When Tom Sims built his first snowboard in 1963, there was no such thing, or at least he'd never seen one - certainly not in Haddonfield, N.J. An avid skateboarder and skier, he got permission from his woodshop teacher to make what he called a "ski board."
"It was a skateboard for the snow," he says moments after arranging a snowboard shipment to Japan, where snowboarding is making its Olympic debut.
Sims Sports Inc. is based in Seattle, but he and his family live in Santa Barbara, Calif., where Sims migrated years ago.
Today, his original snowboard, a primitive 34-by-8-inch creation with a carpeted top and an aluminum bottom, sits in the Colorado Snowboard and Ski Museum in Vail, Colo.
Just who invented the snowboard is hard to say, but Sims is widely acknowledged to be among the pioneers, most of whom, he says, are from the Eastern United States. He talks of trailblazers like snowboard tycoon Jake Burton, of early designer Dimitre Milovich, and Sherman Poppen, whose "snurfer" was patented by the Brunswick Corp. and sold primarily as a snow-play alternative to sleds and saucers.
"What's funny," Sims says via telephone, "is that Sherman Poppen didn't snowboard in the early days. He's taken it up in the last five years."
Although some may still associate snowboarding with young daredevils, Sims says it has become much more mainstream and less counterculture in recent years.
"I was kicked off countless ski areas back in the 1960s, '70s, and even in the '80s," Sims says of the difficulties he once encountered from the established Alpine ski community.
By the mid '80s, however, Sims felt the climate change and predicted that snowboarding would someday be in the Olympics. The International Olympic Committee announced in 1995 that snowboarding, curling, and women's hockey would join the '98 Nagano Winter Games program.
Two events have been incorporated into the Games, the giant slalom and the halfpipe. The Olympic slaloms, completed Monday, showed off the grace and control possible riding a board at high speed. Now attention shifts to the halfpipe competition with its acrobatic maneuvers executed while flying off the rim of a huge chute of snow 120 meters long.
Snowboarding's participation numbers have begun to rival those of skiing and Sims claims the reason is enjoyment.
"In my opinion, snowboarding is inherently more fun," he says. "It's hard to explain, but when you do a snowboard turn and can drag your hand in the snow and pretend you're on a 20-foot wave, it just seems more fun than planting a ski pole and making a turn."
He also believes the physics are more natural, the boots more comfortable, and the control simpler because two rather than four edges carve the snow.
Today there are more than 2,500 individual snowboard models to choose from, compared to 200 a decade ago, Sims says.
Whatever confusion exists in the marketplace is echoed in snowboarding's administration, where politics prompted one of the world's top snowboarders, Norway's Terje Haakonsen, to boycott the Games. Haakonsen objects to placing Olympic snowboarding under the jurisdiction of the international skiing federation rather than snowboarding's governing body.
"This certainly isn't a pretty picture," says Sims of the internal politics. "I just feel that the positive aspects will outweigh all these other problems as millions and millions of people see snowboarding for the first time."