A tribe of mavericks descended on Washington this week. No, they weren't Sarah Palin groupies, or Silicon Valley executives, or angry big-city mayors. They were the nation's top halfpipe snowboarders, including Shaun White and Scotty Lago, who were among the Olympians greeted at the White House Wednesday by President Obama to celebrate America's success at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and Paralympics. On Wednesday afternoon, Lago, a bronze medalist, posted a twitpic showing white sneaker soles peaking out from under a regal window drape. The caption reads: "I scared Obama, It was a very sneaky spot." Snowboarders take seriously the art of not taking things too seriously. But after this season, the athletes face some serious questions about whether their sport is being transformed too quickly into a big risk, big money game.
Halfpipe snowboarders differ from most other athletes: they're a proud comradeship of renegades, who scorn convention or anything that compromises their independent spirit. They also seek to advance the magic of the board, as a symbol of their limit-defying mentality. "All the athletes in snowboarding have this fire inside to just keep evolving and to keep pushing the sport," says Hannah Teter, a silver and gold Olympic halfpipe medalist.
But as Olympic snowboarders are soaring to new airborne feats, some in the sport are worried about the extreme risks and seemingly endless dollars being spent.
The pace of change quickened last year when leading halfpipe snowboarders, with the assistance of corporate sponsors, sought new equipment to break performance barriers and set a new bar in the sport. Snowboarders had already perfected the tricks developed by predecessors. To add new and ever more dangerous tricks to their runs, they sought equipment from other action sports like motocross, as high-end airbags (essentially large air cushions) and foam fits (picture a giant, foam-filled sandbox) were incorporated into 22-foot halfpipes. The safety equipment, ironically, enables more risk taking. During training, snowboarders position themselves to land in the airbag or foam pit instead of on the pipe. The softer surface largely eliminates the fear of falling, allowing snowboarders to focus on a trick's air mechanics instead of the landing. Airbags and foam pits also increase the speed at which athletes master new maneuvers.
But such rigged training halfpipes are costly, and until recently the price tag put them out of reach. Then last season White and Kevin Pearce approached sponsors Red Bull and Nike, respectively, to invest in the halfpipes. Red Bull, a private company with estimated revenues of $4.43 billion, reportedly paid $500,000 for White's private facility in Silverton, Colo., known as Project X. Pearce approached Nike about a similar though less costly facility, and got it.
"It changed our sport forever," says veteran snowboarder Keir Dillon, who was invited to visit both private halfpipes.
White broke records, put a new spin on gravity-defying tricks and won his second Olympic gold in February. Though Pearce suffered a brain injury in December and could not compete, most felt that his skill matched White's. Yet the leap forward in the risky nature of stunts has not been universally embraced in the snowboard community.
"It has gone from being something that was just fun to do to it being something that has life or death consequences," said two-time snowboard cross gold medalist Seth Wescott.
The money has also been troubling for some. Sponsors have long been involved in athlete training. Organizations like the United States Ski and Snowboard Association use sponsor funding to develop training programs. And apparel and snowboard companies, like DC Shoes, develop training and equipment-testing facilities for sponsored athletes. (Snowboarders call this "giving back" to the sport.) Red Bull and Nike are mostly applauded for sponsoring private halfpipes. However, each of the companies' sizable investment in just one athlete's training was unprecedented and, for some, shockingly expensive for what was a rag-tag sport.
As the first to integrate a foam pit into a halfpipe, White was able to push the envelope. "He unlocked a lot of secrets to the double cork," says White's coach Bud Keene. Similarly, (The double cork — made famous by snowboarder Travis Rice — combines flipping and spinning and marks a new chapter in halfpipe snowboarding.) Nike included an airbag at Pearce's halfpipe at Mammoth Mountain in California, enabling him to land a Double McTwist there in June. "The main part with these double tricks is getting them around so you're not landing on your head," professional snowboarder Danny Davis says. "That's what that pipe was so useful for — just learning these tricks so you could get on your feet and then the landing part would come later."
While Davis (who missed the 2010 Olympics after being injured in an ATV accident) acknowledges the private pipe helped him learn several tricks, he cautions that airbags and foam pits do not eliminate risk. "These training devices are great and they're helpful but they don't do all the work for you," he says. "You still have to be able to land them."
While training in Park City, Utah, on New Year's Eve, Pearce fell while practicing the double cork, a trick he already landed several times, hitting his head and severely injured his brain. After months of therapy at Craig Hospital in Englewood, Colo., he is expected to return to his Vermont home within weeks.
A month after Pearce's fall, White hit his face against the halfpipe during practice at the Winter X Games, while performing his variation of the Double McTwist (the Double McTwist 1260).
"These tricks are getting progressively more and more dangerous," says Susan Izzo, an agent for Pearce and several other top snowboarders. "We're not looking at blown out knees anymore. Kevin is a perfect example of what could happen."
However, Izzo adds, "I do not blame the double for Kevin's accident. Kevin caught... on that edge and slammed. That happens."
It was a mistake any snowboarder could make — even the elite. But, Wescott points out, "the price for mistakes is getting higher and higher."
To some, the price to be able to progress in the sport is also getting higher, and some snowboarders worry that rising training costs will necessitate increased corporate funding, which will deter aspiring snowboarders.
Snowboarders also fear tunnel vision training will be used to "breed" athletes for competition.
"There's a lot of artistic influence and individuality, which I think is core to what makes snowboarding so awesome," says Izzo. "We are not necessarily cultivating and developing snowboarders anymore."
"It scares me," she adds, "because it really takes away from what snowboarding is and what it should be."
As the money and risks rise, the loss for snowboarding could be the very things that draw so many to the sport — its accessibility, esprit de corps and sheer pleasure.
"I really believe that it will never lose that — it can't lose that primarily because snowboarding is really fun," Rice says. "That's the base of it. It's as simple as that.
SPARKNOTES: Snowboarding is getting too dangerous and foam pits and things like that are bring a false sense of security of certain tricks, and big companies are making these training things available only to a few riders.. thats about it i think