When Andrew Newell is suspended in midair above the luscious melting snow of a spring day in Utah, he doesn't have time to think about the fact that he could become the first US cross-country skier to medal at the Olympics in 34 years.
He's too focused on landing a back flip on skinny skis.
But it is precisely Newell's unorthodox style and superior athleticism that may enable him to do what no American has done since 1976. Agile as a cat, and audacious enough to integrate expertise from sports as removed as rugby, he has been ranked among the top five sprint skiers in the world since 2006.
But Newell, part of a rising generation of US skiers that also includes potential medalists Kikkan Randall and Kris Freeman, is more than a star. He's a missionary of sorts – for his sport, and for the Olympic movement as a whole.
Because, let's face it: Securing the attention of America's TV audience with European sports practiced only in scattered pockets of the United States – mainly ones with populations as low as their temperatures – is no small feat in this day of "American Idol" and "Desperate Housewives."
As much as Americans love the Olympics, few have ever gotten near a luge track and most think of Nordic skiing as something for granola-crunching folks to do in Grandpa's backyard, as Newell puts it.
The International Olympic Committee gets that. So in an effort to spice up the Games, it has in recent years added a slew of new events to both the summer and winter programs – including snowboard cross and BMX racing. With head-to-head action, jumps, and a strong dose of gravity, they offer speed, drama, and the potential for spectacular crashes.
But so does cross-country skiing, argues Newell.
"In some ways, cross-country skiing is one of those original Olympic races that are extreme," he says.
As an athlete who bridges the central tension of the modern Olympics – tradition versus X-Games appeal – he's on a mission to prove that cross-country skiing has both.
Oh, yeah, and beat a few Scandinavians while he's at it.
Newell has the pedigree of a world-class skier – Vermonter, ski academy graduate, and protégé of a coaching dynasty that produced Bill Koch, the sole US medalist in Olympic cross-country skiing history.
But he is a unique breed among the Nordic set, a chain-saw-wielding daredevil with a penchant for speed and big air. He sports tattoos and the skull-and-bones logo of his "x ski films" venture – a heavy-metal-meets-lycra-tights effort to prove that xc is more X than country.
"What we really wanted to do with the movies was to show people what fast cross-country skiing looked like," says Newell, shown – along with his teammates – battling the world's best in front of wild European crowds.
He also included footage of himself doing 360s, back flips, and other tricks in a snowboard park in Park City, Utah, where he trains with the US Ski Team when not back home in Shaftsbury, Vt. Those tricks are purely recreational – there's no time for that in races. But the agility he's honed by defying gravity has given him a reputation in Europe akin to that of Bode Miller, the renegade US alpine skier whose audacious style enables him to trounce the world's best – when he doesn't crash.
"I'm infamous in Europe for being really good on my skis and being able to pass people really quickly – something that's come from having so much fun on skis when I was younger and [from] doing tricks," said Newell during an interview at his alma mater, Stratton Mountain School, just before heading over to Europe this winter. "But at the same time I'm kind of infamous for crashing out sometimes, too."
Going into eighth grade, Newell was "getting [his] butt kicked" at summer training camps, he says. So he decided to go to Stratton for the winter term. He was coached by Sverre Caldwell, whom – together with his brother, Tim, and 1976 medalist Bill Koch – Newell describes as "young stallions who would run for six hours without water and hike mountains carrying rocks."
"We all wanted to be like those legendary Vermont skiers," recalls Newell, whose autographed 2006 Olympic photo now hangs in the school's field house, inspiring a new crop of Stratton juniors. "So it was a good group of kids that were able to push each other really hard."
By Newell's senior year in high school, the Stratton team was better than any college team in the Northeast – in a sport where athletes generally peak in their late 20s.
But while Caldwell had talent, he also had problems. Just weeks before Junior Nationals one year, Newell injured himself doing a 360 during practice.
"As a coach, I was torn because if he doesn't hurt himself, [doing tricks] is actually good for him. But it's high-risk," says Caldwell, who said Newell had to find a balance between wisdom and the tough Vermonter image he and his teammates cultivated. "They liked to think they were badass rednecks."
In 2006, Newell was able to translate his tactics into the first World Cup medal (a bronze) for the US since 1983. The next year, his teammate Kikkan Randall of Anchorage, Alaska, followed suit with bronze – then gold. In 2009, she became the first US woman ever to medal at Worlds. Andover, N.H., native Kris Freeman, meanwhile, missed bronze in the 15-kilometer (9-mile) race by just 1.3 seconds.
Those results have shattered a mental glass ceiling.
"We've spent ... almost a quarter of a century not believing that we can do it," says national team coach Pete Vordenberg. "So that's a real difficult thing to overcome."
Bagging an Olympic medal would not only boost their own confidence, but also that of US skiers coming up in the ranks.
"If Andy [Newell] wins, they're going to believe they can win," says Caldwell.
Already, Newell has developed a following among many young skiers – especially in New England. Two of them were careening off improvised jumps at the Weston Ski Track just outside Boston in mid-January.
Middle schooler Gavin McEwen says he's been following Newell online since second grade. His buddy Chris Koziel, meanwhile, got to train with Newell at a Stratton summer camp and likes checking out his stunts on YouTube – including one clip of him doing a back flip over a parked car.
"It's kind [of] sick that he can do all those tricks, but the World Cup [success he's had] is more important," says Chris. "He's the man. And now I'm going to see him in Vancouver."
In addition to inspiring young sprites, Newell is helping to set a new model of professionalism on the US Ski Team. Even as a teenager, he raised eyebrows by getting up in the middle of action movies to go to bed at 9 p.m.
"Freeman, Newell, and Kikkan have really carried themselves as professional athletes," says US coach Chris Grover. "Because [of that] ... and because of their success, the whole group of younger athletes understands that to be the norm."
Liz Stephen, one of the most promising young women on the team, singles out Newell as a role model.
"Newell doesn't want to hope about whether he's done the work and whether he can win. He knows he can win, he knows he's done the work," says Ms. Stephen. "I think that's kind of the motto across the line for our team. We want to know that when we show up for races, we're prepared."
In Whistler, they will be.