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Snowboarders Want to Show Sport Has Grown Up

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 5, 1997; Page B7

SALT LAKE CITY — Todd Richards's bleached hair shoots up like sturdy blades of short grass. He is wearing sleek, aerodynamic sunglasses in a hotel conference room illuminated by artificial light. His shoes are black and his socks are white. Richards is a prospective 1998 Winter Games athlete in snowboarding, a sport making its Olympic debut, and he has a message. It is a message about acceptance.

For years, Richards and fellow snowboarders were treated like interlopers on the slopes. Frequently perceived as daredevil adolescents who posed a threat to skiers, snowboarders were barred from most ski areas in the early 1980s. They are still barred from a handful of resorts. Almost 10 years ago, Parade magazine declared snowboarding "the worst new sport."

"We have been on this crazy quest for legitimacy for so long," said Richards, 27, the 1997 U.S. Open winner in freestyle. "The Olympics are going to bring a legitimacy into this sport like no one can comprehend. I'm still as much of a dork as I've always been, yet I'm going to be at the Olympics."

Snowboarding gets under way in Nagano on Feb. 7, the second day of Olympic competition. An air of vindication hovers as Richards and fellow snowboarders Mike Jacoby, Sondra Van Ert and Lisa Kosglow discuss their sport, which was born in 1965. That's when a man named Sherman Poppen fastened two pairs of skis together for his children to surf on the snow. He called the contraption a Snurf.

Many snowboarders consider skiing the bespectacled, stuffy uncle to their sport, and sports such as the biathlon even more dreary."

With no disrespect to any other sport in the Winter Olympics," Kosglow, 24, said, "I think snowboarding will liven things up a bit."

Snowboarding can best be described as a cross between surfing and skateboarding, with the major difference that snowboarders wear boots that clamp securely to their boards. Olympic competition in snowboarding will feature both an alpine event — giant slalom — and a freestyle event — the halfpipe competition.

Giant slalom involves racing down a course for speed. Halfpipe refers to a giant snow trough that launches skiers into the air; the skiers are judged on the various acrobatic maneuvers they perform.

"The freestyle part of snowboarding I know draws a lot of skateboarders," Richards says. "We've integrated the skateboard style into the freestyle aspect of it."

Statistics show that snowboarding appeals to a young, largely male audience that also enjoys mountain biking. An online poll of 16,000 snowboarders showed 83 percent are male and 84 percent are between 12 and 24, according to SOL/Snowboarding Online editor Lee Crane. Ninety percent are single and 48 percent, he said, also participate in mountain biking.

"Skiing has always been a rich kids' sport," Kosglow said. "You get a more urban group of kids coming to the mountains [to snowboard]. ... The essence of snowboarding is riding powder. It's way too much work on a pair of skis, as far as I am concerned."

It is difficult to determine how many potential skiers have chosen snowboarding instead. Most ski resorts do not differentiate between skiers and snowboarders when selling lift tickets. Snow Sport Industries of America reports that alpine skis generated $230.7 million in sales (a 37 percent increase from the previous year) at specialty stores last winter, compared with $54 million by snowboards (a 9 percent increase).

"Skiing has been around so many years and we have already seized a chunk of the market pretty heavily," Richards said. "[But] I don't see snowboarding overtaking skiing. It's such the alternative thing [to do]."

Van Ert, 33, last year's FIS (International Ski Federation) giant slalom snowboarding world champion, offers a reasonable perspective on the issue, because she is a former member of the U.S. alpine ski team. "Being a world-class skier," she said, "all you do is eat, drink and sleep skiing." That lifestyle lost its appeal, so Van Ert quit skiing and went to the University of Utah for a degree in finance. When she graduated, she discovered snowboarding.

Kosglow, the '97 ISF (International Snowboard Federation) world championship silver medalist in giant slalom, got her start in the sport nine years ago by mounting a snowboard with tennis shoes. Painful falls marked her first few days, but she was hooked anyway. It was, she said, "love at first butt check."

The U.S. Olympic snowboard team will be chosen on the basis of three Grand Prix events that include riders from the ISF and FIS tours. The team members will be announced Jan. 31 after the third event, in Mammoth Mountain, Calif.

Van Ert, Kosglow, Rosey Fletcher, Jacoby (a two-time FIS World Cup giant slalom champion) and Jeff Greenwood are the top Americans in giant slalom. Shannon Dunn, Michelle Taggart, Ross Powers, Ian Price and Richards are among the best Americans in the halfpipe. Last year, Americans won eight of 39 medals at the FIS and ISF world championships.

The most dominant athlete in snowboarding, however, is Norwegian halfpipe specialist Terje Haakonsen, whom other riders talk about in hushed, revered tones. He is considered the runaway gold medal favorite in the men's halfpipe, but Richards finished just behind him at the '97 ISF world championships. Powers won the 1996 halfpipe world championships on the FIS tour.

Whatever happens, you can bet that the Americans will enjoy their ride.

"I still don't really consider it a job," Richards said. "I get up every day and all I want to do is go snowboard."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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