Olympic qualifiers for snowboard have roots in Snowmass | AspenTimes.com

Olympic qualifiers for snowboard have roots in Snowmass

One month before snowboarding made its Olympic debut in 1998, the best snowboarders from around the world competed at Snowmass for a spot at the Nagano Games.

This week, as the Toyota U.S. Grand Prix continues its tour at Snowmass, the ski area again will be a stop on Olympic hopefuls' road to the Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

Over the past 20 years, "every aspect of the sport and the culture has evolved so much," said Aspen Skiing Co. event marketing coordinator Tyler Lindsay.

The Carbondale native remembers watching the snowboard big air exhibition at Aspen Mountain as well as one of the first snowboard halfpipe Olympic qualifiers at Snowmass in 1998.

"It was definitely a big year for snowboarding," said Lindsay, who was 17 at the time. "Snowboarding was growing really rapidly and the inclusion on the world stage at the Olympics was a capstone to that."

The big air exhibition, in fact, marked snowboarders' first taste of Aspen Mountain, as snowboarding remained banned at Ajax until 2001. Snowmass Ski Area, however, had opened the hill to snowboarders in 1988.

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Former pro snowboarder Gretchen Bleiler, who also was 17 while watching the 1998 Olympic qualifier, said the competitions at Snowmass allowed her to realize her dreams of competing in the Winter Games.

Though Bleiler was not yet at the point in her career of competing professionally, she said, "That was the year I knew for the first time I could finally become an Olympian."

Bleiler, who went on to win silver in the 2006 Turin Games, remembered riding the lifts at Snowmass with some of the competitors and thinking, "'This is so cool,' and feeling totally inspired."

The four-time X Games Aspen gold medalist also credited snowboarding's Olympic inclusion as a major player in the evolution of the sport.

"I think that the concept of snowboarding back in the day was that snowboarders were just dope-smoking punks. Now snowboarding is one of the most popular Olympic events. Snowboarders are some of the top athletes in the world," Bleiler said. "There's definitely pros and cons with any evolution of a sport."

While the stigma and tricks have progressed, Bleiler hopes the spirit of the sport will remain the same.

"What's always made snowboarding unique is the spirit," she said. "I would say snowboarding is a lifestyle and a culture and I hope that never changes."

Lindsay, who also worked at Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club for 10 years as a coach and program director, said the quality of everything from the athletes to the courses and judging has become more sophisticated. At the 1998 Games, the halfpipe was 12 feet tall and 400 feet long; now the pipes are 22 feet high and nearly 600 feet long.

"The amount of amplitude (and) the riding has advanced remarkably, the skill level of the park builders has risen so much since then," he said. "Back in the late 1980s, the world of snowboarding was loose and people were kind of flying by the seat of their pants."

Former pro snowboarder and local Chad Otterstrom, who competed in the 1998 Grand Prix circuit, echoed that sentiment.

"We're out here to have a good time," Otterstrom said. "That snowboarder attitude, for the most part, is the same as it was 20 years ago."

erobbie@aspentimes.com