Slalom snowboarders hope to carve unique path to Olympics
November 28, 2009
COPPER MOUNTAIN, Colo. – The money goes where the medals are – one of those Darwinian truths that often undercuts the oft-told Olympic fairy tale about the journey being as important as the result.
Aspen’s Chris Klug and his band of snowboarders know all about it.
Denied funding in part because they participate in the least popular, least medal-producing event on the snowboarding program – the parallel giant slalom – Klug formed his own team, found his own sponsors, hired his own coaches and is seeking his own path to the Vancouver Games.
He and three other snowboarders – Zac Kay, Josh Wylie and Erica Mueller – make up America’s Snowboard Team, which is operating on a budget of about $150,000, none of it provided by the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, the sport’s national governing body.
“I definitely think snowboarding has benefited from being part of the Olympic movement,” Klug said. “But perhaps the national team model isn’t the best structure for snowboarding.”
If Klug is correct, then in many ways, snowboarding might be returning to the root question that accompanied its introduction to the Olympics in 1998: Would burgeoning popularity and increased control from the Olympic governing bodies help the sport or hurt it?
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On the PGS side of things, at least, Klug has given his answer by returning to his – and, some say, snowboarding’s – roots: the purely independent team. He was a charter member of the World Pro Snowboarding Team that formed in the early 1990s, when snowboarding was still finding the mainstream and there was little in the way of national funding or coaching programs.
When snowboarding went Olympic, a couple of things happened: Organizations like USSA and the International Skiing Federation (FIS) became more involved and freestyle disciplines, most notably halfpipe, emerged while alpine riders were slowly relegated to the background.
“You look at where the industry puts its resources,” said USSA’s snowboarding program director Jeremy Forster. “They focus on the freestyle part of it. They focused on the magazine and video side of the sport. Alpine didn’t fit into those categories.”
In 2002, while Americans were sweeping the medals on the halfpipe, Klug won a bronze in parallel giant slalom and served up one of the most inspirational stories of the Salt Lake City Games. He was 19 months removed from a lifesaving liver transplant and his victory in the third-place race, after having to use duct tape to keep his boot on, served notice to the thousands waiting for transplants that they could not only survive, but thrive if they received a second chance.
Since then, however, Americans have been infrequent guests on the international PGS podiums. And when the bad economy forced the U.S. snowboarding to make a 14 percent budget cut earlier this year, those riders were the first to feel the hurt.
Neither Klug nor his teammates qualified for the “A” team this year, which left them without funding and forced to go on their own.
They looked outside the sport and found sponsors in Hooters and the communications firm BCF. They also hired two coaches, former World Cup rider Ian Price and longtime ski and snowboard coach Rob Roy, who coached the 1998 U.S. Olympic team.
Roy was with Klug back in the World Pro Snowboard Team days, and says the independent model of athletes and teams is probably a better fit for all of snowboarding. For instance, 2006 Olympic halfpipe champion Shaun White has basically created a personal video, endorsement and celebrity industry all on his own. If things go as expected, he’ll qualify for Vancouver and temporarily fold his largesse into Team USA next year.
“The governing body should play a role, but it shouldn’t be the final arbiter of where you’re going to end up in the program,” Roy said. “If you look at the history of sports in this nation, generally, the ones where we excel are the ones where free enterprise rules. It’s golf, tennis, baseball, basketball, football. They don’t have national teams.”
There is an under-the-surface tension between the haves and have-nots in snowboarding. Klug and Co. feel somewhat abandoned by governing bodies – USSA, FIS, the U.S. Olympic Committee – that embraced them at first, but eventually pushed his type to the side.
He acknowledges the raw numbers are hard to ignore: Over three Olympics, Americans have produced 10 medals in halfpipe and two in parallel giant slalom. And the undeniable fact is that had Klug and his teammates performed better last year, they would be receiving more funding from the U.S. team and might not have been forced to form their own.
“That’s one of the strengths of snowboarding,” Forster said. “There are a lot of different ways to get to the Olympic podium. It’s not just through U.S. Snowboarding and the coach and team we put together. We’ve always supported different channels for athletes to be successful.”
With their Olympic qualifying season beginning next week at a World Cup event in Italy, members of America’s Snowboard Team know they are in for an uphill climb. But in the end, they say, maybe it really is as much about the journey as the result.
“We do this for the passion of the sport,” Mueller said. “We’re not doing it for the millions of dollars, or the hundreds of dollars. We’re out here doing what we love and people see that and they want to help. And hopefully, down the road, that will help other people who have the same dream, too.”
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