Boarders finally find Olympic zeal

Andy Finch is desperate to find a cellphone signal. He's already tried one phone and is now stalking the bottom of the halfpipe with another as if auditioning for a Verizon commercial. "Can you hear me now?"

His message is urgent and important: He has just made the Olympic team. In years gone by, perhaps, snowboarding's tousle-haired kings of cool might have greeted such news with a shrug and a smile. But this year in particular - and on this day three weeks ago - it has made Finch look, well, giddy.

In that moment, it is as obvious as a halfpipe face plant: Eight years after snowboarding became part of the winter Games, the snowboarding community has at last embraced the Olympics.

What began in Nagano in 1998 with an event that was boycotted, criticized, and generally dismissed by riders as disastrous has now become the one can't-miss event on the halfpipe calendar. That's largely due to the American men's medal sweep in 2002. In one perfect Utah day, it set both the sport and - to a lesser degree - the winter Games on a new path, lending the Olympics the suburban chic it desperately sought and giving snowboarding an act on sport's greatest global stage.

Says gold medalist Ross Powers: "2002 changed everything."

That was clear three weeks ago in the hills of New Jersey during the final Olympic qualifier. And it was apparent earlier this week as the eight Olympians of the US halfpipe team rolled into Turin in advance of the men's and women's finals, which will be held Sunday and Monday.

This time around, they say they're stoked, and they mean it.

Even in the golden days of 2002, that didn't always seem to be the case. US reporters still had questions about Nagano: Why didn't you want to wear team uniforms? Why did we only win a bronze? What about the Canadian rider who tested positive for marijuana? Journalists talked to the riders as if expecting them to light up at any moment.

But earlier this week, the boarders were as smooth as Samuel Alito before the Senate Judiciary Committee. And three weeks ago, when the Olympic roster was finalized, Gretchen Bleiler could not stop smiling.

"It's been a childhood dream to go to the Olympics," she said. "The X Games are the biggest event in snowboarding, but the Olympics are the biggest event in the world."

Increasingly, the Olympics is the biggest event in snowboarding, too. Two weeks ago, Bleiler pulled out of the X Games, which were in her hometown of Aspen, Colo., to prepare for the Games. Two other women on the US team did the same.

On one hand, it's part of the natural evolution of the sport. The Olympics brings greater exposure - and bigger dollars. "The sponsors are the ones who have dictated that," says Mark Sullivan of Snowboard Magazine.

But riders, too, have begun to treat Olympic years with special attention. It used to be that tricks with three revolutions, called 1080s, were the gold standard. This year, everyone is doing them. "After how well things went in Salt Lake, everybody really wanted to get [to the Olympics] badly," says Danny Kass. "So it pressed everybody to really lift their level."

The path between Nagano and now, however, has been a journey of mutual compromise. It has involved Olympic organizers learning how to cut a decent halfpipe. It has involved riders learning to love team uniforms - albeit ones with built-in headphones for riders' iPods - and even hitting the weights.

Medal hopeful Hannah Teter - who has been known to ride wearing a studded belt - has recently boasted about how much weight she can leg-press. "I wouldn't say that they're gym rats," says US halfpipe coach Bud Keene. "But there's an awareness that these things are important."

Perhaps most important, though, has been the International Ski Federation's willingness to embrace the snowboarding ethic. Before 2002, it changed the scoring system to reward risk-taking more than consistency. Since then, it has given greater freedom to riders to do what they want, as opposed to requiring certain tricks.

To Shaun White, the men's favorite, the changes allow riders to be artists. "It's definitely better for the sport," he said in a press conference this week. "It not so robotic."

Not that there's any danger of snowboarders becoming robots. At the bottom of the halfpipe in New Jersey, the run-out has become the collecting place for a Human Be-In wearing woolly hats. White seeks out Mason Aguirre, who has just qualified for the US team: "You're going to the Olympics, buddy!"

In this way, snowboarding has always lived up to the Olympic ideal of true sportsmanship. "It has always been a gathering of the tribes," says Sullivan of Snowboard Magazine. "That camaraderie is still there among the athletes."

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