Never count out ‘The Palm’ |

Never count out ‘The Palm’

South Lake Tahoe, Calif., native and professional snowboarder Shaun Palmer rides a Sims board in a crude halfpipe in this photo from the early 1980s. (Earl Zeller/Tahoe Daily Tribune)

ASPEN Sandwiched between two doll-faced, cover-ready halfpipe divas and hemmed in by a hovering press corps, Shaun Palmer looked out of place Wednesday at the Buttermilk media tent.Not that he’s not used to it. At 39, “The Palm” is the oldest athlete at Winter X Games 12 – ancient when compared to the shelf life of most of the other snowboarders and skiers he’ll compete against this week. When he was racking up gold medals in everything from boardercross and skiercross to downhill snow bike racing, most of today’s TV-made stars didn’t have their learner’s permits.The South Lake Tahoe, Calif., native is a living legend, the first to ever win six individual Winter X Games golds – in three different disciplines, no less. He also moves around in virtual anonymity at Buttermilk – a strange sight to behold considering Palmer’s former reign as the flashiest, baddest, fastest, hardest-partying action sports champ anyone ever laid eyes on.When he won gold in skiercross at the 2000 Winter X Games in Mount Snow, Vt. – his fifth medal, and his first in the discipline – Palmer accepted his prize wearing a suit covered in shimmering gold sequins. Thursday, he showed up to take his seat in the media tent wearing nondescript black pants, a black beanie, a frayed red-and-black plaid shirt and sporting day-old stubble that revealed some gray whiskers. Dude looked like a member of the catering crew, not the guy USA Today splashed on its front page in 1998, asking: “Is this man the world’s greatest athlete?”

Then again, Palmer doesn’t seem to mind not being the center of attention anymore. Doesn’t seem to mind that another Shaun -the pipsqueak redheaded kid that was a character in Palmer’s bestselling video game years ago – is now the reigning king of the X Games universe.After a fall tailor-made for a “Behind the Music” episode, complete with a near death drug overdose in 2005, Palmer is just happy to be back competing in another Winter X Games. He’ll race both boardercross and skiercross this weekend, disciplines in which he won a combined five gold medals between 1997 and 2000. His sixth came in downhill snow bike racing – long since retired as an X Games act – in 1997.”I’m enjoying it more now,” said Palmer, now sober, speaking softly amid the din of reporter’s questions. “Just at my age, I can appreciate it more. I’ve been through rough times, and I’ve been through the highest times. I’m glad to be here, and I still think I can dominate, man.”Of the Winter X brand that Palmer personally helped grow arguably more than any other athlete in the early years, he said he’s happy for everyone involved.”It’s a lot bigger platform for all the athletes,” he said. “There’s a lot more media attention. It’s good, because I think as athletes here we risk a lot more than the athletes in the other sports. Things are coming around.”The quest for sevenLast year, Shaun White arrived at Buttermilk with the chance to become the first Winter X Games star to win seven golds. White left with a bronze and a silver -an uncharacteristic haul for snowboarding’s anointed golden boy. During the same weekend, freeskiing star Tanner Hall won his sixth gold, putting him on the cusp of the record.Lost in the discussion about whether it will be Hall or White to become the first to claim seven golds at this year’s games is Palmer. He’s certainly the long shot among the three, although, after a second-place showing at a World Cup boardercross in Bad Gastein, Austria, just 10 days ago, who knows?

If history has proved anything, it’s that Palmer should never be counted out.In 2006, he returned to boardercross to try to make that year’s Olympic team – and raised a number of eyebrows in the process. There were those who thought his turn in the spotlight had long since passed, and that he wouldn’t be able to dominate as he once had against younger, scrappier pros.

Palmer didn’t rule as he once had, but he surprised, nonetheless, and would have earned the third spot on the U.S. team had he not ruptured his Achilles tendon just weeks before the Winter Games.On the prospect of a seventh gold, Palmer said he’s never been modest about how much he enjoys winning races.”I’d like to go out leading gold medals, for sure,” he said. “I’m into racing, no matter what it is. For medals, for boardercross and skiercross, whatever.”

He’s also not shy about why he’s returned to boardercross – yet again -even with 40 coming up fast, like one of the massive rollers at the Buttermilk course. Palmer still has his sights set on Olympic gold, and he’s not going to stop charging until he finishes out of the running or breaks something in the process.”I want to compete through 2010,” he said. “If I get the color I want in the Olympics, then I’m done.”

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