing Trevor Jacob’s parents cheering louder than anyone at the base of the pipe for their son’s friend and riding buddy. That’s the kind of parental involvement I like to see. It’s a welcome change from the soccer-slash-stage-mom/dad syndrome that’s infiltrated action sports.
*** *** ****
Sunday, February 10, 2008 – Men’s and Women’s Boardercross finals
THE LADIES …
Can someone please find Lindsey Jacobellis some competition? A cheetah, perhaps. Or maybe Seth Wescott.
Jacobellis’s races are a joke. Remember that photo of Marion Jones crossing the finish line in the 100 at the Sydney Olympics? You had to open a gatefold to see the rest of the women, because they were 10 yards behind her. That was Jacobellis—in every heat today. Only her lead was more like 100 yards, minimum—and I can say with a fair amount of certainty that she was running a clean race. Actually, I can say with total certainty tomorrow, because Lindsey left the event with a rep from USADA in tow—she was one of two female SBX competitors selected for random drug testing. I’m not sure why they need to test anyone but LJ: I think it’s safe to say her competitors are clean.
THE MEN …
In the second-to-last semifinal heat of the men’s event, two of the four gates didn’t open at the start. That means two riders were left penned in at the top of the course while Seth Wescott and Nick Baumgartner flew out of their gates. About one-fifth of the way down, they realized they were alone and pulled off the course. Then, while everyone waited … … … … … they hiked back to the top. No snowmobile ride. No cruiser to the chairlift. They just took off their boards, hiked up and strapped back in. And then, they finished one-two and qualified for the final, which Wescott, the 2006 Olympic gold medalist, eventually won.