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U.S. Snowboarders Toss Out the Script

By Michael Wilbon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 8, 1998; Page A01

 Todd Richards does a flip during a practice run Dec. 27. (Robert F. Bukaty/AP)
NAGANO, Feb. 7 — They're almost like a sideshow, the men and women who compete in snowboarding. They're the official curiosity of the Nagano Winter Games. They're totally new to the Olympics. They look different, they sound different, they are different. When a public relations representative began the first session between the U.S. snowboarding team and the mainstream media by saying, "This is an historic press conference," he had no idea how right he'd be.

It began with a 33-year-old woman saying she was "psyched to check out the snow monkeys" who live near the competition site and ended not long after an 18-year-old medal hopeful got tongue-tied by the word "rivalry" and expressed his frustration by uttering a much shorter expletive into a live microphone. Most of the discussion in between was just as lively, sometimes spicy, but definitely was a blast of fresh air into what usually is a highly coordinated, extremely polite and slightly stuffy 17-day affair.

Snowboarding — a combination of skateboarding and surfing in which skiers riding a single wide blade and perform dazzling twists and turns — made its Olympic debut Sunday (Saturday night EST) when Ross Rebagliati of Canada won the men's giant slalom. Just as dazzling as the competitors' moves are their clothes and language. Their "Shredonics" (as they call their lingo) and the fact that you need a glossary to cover their competition makes the simplest sentences fascinating.

"The pipe is sick," said 28-year-old Todd Richards of Colorado, who competes in the half-pipe. "You guys stop by, you're gonna see some stuff. ... We just want to go out and ride the pipe. . . . You go find some deep powder and just rip around."

Asked how he keeps from being bored with all the questions about his team's irreverence, Richards said, "I envision you all totally naked."

Without being provoked by as much as a question, a 22-year-old Alaskan woman named Rosey Fletcher, who will compete in Sunday's giant slalom, said of her team's intention at these Games: "I think we're gonna kick some real butt here."

The sideshow isn't confined to the American team. Said Trevor Andrew, a Canadian rider with dyed-orange hair, when asked for his impression of the Opening Ceremonies: "Yeah, it was pretty sick, dude. The people started clapping and it sounded like macaroni in the pot when you stir it." (This, translators informed the media, was a compliment.)

Wherever they're from, some snowboarders have skiing backgrounds, others came to the sport straight from skateboards. Asked if he used to get chased out of malls and parking lots, Richards said, "I still get chased out of malls and parking lots. Nothing's changed." Asked later if he was being facetious, Richards said he got kicked out of a parking lot a mere two weeks ago.

Fletcher, by way of explanation, said, "We'll definitely add some personality to these Games. You've got some crazy people up here."

The same cannot be said of the figure skaters, who immediately followed the snowboarders in the media conference room, creating an irresistible platform for comparison. It was a dramatic Oscar Madison-Felix Unger "Odd Couple" act, starting with the way the two teams were dressed.

The snowboarders, who objected to wearing the official Olympics wardrobe because it suggested conformity, wore USA golf shirts and T-shirts, several untucked. Fletcher, the youngest female member of the team, sported a tattoo of a raven. Several wore their mountain sunglasses atop their heads. The figure skaters, on the other hand, wore their official U.S. team turtlenecks and had their red-white-and-blue jackets snapped halfway to their necks, even though the temperature inside was about 80 degrees.

Except for Michael Weiss of Fairfax, who as a weightlifter and outspoken critic of sequins is not your typical skater, the rest of the U.S figure skaters talked about their short programs, their long programs, their music being changed from "Les Miz" to some other Andrew Lloyd Webber.

The snowboarders, by comparison, reminisced about their earliest Olympic memories when a young woman named Barrett Christy — whose big claim to fame is that she won the ESPN Winter X-Games in the Big Air and slope-style events — said she wanted to achieve at least one of three goals as a young girl: "To be a fireman," she said. "Or a 'Solid Gold' dancer. ... Or go to the Olympics. Although I couldn't imagine what sport I'd go for."

Even the media who cover the two sports are completely dissimilar. One snowboarding reporter from a publication he identified as "Transworld" prefaced his question to the snowboarders with, "My sincere congratulations to all of you. ... You guys rule, dude." By contrast, one of the figure skating writers said to Weiss, "Michael, will you commit yourself to a quad?"

Maybe one day we'll look up and be sick of the snowboarders, but not right now. Unlike figure skaters who aim for this from the time they can stand on ice, few of the riders fantasized about being Olympians and most find it difficult to believe they're here as members of the first U.S. snowboard team to compete in the Games.

Asked how she explains the sudden popularity of snowboarding, which essentially went from the X-Games to the Olympics almost overnight, U.S. team member Shannon Dunn said, "I have no idea, really. It's just amazing how it's grown. I can't believe it and nobody who's been in the sport very long can believe it. When I started, you would know everyone who snowboarded. It's almost like we created what it is.

"People also ask why we're different than skiers. A lot of us got into this because they were sick of the way skiing was, all the rules and things. We just wanted to be free to express ourselves and be part of a sport where people would appreciate that freedom."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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