Brash snowboarders ride into mainstream

THE BALTIMORE SUN

BARDONECCHIA, Italy -- Hannah Teter stood at the top of the hill, reggae music from her iPod piped into her ears, snowboard strapped firmly to her feet. She danced in place, knowing that a gold medal could be waiting at the bottom.

That's not all that was down there, though. When her ride was complete, there was much more than the medal, flowers and congratulatory hugs waiting for Teter, a 19-year-old from Belmont, Vt. Snowboarding success now goes hand in hand with big-dollar endorsement deals and unprecedented adoration from a generation of fans who never knew life existed before the snowboard.

The United States has already won four medals in snowboarding at this year's Winter Games. Teter took gold in the women's halfpipe yesterday; Shaun White won the men's event a day earlier.

Snowboarding has officially hit its growth spurt, going from extreme to mainstream in record time. The cultural evolution wasn't without resistance from within the snowboarding community, though, as competitors who once prided themselves as the anti-Establishment suddenly find their faces in commercials and on magazine covers.

Gretchen Bleiler, who won silver yesterday, remembers back to the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City, where American men swept all three medals in the halfpipe.

"That's the day snowboarding became mainstream," she said. "Everybody in the country knew what snowboarding was. I remember going to get my hair done a week after that and there were even ladies in the salon who were 60 years old talking about snowboarders."

Bear in mind that in the sport's early days, riders were the rebels of the slopes, a reputation they fully embraced. Today, though, it's the competitors who are pushing the sport in the new direction. If that sounds odd, it's because it is. Snowboarding is a sport that has always thrived on self-expression.

Competitors never worried about pleasing sponsors or attracting corporate dollars. They were a motley bunch that featured more hair colors than a box of crayons and clothing and accessories more apt for a rave than a dinner party. They were pierced, tattooed and spoke their own language: Words like McTwist, nollie and Rippey flip only exist on the mountain.

Many who have clung to that sense of individuality have had to differentiate popularization from a cultural clearance sale.

"We're not going mainstream," said Bud Keene, coach of the U.S. snowboarding freestyle team. "We're just sharing it with the mainstream. ... All we did was allow the rest of the world to watch. We didn't sell out or anything like that."

It's safe to say that snowboarding's early pioneers never envisioned their sport raiding prime-time television. It wasn't long ago that an event such as the Olympics was viewed as the Establishment. When snowboarding debuted in the Winter Games in 1998, the sport's top rider, Norway's Terje Haakonsen, refused to participate.

"They were rejecting the stuffiness of the [International Olympic Committee] and the stuffiness of the traditional Olympic sports," said Olympic scholar Jeffrey Segrave of Skidmore College. "It was part of this sort of counterculture that developed around these sports. There was a feeling that their creativity would be stifled."

But this year marks a big shift in priorities. In the weeks leading up to the Games, some of snowboarding's top riders snubbed the Winter X Games. Both of yesterday's medalists, Teter and Bleiler, passed on the X Games.

"It's a complete 180-degree shift in the way snowboarders look at the Olympics," said Tracy Anderson, editor of Future Snowboarding magazine. "And it starts from the core kids, the influential riders."

Sports that have traditionally been considered extreme are suddenly the foundation for Olympic success. All six of the medals Americans have won through three days of competition are rooted in extreme sports. (Two U.S. speedskaters who have won gold are former in-line skaters.)

Snowboarding's current crop of stars is tiptoeing along a thin line. Similar to when an indie rock band signs with a major label, the "sell-out" charges come quickly. Even though many of the top snowboarders are barely old enough to drive, they've already signed lucrative endorsement deals with companies such as Burton Snowboards, Oakley and even Napster.

Critics accuse many of the top riders of pandering, staying true to a paycheck but not the sport's roots. As with anything that begins as counterculture, snowboarding existed as an inside joke of sorts, a secret handshake that stayed on the mountain.

"I don't even know what the term 'sell-out' means," said Keene, the U.S. coach. "There's nothing wrong with putting success and fame and money and endorsements in the hand of the people who are out there working hard in their craft."

Just as the Olympics were bringing snowboarding into the fold a decade ago, the advent of ESPN's Winter X Games really legitimized the sport, giving snowboarding a stage and a hungry young audience.

Corporate America took notice, and so did the Olympic movement. Snowboarding is enjoying a high profile at these Games, with two added events and precious spots on prime-time television.

"It's not surprising that snowboarding has been co-opted so quickly, because it has enormous commercial potential," said Segrave, the Skidmore scholar. "But this is a different thing for the Olympics. It's probably the quickest revolutionary development in the history of the Games."

"I think it's enlivened the Games," he said.

The sport's top grosser is White, nicknamed the Flying Tomato because of his unruly red mane. He has been a professional since he was 13 and earns more than $1 million annually in endorsement dollars alone.

Yesterday's winner on the women's side, Teter, is also making ends meet. Just 19, she already owns a home in South Lake Tahoe, Calif. Asked how her life might change with a gold medal suddenly tugging at her neck, Teter said: "I might be able to purchase a boat now."

A sport that denounced conformity now has a uniform and protocol: Be you - and make money for it.

"There was this realization that it really does wonders for one's career," Anderson, the magazine editor, said of the Olympics. "Now, it's a great honor, the greatest thing that could happen to you as a snowboarder."

And no one from the Olympic movement expresses any problem with the brash sport.

Just a few days into these Games, the pockets of dissenters are quiet. Snowboarding has been a boon for the Games. And the Olympics have changed what was once considered a rebel sport.

The Olympics are "the best and biggest sporting event in the world," said Kelly Clark, the 2002 gold medalist, who finished fourth in yesterday's halfpipe. "The X Games is the biggest in the snowboarding industry ... [but] winning a medal here is unlike anything else."

rick.maese@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Childs Walker contributed to this article.

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