Boarders catch some 'big air'

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Fun is the name of this winter Olympics event. Wait - don't you mean "hard work"?

To world-class United States snowboarder Ricky Bower, they are one and the same.

"People say, 'You worked so hard!' " Bower said in a recent interview. "But it was all what I love to do." It wasn't a sacrifice for him to excel, he says. From the first day he went boarding with a friend at age 10, he loved it.

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Soon, he was practicing hard. He wasn't on a team, and he didn't have a coach yet, but he and his friends went snowboarding every day after school. He was having so much fun, it didn't seem like hard work.

In fact, "having a happy, joyous life" is the secret to his snowboarding success, he says.

Bower is a famous halfpiper. He grew up in Park City. His dad, John Bower, was a former US Olympic Nordic skier and the first director of the Utah Olympic Park. His mom, Bonnie Bower, started the Park City Winter Sports School, which enabled kids like Ricky to attend school in the summer so they could train in the winter.

At 17, Ricky was invited to join the US Snowboarding Team. A little more than two years later, in 1999, he won the Halfpipe World Championships in Germany. He was expected to be on the Olympic team this year but was sidelined by an injury.

If you haven't seen much snowboarding, you'll be amazed at the tricks the riders have up their pant legs for the Olympics. The halfpipe competition will take place Feb. 10 and 11.

Sherman Poppen never dreamed of the heights (and spins) to which people would take his invention. His snowboard - called a Snurfer - came out in 1966. He began by screwing two skis together and letting his daughter ride the "board" down snow-covered hills.

Many of the first snowboarders were surfers. Skateboarders, too, helped get the new sport off the ground - literally!

Tricks that were first performed on skateboards became snowboard tricks as the sport grew more popular. New stunts have been added each year. Snowboarding will be one of the "trickiest" sports in the Games.

Utah will host two snowboarding events: a racing event (slalom), and a freestyle event (the halfpipe). The halfpipe, modeled after the wooden structures that skateboarders have used since the 1970s, is a U-shaped channel dug into the snow. It looks like a huge pipe that's been cut in half.

Park City's 'superpipe'

The halfpipe at the Olympic site in Park City, Utah, (near Salt Lake), is bigger than usual. It's 525 feet long, 55 feet wide, and has sides that are 17 feet high. It has a steep 17-degree slope. (Most halfpipes are 400 feet long, 35 feet wide, and 15 feet high.)

Participants in the Olympic snowboard halfpipe will have two qualifying runs. The women compete Feb. 10, the men on Feb. 11. After the first run, 25 men and 15 women will remain in the competition. The second run will cut the field to 10 men and six women. They will be the finalists.

Five judges will watch the event. Each will focus on a particular aspect. One looks at standard maneuvers, such as "air" and grabs (see glossary, this page). Another judge looks at rotations - flips and spins. The third judge watches for amplitude (height). Two judges will decide how hard the tricks were and how well they were linked.

Each judge awards each boarder a score from 1 to 10. The five scores are added up. A perfect score is 50.

Ricky says you're likely to see a lot of spinning and twisting, including the "McTwist," a popular trick that combines a twist and a flip. (See diagram, next page.)

Spins are a popular way for boarders to show their skill. In the Olympics, you will see 900-degree spins (2-1/2 times around), and even some 1,080 spins (three times around!). Watch for some breathtaking inverted (upside-down) spins, too.

The US Olympic Snowboarding Team is four men and three women. The men are Tommy Czeschin, Ross Powers, Danny Kass, and J.J. Thomas. The women are Shannon Dunn, Kelly Clark, and Tricia Byrns. Tommy and Shannon are from California. Kelly and Ross hail from Vermont. J.J. lives in Colorado. Tricia is from Connecticut, and Danny from New Jersey.

Ross and Shannon both won bronze medals in snowboarding at the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan. Tommy had a number of wins in last year's FIS (Fédération Internationale de Ski) World Cup competitions. Ricky thinks the US team will do very well - at least some of them in the top 10.

Tough Olympic competition

They will face stiff competition from Daniel Franck of Norway (silver medalist at the Nagano Olympics), Magnus Sterner of Sweden (the overall winner in last year's Snowboard World Cup), Guillaume Morisset of Canada, and Gian Simmen of Switzerland (gold medalist in Nagano).

What does it take to be a great snowboarder?

"It helps if you're a good gymnast," Ricky says. "You have to like being in the air." A good understanding of flipping and twisting is an advantage. And "You have to be strong," he adds, "to be able to hike up the pipe all day during training."

Mental characteristics are important, too. "You have to be confident and persistent," Ricky says. "Things are never going to go exactly how you want them to. There are going to be bumps in the road, and you have to work through them." You must have goals - and step-by-step plans for achieving them.

But most of all, Ricky seems to stress the joyful aspect of his sport - even in competitions.

"I used to really struggle mentally" in competitions, Ricky confides. "But when you let yourself just have fun, you relax. Everything is fluid, and you have a totally free feeling. You feel like you're not doing anything and like you're unstoppable at the same time. It's a great feeling," he says.

And winning? "Winning is not everything," Ricky says. "I try to judge my contests by how I'm feeling. I try to have more fun than anyone else. The days that I do that, it's reflected in my results." When he feels good, he does well.

So when you watch the half-pipe competition on TV, look for the boarders who seem to be having the most fun. Chances are, they're doing well. And fun is the name of this game.

Snowboarding terms and tricks

aerials - Tricks done in the air.

big air - A high, long jump into the air.

fakie - Riding backward, tail first, leading with the foot that usually follows.

grabs - Various ways of holding onto the board in the air.

heel edge, toe edge - Most boarders ride with their left foot (and left hand) forward and their right foot (and right hand) back. The 'toe edge' of the board is the side his toes are on (the right). The 'heel edge' is on the left. 'Goofy footed' boarders ride with their right foot forward.

indie - A grab in which the rider bends his knees and reaches down with his back hand and holds the toe edge of the board between his feet.

McTwist - A front flip with a half twist. (See illustration on facing page.)

method - The rider kicks the board up toward his backside and reaches behind him with his front hand to grab the heel edge of the board between his feet.

mute - Like the 'indie,' only now the rider reaches around his body to grab the toe edge with his front hand.

nose grab, tail grab - You get the idea. Boarders with more style will bend one knee and straighten out the other leg as much as possible while doing these two tricks.

ollie - A basic move in which a rider propels himself into the air (borrowed from skateboarding). To 'ollie' is to get air by first lifting the front foot, springing off the back foot, and then landing on both feet.

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