The rebirth of Steve Fisher
Summit County correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado
BRECKENRIDGE, Colo. ” The question makes Steve Fisher think.
How would you describe your career to this point?
“That’s a tough one,” he says.
His eyes begin wandering around his sprawling new house off Tiger Road. They start in the living room near the fully decorated Christmas tree, then they migrate to the kitchen, then to the snow floating down outside his window, and then to the ever-knowing hardwood floor.
Finally, he answers. He’s satisfied with his accomplishments, he says, noting that “everything goes in cycles” and, perhaps most significantly, “not everyone can win every time.”
It was a lesson he learned painfully, three years ago. Fisher was coming off a magnificent season in which he won a host of major halfpipe contests, including the granddaddy, the Winter X Games. He was a 21-year-old kid making $200,000 ” but, lest we forget, also a kid who two years earlier, didn’t have a significant sponsor to speak of.
The sudden stardom smacked him dizzy. Invoked a mindset where winning was the only thing. Not surprisingly, the season that followed was, by the standards he’d set in 2004, a disaster.
After a throwaway year in 2006, Fisher enjoyed another dream season last winter. He stunned the industry and won his second X Games gold medal in pipe ” one of only three riders to do so, joining Todd Richards and Shaun White ” then followed it up with a victory at the second U.S. Snowboard Grand Prix stop a week later. “Surreal” is still how he refers to it all.
Which brings us to the present. When you ask him the single most important lesson he took from his first go-round as the reigning pipe king, in 2005, the answer is out of his mouth almost before the question has been asked.
“Not to think about it,” he blurts out. “Definitely not to think about having to win, or expectations of people thinking I’m going to win every contest. It doesn’t really matter anymore.”
The best part for Fisher is that it’s not a battle waged inside his head on a daily basis. “It’s natural,” he says, at ease even as he says it. “Like, right now, I really haven’t thought about a thing this year.”
Friday, Fisher gets his first chance to find out how naturally the mindset translates to results, when he drops into his home superpipe for the season-opening Breckenridge stop on the U.S. Grand Prix, the biggest series in professional snowboarding.
His peers, veterans like Chad Otterstrom and Gretchen Bleiler, as well as U.S. Team head coach Mike Jankowski, rave about how well Fisher is riding these days.
“Everything’s so much bigger and cleaner and smoother than it used to be,” says Otterstrom, a longtime Breck pro who, like Fisher, hails from Minnesota.
The 25-year-old Fisher, with his wide brown eyes and dark hair curling out from under his wool hat, says it’s a product of intense early season training sessions, as well as good health.
He’s not as injury-prone as some riders, but he’s had his share, including a shredded right wrist that required surgery ” the first of his career ” in May. Never one to waste time, Fisher used the two-month healing period to conceive, pitch and ultimately land a backcountry trip to India for Transworld Snowboarding in February, one he’ll take with a trio of friends from Breck: Ryan Thompson, James Frederick and Otterstrom.
It’s all part of Fisher’s effort to break away from his contest-first image and branch out into other realms of snowboarding, he says. In fact, he’s giving up a shot at winning this year’s overall Grand Prix crown because the India trip will prevent him from competing in the second event on the three-stop circuit.
Fisher, for all his talent, has always been equal parts scrappy and fearless. And he’s had to be: kids who are born in Kansas and raised on a halfpipe built into a garbage dump in Minnesota aren’t exactly destined for snowboarding stardom.
One of the keys has been a level of persistence that is not always easy to find in freestyle contest riders, especially one who’s endured such a roller-coaster pro career.
Fisher admits: there were times ” when he was down, when no sponsors would talk to him, when he didn’t know if he’d ever win again ” that he wondered whether it was all worth the trouble.
The problem? “I just like to ride so much,” he says.
“Sometimes we call him ‘First-Run Fisher’ because he drops in first run of the day and he’ll throw his contest run,” says Jankowski, who has coached Fisher since he was a teen. “It’s not to show off or anything like that ” it’s because it’s fun. Steve’s a rider. He rides because he loves it. And he loves to go big.”
Bleiler, the Olympic silver medalist and one of Fisher’s closest friends on the circuit, acknowledges Fisher is “very different from most riders,” in that he tries only to be himself. The confidence that comes from such simplicity is easy to spot.
“I don’t feel like he has a doubt in his mind when he drops into the halfpipe,” Bleiler says.
Still, it’s something else she’s observed in Fisher, she says, that has him so at peace nowadays ” something simple in theory but complex in reality.
“He no longer feels like he has to prove himself,” she says.
At the end of Fisher’s magical 2004 season, shortly after he wrapped it all up with a runner-up finish at the U.S. Open, he pushed himself one last time. He tried to dial in a 1260-degree spin, something nobody was doing at the time, which would further establish his profile.
It backfired. He crashed and broke two bones in his back. Even worse, he rode in fear for “at least a year,” he says, hesitant to lay it out like he always had.
Fisher didn’t talk much about his fear at the time, even as his results suffered. Maybe it felt too much like an excuse. Or maybe he just didn’t want to admit that he was scared.
Now, Fisher projects his mental rehabilitation in everyday conversation. He puts his soul on the living-room coffee table, something he is able to do because, just as he is no longer consumed by winning, neither is he afraid to fail.
“Like anybody, you grow up,” Jankowski says of Fisher.
And so he has. “A leader,” Jankowski even calls him, on an otherwise young national team. Not so much because Fisher gives pep talks; it’s more because of what comes naturally.
“My other riders,” Jankowski says, “I tell them, ‘It’s up to you. When you drop in, either you’re gonna point it down the pipe, or you’re gonna play it safe.’
“We use Steve as an example of someone who’s hitting the gas all the time.”
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