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Crossing off an Olympic dream

Nate PetersonThe Aspen Times
WX10 Smith, Jason PU 1-26
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Jason Smith saw the hole open up and didn’t hesitate.Close to two weeks ago, in the final Olympic qualifier in boardercross in Kronplatz, Italy, Smith secured a spot in the four-rider final, then charged out of the gates for his first career World Cup win.Beforehand, a coveted spot on the U.S. Olympic Snowboard Team was anything but a lock. Smith’s best result in the previous five Olympic qualifiers had been 11th place in Sass-Fe, Switzerland, in October – eight spots too low for serious consideration from the U.S. Olympic Committee. But after the win, Smith’s ticket to Turin was all but booked – the only remaining technicality being the official announcement, which came Sunday at the final U.S. Snowboarding Grand Prix, in New Jersey.Suddenly, the reality of fulfilling a lifelong dream was staring down the 24-year-old Basalt local who grew up riding for Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club. “It’s still a little bit surreal with everything that’s going on right now,” Smith said Wednesday at Buttermilk as he prepared for his fifth appearance in boardercross at the Winter X Games. “It still hasn’t quite sunk in yet. I’m still getting calls from people who say they either heard, saw it on TV or saw it on the Internet. It’s been a whirlwind. I’ve been at my house one day in January, and it’s been a little tiring, but the opportunity to be going to the Olympics is great.”Back when he was an unassuming teenager with a passion for both freestyle and alpine snowboarding, the dream of competing in the Olympics one day took hold, Smith said.

His AVSC coaches referred to him as “Earz” then because his ears were too big. The name stuck. His fervor for running gates didn’t.He eventually realized that he preferred freestyle, as well as boardercross – a hybrid that pits racers in head-to-head sprints down courses with rolling jumps and banked turns.But there was a hard reality to face. When snowboarding became an Olympic sport in 1998, only halfpipe and alpine racing got an invite. Boardercross, with its similarities to motocross, was a perfect fit for the renegade Winter X Games but supposedly unfit for the wholesome Winter Olympics.Smith had aspirations of competing for his country in an Olympic halfpipe final, but it was apparent that boardercross was his strongest suit. He made the decision to focus most of his attention on the latter, fully aware of the possibility that the sport would never get its due from the International Olympic Committee. The decision paid off. Smith earned a spot on the national snowboarding team three years ago. Then, shortly thereafter, the IOC announced boardercross would join the Winter Olympics in 2006.Now, as he prepares for Turin, Smith is fully aware that he is taking part in an important piece of Olympic history, he said.”It’s awesome. I’m so stoked for the whole sport of snowboarding, and the fact that I have the opportunity to go to the Olympics is just so exciting to me,” he said.

While a possible podium sweep for the American men and women in halfpipe has dominated headlines in the lead-up to Turin, Smith said the men’s boardercross team has a chance to do the same.In Turin, he’ll join teammates Jayson Hale, 20, Nate Holland, 27, and Seth Westcott, 29 – each capable of ending up with a medal.Westcott is the most decorated of the group, with two Winter X silver medals and a gold from the World Championships last year in Whistler, British Columbia.”I think we have equally as good a chance as anyone,” Smith said. “The four riders that we’re taking on the U.S. Team have proven that. We’re all good friends, good teammates, and we’re all going to support each other to the end. It’s definitely an individual sport, but I think out of any other country, we’ve got the best chance to get a sweep.”Last year Smith finished fourth in the Winter X boardercross final, a result he hopes to improve on when boardercross prelims begin at 10 a.m. today.The Winter X boardercross is one of the toughest in the world, with its six riders instead of four and a longer course that has much more of a freestyle influence than those on the World Cup circuit.Smith shrugged off the possibility of injury, noting that he plans to treat today’s heats and Saturday’s final as a “warmer-upper” for Turin.

“They put on such a good event here,” he said. “Some people think it’s the X Games and the course is going to be pretty dangerous, but you get here and they do such a good job making sure the course is safe for us. And just coming here, it’s totally worth it.”There’s also the bonus of racing in front of his hometown fans and his parents, both of whom have been there for him through all of the ups and downs, he said.”Growing up in Aspen and Basalt, my parents had me on skis when I was 2 years old,” he said. “That started it all off. They’ve been behind me 100 percent. My mom works for United, so she has always helped me with travel arrangements. My dad’s been a ski instructor at Snowmass for the last 30 years, so he’s always been supportive.”As for what happens if he is to win a medal in Turin, Smith didn’t want to speculate on how his life would change. He is just getting acquainted to the added media attention that comes with being selected for the Olympics, with is plenty for right now, he said.”I’ve never gotten this much attention before,” he said. “It’s pretty cool.”Nate Peterson’s e-mail address is npeterson@aspentimes.com


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