Tahitian surfer hits the X pipe | AspenTimes.com

Tahitian surfer hits the X pipe

Joelle Milholm
Post Indepenent staff writer

Originally from Tahiti, Gary Zebrowski, 22, took his first ski lesson when he was 12 years old at Sunlight Mountain Resort. Zebrowski now lives in France and is making his first X Games appearance in the snowboard halfpipe event. (Kara K. Pearson/Post Independent)

Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN ” The black pearl Gary Zebrowski wears around his neck is more than a piece of jewelry.

It is a reminder of Tahiti, his homeland, and its symbolism of purity and perfection, its reputation of exceptional value and rarity reflect his life.

As Zebrowski takes his first run on the Superpipe in his first practice session for Winter X Games 11 in Aspen today, he’ll become the first ever Polynesian to compete in the games.

It’s a remarkable feat, but not nearly as incredible as the extraordinary journey the 22-year-old has taken to get there.

And to think, it all started in Glenwood Springs.

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Zebrowski, who was born in Papeete, Tahiti, first came to Glenwood to visit his grandmother for Christmas when he was 12 years old. Accustomed to surfing the waves of the South Pacific, Zebrowski’s trip introduced him to something he’d never seen before – snow. And he loved it.

“He never got cold and just couldn’t get enough of the snow,” said his mother, Barbara Zebrowski.

He headed up to Sunlight Mountain Resort, strapped on skis and hit the slopes. By the end of the day, he was cruising down blacks with relative ease.

The next Christmas, he traveled to the French Alps to see his other set of grandparents. After skiing for a day, his feet were causing him extreme amounts of pain.

The source of the pain was a foot that was deformed when Zebrowski was born. Doctors predicted that he wouldn’t walk, let alone be an athlete.

When he was very young, an old Tahitian women massaged his foot with potions made from ancient Polynesian recipes and the “mana,” spiritual and supernatural forces believed to be delivered from ancestors. Zebrowski was walking in no time. He even began surfing on a surf board fashioned from a refrigerator box.

On his second day on the slopes in France, Zebrowski decided to try snowboarding because it allowed him to wear more comfortable boots.

“Going down the mountain sideways was also more comfortable to him because it was like surfing the waves back home,” Barbara said.

Zebrowski and his mother stayed in France, where Gary continued to snowboard. Two years later, in 1998, he was named the youth halfpipe national champion in France. He continued to improve, erasing the youth part of his French title in 2001, and was even named the Junior World Champion in 2004.

Watching and idolizing Shaun White (2006 Olympic champion), Zebrowski’s dreams came true in 2006 when he was named to the French Olympic team and competed against White in Torino.

“I like to compete with famous guys like Shaun White because when I started snowboarding he was already a star, so I said I have to do like him,” Zebrowski said. “I do snowboarding for my own pleasure, but when you are competing, it is more interesting in your head because you have to do a program and see the trick and watch the other guys.”

Zebrowski hung right with White and although he wasn’t standing on the medal podium at the end, he took sixth overall.

Zebrowski’s Olympic appearance made him a star in Tahiti. Thousands gather at the airport when he returns to his homeland three or four times a year. Nissan, one of his sponsors, gives him a car to cruise the island in and he still surfs occasionally.

He’s more well known for being a snowboarder in Tahiti than he is in France, where snowboarding still lags in popularity. The superpipe competition’s prime-time television coverage at the 2006 Olympics in Torino helped bring exposure to the sport, but skiing remains the norm.

Whether its skiing or snowboarding, the French still know about the X Games.

“It’s incredible. In France and all around the world, the X Games is pretty big,” said Zebrowski, who was invited to the Games after being seen by X Games organizers at a competition in Breckenridge in December. “So I am in and I am going to do my best.”

Zebrowski returned to Glenwood Springs on Wednesday, staying at the Four Mile Bed and Breakfast, just a few miles from where his snow riding journey began at Sunlight. By Thursday, Zebrowski was on his way to Aspen where the men’s superpipe practices begin on today at 8 a.m.

He’ll then have to survive the elimination round on Saturday at 6 p.m. to further his hopes of riding the pipe in the finals on Sunday night, under the lights and before the eyes of hundreds on the sides and thousands more on TV ” just how he likes it.

Having proven he is as rare as the pearl he wears around his neck, this weekend Zebrowski will strive to match its other meaning ” perfection. Going against the best in the world, including his idol, White, Zebrowski’s tricks will have to be near impossible, the manner in which he completes them practically flawless and the grace that ties it all together, perfect.

If he can do that, the pearl may soon be in the company of a gold medal that Zebrowski hopes to see hung around his neck.

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