U.S. Snowboard Cross hangs in Hood River

By BEN MCCARTY

News staff writer

January 10, 2007

The U.S. Snowboard Cross team made its way to Mt. Hood Meadows this weekend for a rare mid-winter Pacific Northwest training session made necessary thanks to a lack of snow in Europe and in much of the U.S.

It would figure that their training would be cut short because of too much snow. Whiteout conditions pushed the team off the mountains into the gym at the Hood River Athletic Club on Monday, where they allowed a look at how they roll off the slopes.

When he is on the course rider Nate Holland throws caution to the wind to try and cross the finish line first.

Off the slopes, Holland declares himself to be the next Michael Jordan – skin color, hair, vertical leap and the ability to shoot a basketball notwithstanding – in a pickup game with his Snowboard Cross teammates.

None of the boarders are likely to go on to NBA careers when their days of shredding the slopes are done, although Olympic gold medalist and reigning Snowboard Cross world champion Seth Wescott showed he may have a future with Team U.S.A. basketball by actually being able to hang on the rim.

“In season this is pretty much what it is like when we are not on the slopes,” Coach and Hood River native Peter Foley said.

Besides, the team could probably use the chance to get off their boards and stretch their legs before they board a plane to Switzerland today for the Snowboard Cross world championships.

Snowboard Cross was the next big thing at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, last February and cemented its reputation as an all-or-nothing sport when U.S. female superstar Lindsey Jacobellis wiped out on the home stretch while getting a little showy with a stunt–and wound up winning a silver instead an almost-certain gold medal.

With its inclusion into the Winter Olympics, Snowboard Cross increased its visibility considerably and was called “NASCAR in the snow” by several commentators.

Just don’t call it that in front of the snowboard crossers.

“It’s not NASCAR,” Holland said. “Not only do we turn right, we have jumps and bumps. It’s more like Motocross on snow.”

Snowboard Cross riders may not get as fast as race cars, but they can reach top speeds nearly 60 mph, and wiping out at that speed certainly causes its fair share of pain.

The Snowboard Cross team brought its snowy motocross act to Hood River in the middle of the winter thanks to Mt. Hood Meadows having a ready-made Snowboard Cross course, something that not many ski areas in the United States have.

However, that is something that Wescott would like to see change in the near future.

The inclusion of Ski Cross–a Snowboard Cross type event on skis–into the Winter Olympic canon for the 2010 games in Vancouver, B.C., means that the United States will have to find more venues for qualifying in both events.

“Just last week National Ski area magazine had an article about catering to ‘cross,’” Wescott said. “The U.S is going to have to come up with a qualifying system for skiers and boarders to get into the Olympics.”

For these boarders some of the first steps to getting to Vancouver start later this month in Switzerland, and then at the Winter X-Games later this month, and despite the fact that they have had little high-speed training so far, the riders think they will be ready to go.

“It was good to come out,” Jason Smith said. “As far as technical training goes the weather didn’t co-operate, but it was great otherwise.”

Wescott described the season so far as “odd,” being that most of the team’s traditional training areas have no snow, and this will be the first time in his career that he will be heading to the World Championships not having taken part in any world cup races this season.

Nonetheless, he feels that the U.S. team has a good shot at the World Championships and the rest of the season.

“As a team we are really strong,” he said. “We all have shots at the podium.”

For the U.S. team, having to stay in the states has not been such a bad thing in some ways. Typically the riders spend two months out of the year overseas, and much of the remainder of the year is spent traveling around North America for training or races.

“The athletes would rather be in the U.S. racing,” Foley said. “Everyone likes to go to Europe but we don’t like to spend the whole winter.”

In a typical season Holland typically would not see his home again until the end of March, so he will not be complaining about any lack of training time.

“It’s almost an advantage for me,” Holland said. “It’s almost a North American tour this year, which is fine by me.”

Foley was glad to get to bring the team back to his home town, even if it was only for a brief stop, and the athletes have generally enjoyed the visit as well.

“I love Hood River,” Wescott said. “Getting to go up on Meadows in the winter was a dream.”

Despite the fact that they head to Switzerland today for the World Championships and have the X-games looming later this month, some of the team members wanted to use their final day in Hood River trying to develop themselves into two-sport athletes.

“You know, with better shoes I could probably touch the rim,” Smith said, eying one of the baskets in the athletic club gym.

He took a running start – and just barely tapped the bottom of the net after getting all of two inches off the floor.

Perhaps it is for the best that the Snowboard Cross team members spend most of their time strapped to boards on the slopes, where they can catch some real air.

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