Basalt boarder going Dutch
December 25, 2009
BASALT – Cleve Johnson always dreamed of competing for the red, white and blue.
Until recently, the Basalt snowboarder figured that meant the U.S., not the Netherlands – a country that has six ski areas, all indoors, and a peak elevation of just 1,053 feet.
But, in an interesting twist, one predicated on his dual citizenship (his mother was born in the Netherlands and is a resident alien of the U.S.), the 21-year-old is currently the Dutch’s lone representative on the men’s World Cup boardercross circuit this winter.
“It’s definitely mind-blowing,” Johnson admitted Thursday afternoon, during a break from training at Snowmass. “Five years ago, I was a senior in high school. … I did not see myself snowboarding or traveling the world. This is definitely a dream come true.”
It was during Johnson’s two winters spent training with the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club under the direction of a Dutch coach, shortly after graduating from Yampa Mountain High School in Glenwood Springs, that the idea was first bandied about.
The Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club alum, who was toiling on the NorAm and lower-tier circuits at the time, was intrigued.
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It seemed like a natural fit. After all, Johnson’s mother contends Dutch was the first language he learned. He also spent nearly every summer growing up living with his grandparents in the beach town of Zandvoort, about 20 minutes outside Amsterdam. He worked in a restaurant kitchen the last three summers there.
Johnson decided to research the Dutch team’s qualification standards, and discovered he could earn World Cup starts in 2009-2010 with two top 20s on the Europa Cup circuit.
In the U.S., a World Cup spot would only be guaranteed if he won the NorAm overall boardercross crown.
“When I finally realized I wanted to make a career out of this, I realized it would be better to go for Holland,” Johnson said. “The U.S. team is super political. It’s not necessarily about how you do, but who you know. It’s just different, whereas I went to Europe and made the exact standards right away.”
Late last winter, Johnson decided to abandon his bid for a NorAm title. He headed off to Europe alone.
Things did not start off auspiciously. His snowboard bag lost a wheel and his duffle ripped during the trip.
“Stuff was pouring out everywhere,” he joked. “I was walking all over Europe causing a ruckus.”
He acquitted himself much better on Switzerland’s slopes. He finished 11th in his first Europa Cup event in Disentis on March 14, then 12th six days later in Lenk.
On March 30, he took eighth in an event in Isola, France.
A few months later, Johnson – who represented the U.S. at the Winter X Games in 2006, the Junior World Championships in Valmalenco, Italy, in March 2008 and when he made his first World Cup start in February in Sunday River, Maine – was formally introduced by the Dutch national team.
“There was a live radio show and a TV interview on the news. It was crazy,” said Johnson, who joined twin 23-year-old sisters Belle and Britt Berghuis as the only members of the Dutch’s boardercross squad. “It was a shell-shocker.”
He spent the summer riding on a glacier and mountain bike riding in Les Deux Alpes, France, and training on an indoor hill in Landgraaf, Netherlands – site of a World Cup parallel giant slalom each winter.
Last week, he took part in a World Cup race in Telluride. Johnson finished 33rd overall, missing out on a chance to qualify for finals by one spot and one-hundredth of a second.
Johnson admitted the result was “a hard one to swallow.” Still, he did not lose sight of the bigger picture.
“It was crazy. I’m sitting up at the top of the course with Seth Wescott, an Olympic gold medalist, and Shaun Palmer, the man, the myth, the legend. … I used to play Shaun Palmer the video game,” Johnson said. “This year, I would’ve been racing NorAms [if I didn’t make the Dutch team].”
The move has been met with little backlash. While some might argue he is exploiting a loophole, Johnson contends he has been given no guarantees, only an opportunity.
“People that know me on the circuit aren’t saying ‘Hey, you’re cheating.’ They know I can snowboard. They know I could’ve gotten there eventually,” he added. “I could’ve made it for the U.S. had I wanted to do that.
“I have a World Cup start, but I still have to qualify. … I have to ride one top eight or two top 12s [to qualify for the Winter Olympics]. … This is not the Jamaican bobsled team where bam, I’m right in the Olympics right away. I still have to prove myself.”
While an opportunity to qualify for the Vancouver Games still exists, Johnson is realistic. He knows his recent move to the World Cup circuit was a major one, and acknowledges it could be a while before he gains his footing and contends for wins.
He is setting his sights on the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
“That’s where I see myself on the podium,” he said confidently.
If that does happen, Johnson said he will be proud to do so as a representative of the Netherlands.
“I’m definitely going to stay with the Dutch. I’m not using them to get to the U.S. level, I’m not using them to make the Olympics,” he added. “I love the U.S., I love Snowmass and I love this valley. It made me who I am and helped me get to where I am. … This is a choice I made. It was definitely a good decision. A great decision.”