This shot is from the desk at Stratton Mountain where prizes were handed out for the 1997 US Open. I won the event and took home $5000.
Before talking about one of the biggest days in my snowboard career let me take you back and give you a little (probably a lot by the time I’m done writing) of my US Open history. Although I took part in the US Open in 1994, it was 1995 that was the big year. 1995 was my second season riding for Burton. When I was at the Open I heard they were about to run an event called the “Big Air” and though it was unfamiliar to me at the time it would become my snowboarding comfort zone.
The interesting part about the Big Air was that the registration staff was essentially allowing riders to campaign to be in the contest. I was told that riders could write an essay petitioning the registration panel to allow the rider entry to the contest. I was a small timer that had no real results beyond USASA contests but I would not be denied. I lit up and geeked out, channeling Jim Carrey, “So you’re telling me there’s a chance?”
It was a scene straight out of “A Christmas Story” as I put pen to paper and composed my masterpiece. Point after point, tearing at the heart strings, drowning in logic, compelling and riveting, outlining my clearly undeniable destiny. A+++++++++++++. Ok so it might not have pulitzer worthy but I did pour my little snowboard heart out. I told them about how I was from the west coast and this was a rare chance for me to impress my east coast sponsor (Burton), how I was better at jumps so I had a better chance to make an impact on Burton, and a bunch of other scribblings that took up half a page. Somewhere along the line I put the correct words in and found myself cleared for entering the line up of the first ever US Open Big Air.
The way I remember it, the jump was barely two mounds of snow pushed up, a take off and a landing, and anything but big. To me it seemed about 20 feet but I believe it was approximately 42ft of gap. The take off was no more than a few feet high and the landing was about the same. It was a glorified boardercross jump in all honesty. As bas as all that sounds I couldn’t wait to hit it. Not a damn person in the world knew who I was there and I would keep it that way for two more years. Haha.
At that point Big Air was just a concept, an idea understood about as much as Alta understands snowboarding. Regardless of that we hit the jump a few times, drew a crowd, Kale Stephens flew off the side and tried to shrink the crowd by a few, and we started the ball rolling for a whole new area of competitive snowboarding. Jim Rippey got first, I got second, and Michelle Taggert got third. That’s right, a woman competed with the men, held her own, and got a podium spot.
The response was good enough that big air got a foot hold and stayed at the US Open. In 1996 the jump was huge (about 65ft cheese wedge) for it’s time. I believe I threw down something along the lines of a backside 540 but not much else and I didn’t place. I did catch the eye of Mike McIntyre, of Mack Dawg Productions, who asked me if I wanted to film with him when I got back to Tahoe (Mack Dawg Productions was the gold standard for freestyle snowboarding movies. I wore out movie after movie their productions in the VHS years.). That’s another story for another day but the point to see here is that this was just another dream coming true due to being part of the US Open.
1997! Finally the story about the picture above. Big air was a full fledged, fully respected event at this point. All the heavy hitters from the freestyle world were present. I felt like the bat boy getting to play in a real major league game. I was walking amongst giants while trying not to scrape my jaw as it was dragging on the ground. How did some kid from Eagle River, Alaska get to this point?
I was still an unknown and the thing I have found about anonymity is that its a freeroll; I couldn’t lose. If I go all out and fall then nobody knows me anyway so no big deal. There are no expectations on the unknown. Failure just maintains anonymity. But….but if I go all out and do well then there is a real story: Unknown wows crowd. If I go all out and stick everything then I will really make a splash. Well a splash was made. I WON!!!!!! Amongst the giants Peter Line and Jamie Lynn I WON!!!!!!!!!! Trick after trick was thrown, some landed, many crashed, as I did a backside 720 tail grab and a backflip 180 with a frontside grab and I WON!!!!!!!
I know, chill on the winning stuff already. I’m just trying to let you know how it felt. I really saw myself as just a kid that tried to snowboard as much as I could. This was all a dream to me, an honor to be a part of it and to ride with my heroes.
When the awards were held they lined us up on the top of the jump as people littered the flat between the take off and the landing and all down the landing. They handed us champagne and we did the spraying thing that people do on the podium. After that something happened that impacted me a great deal and really drove home how much people pay attention to athletes or public figures and what they do (and I wasn’t even a big deal like ball players or nascar drivers lol).
Those that know me well know that I don’t drink. I’ve never had a drink in my life. So as the bottles were sprayed and the foam cleared I poured out what was left in my bottle. After that I started doing interviews with media people on the edge of the landing. After about 15 minutes things died down and I was wrapping up. I noticed two kids making their way up the landing and they came over to me. They waited until they got a chance and said hi. As I said hi back the older of the two (maybe 17 or so) said he just wanted to tell me that he and his brother didn’t drink and they thought it was cool that I poured out the rest of the bottle rather than drinking it. They noticed that from the bottom of the jump and felt compelled to make their way up to tell me. That hit me hard and has always been a really amazing life moment for me.
Ok so I was freaking out about winning. I got other competitors to sign my bib and told them what an honor it was to ride with them. That’s when Jamie Lynn said “You earned it” and that’s when I had to change my underwear. I got props from Jamie twice in my life and for those that don’t understand what that meant to me it would be like Jordan telling you that you had a good jump shot. I’ll hold onto those moments like they are trophies. They’ll take center space on the mantle in my mind.
As I went to collect my prize I couldn’t believe it was cash and not a check. The cashier counted out 50 Benjamin’s and handed them over. I was officially baller. So I went out and did what any baller would do; I went to dinner, a celebration dinner. I drove down to McDonald’s and damned if I didn’t supersize that meal without even thinking about it twice. Then I went back to my room and just reveled in the moment. I counted the money a bunch of times. I am pretty sure I made it rain and in 1997 only dancing Indians made it rain not Lil Wayne. Then I arranged the bills all in the same direction and by face size. Then I did this
HAHAHA. I know, i’m a dork. I couldn’t help it. I had hours alone in my room before my flight early the next morning and I couldn’t get over what had just happened. It was my way of not letting the moment go. Another funny note was that I had to fly home with 5K in my pocket. I was sure everyone could tell I had it and was scheming to steal it. I kept my hand on it at all times to make sure I wasn’t pick pocketed and to ensure it didn’t fall out of my pocket. The most enjoyable anxiety I’ve ever had.
In 1999 I broke a rib overshooting the landing of the big air and in 2000 I got second in the event. More US Open stories another day. I’ve had an amazing unbelieveable experience with the event and will be forever grateful to have been a part of it.
This picture is of me, a very young 19 year old me. This is one of my first solo trips on my way to pro snowboardom. I just started riding for Burton that season and wanted to go to the US Open in Vermont. I had made friends with a couple of kids from New York state and they said I could stay with them for a bit and so the adventure began.
The kids were brothers named Jon and Matt Polhamus. I loved those guys. They were cool east coasters that were perceptive enough to know when people were getting out of line and savvy enough to dish up a serving of sarcastic comeuppance; just my type of guys. Anyway, when I went to visit them in Cornwall (Cornhole as they called it) NY, Matt was really into photography and took this picture. I thought we were just roaming the town so he could get some shots for school until the following summer when the picture was printed on a piece of poster board and sent to me as a postcard at Mt. Hood.
The thing I like so much about the photo is the focus on my eyes. I don’t like it because I have particularly beautiful eyes (unless you ask my mom), I like it because of the world that I saw through those eyes; those eyes at that moment in time.
Every so often I get a feeling of longing for those early days. I’m not talking about the days of being a pro, that’s fodder for another post completely. I’m talking about the tinge of sadness that clings to feelings of fondness, like the tail of a comet, when I think about the early years of snowboarding. Those early years of snowboarding, or anything pursued passionately in youth, are guided by blinders that deliver singular focus. I’m not even talking about when a goal is set forth like getting sponsored. I’m talking about the times when all that matters is getting on that board and making down the hill without falling. The times where if I were in the middle of a run then I wouldn’t notice a bomb going off next to the trail.
Those times on my board are invaluable because, like my first snowboard, they will never be made again. As I told Kelly, about the bit of sadness in my heart when thinking of those moments, she couldn’t understand how I could say that. “How can you not experience those moments again? You are always making new memories and having fun.” she said. It took a bit before I could explain it properly. I meant what i said but its not as bad as it sounds.
In those early years I would snowboard no matter what it was like outside. I was happy going off 3 foot high jumps and learning every possible grab I could figure out. The beauty was in the minutiae. But it wasn’t just the idea that my friends and I were new to the sport and had a lot to learn, it was that we didn’t know anything. I know those two things sound the same but they are worlds apart. I didn’t know what I was capable of, I didn’t know what the sport was capable of, I didn’t know what life had in store for me, I didn’t know how far I could take it. In things that I didn’t know laid a treasure; HOPE. In short, the whole world was possible simply because I didn’t know it wasn’t possible.
What I figured out is that those eyes saw hope through lenses clouded with innocence. The innocence came from not knowing anything about anything. The innocence came from not having a mortgage or electric bill. The innocence came from moving to Alaska and finding passion in something I had never seen or known about before leaving southern California. And the innocence was lost with each new step taken, each new barrier broken, and each new experience on the board.
I know it all sounds pretty dramatic but before you shake your head and put your face in your palm, let me try to clear it up a little more. I love snowboarding today. I love the abilities I’ve developed and the way I see and ride the mountain even if I do look like I need a lesson. I wouldn’t trade them for anything. But I also realize that the way I looked at a run at Alyeska the first time I went down it is completely different than the way I look at it and think about it 20 some years later. I can never get that back. I can never see it through the same eyes as I once did and I miss that from time to time. As I explained to Kelly, my grandma died about 10 years ago and we were very close. I don’t spend all day every day dwelling on her passing but when I do think about it then I miss her very much. The early innocence of snowboarding is a parallel to that. Snowboarding makes me happy and brings me a ton of smiles but when I think about the first years of doing it I fondly miss what I saw from behind those blue eyes.