By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
The foyer at Steve Fisher's home in Breckenridge is crowded with swag from Sims Snowboards, O'Neill, Giro, PowerBar and Sprint, and his fridge is full of beverages from Vita Coco and Anheuser-Busch. Fisher's dog, Guru, is crazy for the coconut water; the beers come in handy with all the pro riders in town this month.
The U.S. Snowboarding team pays for Fisher's travel, training and health care — an important factor, given the two reconstructive surgeries he's had on his right wrist since he joined the team as a rookie in 2003. Breckenridge gives him season-long VIP access to one of the best pipes and terrain parks in the world. Sims makes a signature deck to Fisher's specs, involving him in every step of the design process; he's now riding a directional, twin-shaped Steve Fisher Pro with a poplar core and one-inch stringers to help him power through the transitions and maximize his pop off the lip of the halfpipe, plus rubber foil dampeners to smooth out chatter on the icy walls so that he can focus on his next trick. O'Neill manufactures a signature Steve Fisher Isometric jacket that he's thankful for when temperatures drop below zero, and Giro makes the spherical dual-lens Basis goggles that let him spot his landings in the pipe's varying light conditions. And when something goes wrong, well, there's the Shiv helmet.
A case of cereal boxes from another sponsor sits by the front door, inspiration for the weeks ahead.
"I haven't been on the front of a Wheaties box yet," says Fisher, lounging in his long johns after a long day of training on the mountain. "They only give that to people who win the Olympics."
This weekend, Fisher will drop into the superpipe at Copper Mountain, the first stop on the U.S. Snowboarding Grand Prix, and start accumulating points toward a spot on the Olympic team. He has plenty of other things to think about — the Winter Dew Tour, Winter X Games, his upcoming wedding to Tricia Cole — but for the next six weeks, he'll have the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics on the brain. "What kid doesn't dream of going to the Olympics?" he asks.
The U.S. Snowboarding team has four spots for the men's halfpipe competition, and it will determine its Olympics roster between now and January 23, based on overall rankings at the Grand Prix series. After Copper, the competition moves to Mammoth Mountain for two contests, followed by two more at Park City Mountain, the venue where American snowboarders swept the 2002 Olympics and where the 2010 team announcement will be made.
Fisher figures that Shaun White — the "Flying Tomato" gold-medalist of Torino's 2006 Games — has one of those spots pretty much locked up. Danny Kass, who won silver medals in both 2006 and 2002, is in line for another. Mason Aguirre took fourth in Torino, behind Finland's Marrku Kosski, and Fisher thinks Aguirre's got what it takes, too. That leaves one spot, and Fisher plans to fight for it with everything he's got. But he has competition.
"I think there are probably a dozen guys with a really good chance competing for the four spots," Fisher says. That list includes his U.S. Snowboarding teammates Greg Bretz, Scotty Lago, Luke Mitrani, Elijah Teter and Louie Vito, this season's Dancing With the Stars also-ran; rookie team riders Ross Baker, Dylan Bidez, Zack Black, Broc Waring, Ben Watts and Matt Ladley, a young rider from Steamboat Springs whom Fisher has been mentoring, could also make long-shot challenges. "The level of riding is so phenomenally high across the board that we could see a completely different podium at each of these Grand Prix events," Fisher says. "There's so many factors when everybody's doing tricks at such a high degree of difficulty and really pushing it. It's a really exciting and nerve-racking time to be a pro."
Fisher missed the Torino cut by two spots and was left watching the Winter Games from his couch. Nursing a wounded spirit and the wrist he'd injured along the way, he began plotting his comeback. After winning gold at the Winter X Games in 2004, he'd gotten a taste for the glory that went to wunderkind White at the 2006 Olympics — and he's spent the last few years training at Breckenridge as a member of the U.S. Snowboarding pro halfpipe team to make sure he isn't aced out again. He beat White at the 2007 X Games to prove his point, and he's made the finals and fought his way to a medal in nearly every contest he's entered since then. Last season he tied Louie Vito for first place in the 2008-'09 Grand Prix series, and finished second overall on the inaugural Winter Dew Tour behind White. Now, as Fisher's name becomes part of the Olympic buzz, he's daring to dream again.
Snowboarders a generation ahead of Fisher didn't have Olympics dreams, because the Olympics didn't have snowboarding. The sport made its Olympic debut in Nagano, Japan, in the XVIII Olympic Winter Games in 1998, when Fisher was fifteen and contemplating launching a pro career from the pipe at his local hill back home in Minnesota. Ross Powers, one of his heroes, brought home the bronze that first year, but snowboarding's grand introduction on the world stage was marred by allegations that some competitors had used marijuana and cheeky color commentary about the athletes' baggy clothes and surfer slang. The media treated the snowboarders like a ragtag bunch of hooligans not fit to be called Olympians. And top international stars like Norway's Terje Haakonsen — then the world champion — boycotted the event because it was sanctioned by the International Ski Federation (FIS) and not the International Snowboard Federation, a perceived slight to snowboarders around the world.
Like a lot of snowboarders, Fisher wasn't sure his sport really had an Olympic future.
Four years later, the American team swept the men's halfpipe competition at the Salt Lake City Winter Games with Powers on top alongside Danny Kass and Jarrett Thomas. By the time White won the gold in 2006, Olympic snowboarding had gone from an international punchline to one of the Winter Games' marquee events. NBC, also a partner in the Winter Dew Tour, is now throwing its full weight behind the sport and plans to air the men's halfpipe finals live in prime time on February 17, 2010.
For a sport essentially in its infancy, the development of snowboarding has been staggering. In 1998, Switzerland's Gian Simmen won Olympic gold with big tricks like the McTwist, a "corked" off-axis 540-degree spin invented more than a decade earlier by skateboarder Mike McGill; this year, some of the top competitors will bring double McTwists to the Winter Games. Imagine that level of progression in any other Olympic event: What if, within the span of a decade, figure skaters suddenly started spinning sextuple axles in place of triple axles, or bobsled teams figured out how to double their pace on the track?
To accommodate the new tricks and keep pace with the advances in snowboarding, this year's Olympic pipe will be bigger, steeper and longer, with enormous, 22-foot radius transitions replacing the eighteen-foot transitions used four years ago in Torino.
According to Ricky Bower, halfpipe coach for the U.S. Snowboarding team, the sport's explosive development is precisely why snowboarding was brought into the Olympics in the first place, and why it has become one of the most popular events. "Other sports in the Olympics have been done for a hundred-plus years, and we've seen most of the arc of what's possible already," Bower says. "Not to take away from any of the other sports, because the limit's been pushed ridiculously far and there's still progression happening, but it's not as exponential as it is in snowboarding. It's a sport with a lot of new energy, and I think it's attractive as an Olympic sport because it really hasn't found its upper limit. I don't dare say that we've found it yet, even with these double corks people are doing."
For all his recent success, the double cork might be Fisher's undoing. Double-corked tricks spin on multiple axes rather than in a linear plane, inverting the rider twice while he spins through the air above the pipe. They are extremely difficult and dangerous; Fisher hasn't even attempted one yet.
A year ago, a double cork in the halfpipe was considered a "video-game trick," something dreamed of but only accomplished in virtual worlds like Shaun White Snowboarding, with a Nintendo Wii Fit board in place of the real deal. But those video games and other technologies have helped a new generation of riders visualize new tricks, and some real-world training developments — foam pits, trampolines, air bags — have made them physically possible.
In February, word went out that White's sponsors at Red Bull had built him a top-secret, $500,000 training facility on the backside of Silverton Mountain, a 540-foot-long private pipe that complied with Olympic specs, with an enormous foam pit tacked on for good measure. The pit gave White the confidence to develop the aerial awareness necessary for complicated maneuvers like the double cork, which he reportedly learned in a single day. White can now do double-cork 1080s so effortlessly that he's landed them back-to-back in the middle of competition runs.
And he's not alone: Half a dozen of Fisher's top competitors can land double-cork variations, some of them consistently enough to chance throwing the tricks in competition. Even Matt Ladley, the eighteen-year-old rookie Fisher has taken under his wing, was sticking double corks at Mount Hood over the summer. Meanwhile, White's moved on to frontside double corks, alley-oop backside double rodeos, switch backside 900 corks and other variations; he's even thinking about what it might take to make a triple cork happen.
Coach Bower was the FIS Men's Halfpipe World Champion in 1999 and is now in the challenging position of coaching his team riders to try tricks he's just begun visualizing himself. He can't do a double cork, either, but he's frustrated by Fisher's reluctance to try.
"The riders all have their own motivation and desire to push the sport as far as they can on a very personal level," he notes. "It was amazing to see, once Shaun did the first double-cork 1080s, how fast it caught on, as if just seeing it done was enough to help everyone else bring it around. It's the most dramatic change in our sport since the last Olympics and even in just the last year. It's a high-risk maneuver, and it's going to be a critical factor to making the Olympic team this time around."
White unveiled some of his newest tricks at contests in New Zealand this summer. He recently told a Wall Street Journal reporter that he'd traveled to the other side of the world to help "educate the judges" and minimize surprises at the Olympics: In 2006, White said, he felt teammate Mason Aguirre was robbed of a medal because the judges didn't understand how difficult the tricks they'd never seen before actually were. That's a mistake he doesn't want to see repeated.
"Whatever questions people might have had in their minds about the Olympic judges not knowing what to make of these new tricks were really resolved this summer," says Mike Jankowski, head halfpipe coach for the U.S. Snowboarding team. "The double corks were tested at the New Zealand Open and, more importantly, at the FIS World Cup. I say more importantly because those are the Olympic judges, and they rewarded Shaun's double corks: He won the contest by a long shot. So they've seen it, and they've made their statement. It's going to be very challenging to get on the U.S. Olympic team without a double cork, and it's going to be even more challenging to win a medal in Vancouver."
Fisher would already have a spot if the U.S. Olympic team chose its members based on the previous year's standings — but even six months is a long time in snowboarding. There's a growing consensus among Fisher's coaches and fellow riders that the double cork is a game-changer. Now, to make the Olympic team, Fisher will either have to start doing double corks — or hope that everyone else crashes out on them. After all his work over the last four years, he's now in danger of watching history pass him by again.
But just before Thanksgiving, without a decent halfpipe open anywhere in the United States, Fisher is still thinking he might get by without the new tricks. "I've been actively boycotting the double cork because I think it's gimmicky, and I haven't seen one yet that looks great," he says between pickup games on the basketball court at the Cherry Creek Athletic Club. "Everyone's straight-up 1080s are just starting to get to the point where they look great after a few years, but the double corks are a total huckfest at this point. Sure, Shaun and some others can land them, but personally I think they look terrible, and I'm not convinced you need one to make the team or impress the judges."
The last time Fisher was in a halfpipe was in July, at Mount Hood. "I'm really happy with where my riding was at the end of last season and this summer," he says, holding his own against the lunchtime workout crowd, "and I'm just going to try and stay on that plane and have a lot of fun riding, doing what works for me."
In the lead-up to the first Grand Prix event, nearly every top pro in the United States — and some from Canada, Australia and Japan — has set up residence in Summit County to train in the first Olympic-sized halfpipe of the season. Within a few days of the pipe's opening at Copper Mountain in late November, it's seeing Olympic-sized airs during casual warm-up sessions.
"I think the level is obviously going to be through the roof," says Jankowski, surveying the scene from the top of the pipe. "There are tricks going on here that people have never seen before, that have never been done in competition. As the Grand Prix unfolds, I think we're going to see huge progression from one event to the next. To make the team, you're going to have to demonstrate complete mastery of the pipe and show that you have the ability to spin all different directions: alley-oop, frontside, backside, switch backside.... It's going to take double corks, 1080s, 1260s, just going huge, stomping everything clean, the whole package. Everyone's gunning for those four spots, and there's going to be some really tough competition."
On his first day in the pipe, Fisher watches White effortlessly floating double-cork variations, frontside and backside, and realizes that he has some serious thinking to do. Teammates Bretz, Vito and Lago all have variations on the double cork now, as do Kevin Pearce, Danny Davis and Danny Kass. Just about everyone else with Olympic ambitions is trying to learn the double cork as quickly as possible.
By his second day on the mountain, after sizing up the competition and under pressure from his coaches, Fisher admits he's hoping to have the trick before the Grand Prix series is over. "I'll see how this first contest plays out without it, but it's definitely something I want to learn as part of the progression of snowboarding," he says. "I can see now that this is part of where it's all headed, and I definitely want to get a piece of it. I want to have it perfected before I'm putting it in competition runs, though, and not just be out there hucking-and-hoping, like a lot of guys I'm seeing out there."
In the meantime, Fisher's hoping that his switch backside spins and other difficult tricks will help make up some of the difference. But he's also been jumping on the trampolines at the new Woodward at Copper training facility, trying to build up confidence to attempt a double cork in the pipe.
Whatever advantage White may have had with his private pipe in the Silverton backcountry is dissipating now that other riders have access to similar facilities. After morning sessions in the Copper superpipe, coaches Jankowski and Bower have been taking their team across the street to Woodward's big red barn to work out over the foam pits and trampolines.
The 19,000-square-foot complex opened this spring as an extension of the popular Woodward action sports camps in Pennsylvania and California. It features spring-loaded gymnastics floors, Olympic-grade Flybed trampolines and indoor Snowflex jumps that launch riders into foam pits. Over the last decade, the Woodward camps have helped push progression in skateboarding and BMX — skateboarder Tony Hawk mastered the rotation for his famous 900 into the foam pit at Woodward before he took it to the X Games — and the Copper facility is already making its mark on snowboarding and freeskiing.
Erich Dummer grew up competing with Fisher back home in Minnesota. They're now teammates on the Sims Snowboards team, and Dummer's new job as a Woodward coach has become an asset in Fisher's Olympic quest. "It's been a long friendship-slash-rivalry, but he's definitely taken it to the next level," says Dummer. "I have faith that Steve's going to pull it together in the next two months. He's always been a solid rider, and he can adapt really quick. Now that the pressure's on, this is when Steve shines. I learned that the hard way, riding against him."
When it comes to aerial awareness, Fisher is one of the sport's great natural talents, and he's been a pioneer of other stylish, difficult tricks — switch backside 540s, 720s and 900s — that most of his competitors don't have. Still, the double cork is an unnatural gymnastic movement for Fisher, and Dummer's determined to help him figure it out.
"Sometimes you can visualize a trick in your head, but actually putting it on snow can be a little scary and a little bit dangerous," says Dummer. "With the double cork, there's a lot going on with two flips, a lot of spinning and a different axis of rotation, so it's a good motion to learn on the trampoline and into the foam pit. I fully believe Steve can get it, and that he can get it in time for some of these Olympic qualifiers. It's all a matter of balance and awareness, getting the feel of the rotation and how to speed it up or slow it down in the air, how to open it up and spot the landing. What we have going on here at Woodward makes it a little bit safer. You can fall on a trick five or ten times to get it right, where hucking it on snow might end your season early."
From what Dummer's seen over the trampoline and foam pit, Fisher is ready to throw a double cork on snow. But then, the double cork might be old news by the time the Olympics roll around in February. "Snowboarding moves pretty fast," Dummer points out. "That's kind of the beauty of it: We don't really know what we're going to see. Every single day in here I see kids doing new tricks that I never really thought possible or comprehended in my own head, and it's cool to see how creative people can get. Even without the double cork, I know the Fish has some new tricks up his sleeve."
The Fish" doesn't have quite the same ring as "The Flying Tomato," but the Olympic storytellers at NBC will have plenty of backstory to work with if Fisher makes the team.
Like White, Fisher began snowboarding and competing as a kid. He got his first board when he was seven, riding at Buck Hill and Hyland Ski & Snowboard Area in Minnesota, and qualified for his first United States of America Snowboarding Association Amateur Nationals when he was eight. All that super-cute archival footage of White riding as a kid that was shown over and over during the Olympics coverage in 2006? The Fisher family has plenty of that in storage, too.
"I got a taste for it really early," says Fisher. "I'm competitive, but from the start, it's always been a competition to push myself. I don't really have any rivalries, to be honest. That's not really what snowboarding is about. Even somebody like Shaun White, who everyone knows is a fierce competitor, he's his own worst enemy."
In 2002, the year after he graduated from high school in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, Fisher won the Junior Snowboarding World Championship in Finland. After a year of college at Portland State University, he committed to a pro career and moved to Breckenridge to chase the dream. He now splits his time between a Washington Park duplex on South Vine Street and the Breckenridge home he bought a few years ago with the help of his X Games prize money.
The Breckenridge team has two other riders — JJ Thomas and Zack Black — eligible for the Olympics. In addition to providing its riders with season passes and other perks, Breckenridge has recently added media training workshops, says team manager Amy Sabreen. "Now that snowboarding is on NBC and ESPN and we're seeing Shaun White on the cover of Rolling Stone and all over the place, I'm learning how much the media loves a story and loves a hero," says Fisher. "They really got one with Shaun, and I give him a lot of credit. Just by being who he is, he's done so much to raise the profile of our sport that it's ridiculous."
If there's any such thing as a home-field advantage in snowboarding, Fisher's got it coming out of the gate, and he's stoked to be starting the Grand Prix season off in his own back yard. (It will end on White's turf, at Park City Mountain.) He'll get to sleep in his own bed for another week after that, too: Breck is hosting the first stop of the Winter Dew Tour, December 17 through December 20.
Although an Olympics spot is the big prize, Fisher is grounded enough in snowboarding to know it's not everything. He's planning to ride at all three stops on the Dew Tour again, even though the first two competitions in the series (after Breck, it moves to Snowbasin in Ogden, Utah, January 14 through January 17) are shoehorned between now and the final Grand Prix event. He's also planning to compete at the X Games again, one week after the Olympic team announcements are made. That makes seven high-profile events in less than two months, and the busiest seven weeks of Fisher's life.
"As much as I'd love to go to Vancouver, I have the perspective to know that in snowboarding our careers are not 100 percent based on the Olympics," Fisher says. "Snowboarding has a long history prior to, and separate from, the Olympics, and it's just as important to me to represent on the Dew Tour and at X Games. Making the Olympic team, not making it, that's not something that's going to define me, so I'm not prioritizing the Olympics over the other events at this point. The Dew Tour is a really exciting new series and new standard for competition, and I'm thrilled to be a part of it. This year the schedule happens to be pretty crowded because of the Olympics, but I'm going to try to ride as much as I can."
Snowboarding is an individual sport and tends to attract some highly individualistic personalities. Fisher admits he's "on a slightly different program from a lot of the guys," a relatively normal guy in a sport full of eccentrics like White. He recently got engaged to his girlfriend of five years, and he's a happy homeowner twice over. Snowboarding is his life and his lifestyle, and it's also his career. He's 27 now, and trying to figure out how to make the good life last as long as he can.
"He's a true professional," says Scotty Lago, one of Fisher's U.S. Snowboarding teammates who's competing for that Olympic spot. "He's definitely a contender, probably top five on anybody's list right now, and you can never count Fisher out. His riding's just so solid, and he's one of the guys who can turn it on when he needs to."
After a morning session in the pipe at Copper with Lago and the rest of the team, Fisher rushes back to Breck to film a video spot with the Sims Snowboards team, happy to have an afternoon distraction from all of the Olympics hubbub. The finished video clip will play up the company's long history in snowboarding, illustrating the evolution from company founder Tom Sims and the sport's pre-history to Fisher and other current team riders helping to lead snowboarding into the future.
Sims, a skate and snowboard legend, made his first snowboard in 1963 and founded Sims Snowboards in 1976, six years before Fisher was born. Fisher has childhood memories of watching Sims stand in for Roger Moore as James Bond in the snowboarding scenes from A View to a Kill, and when he talks about a career in snowboarding, he's thinking way beyond the 2010 Olympics to a lifelong arc, Tom Sims style.
"He is certainly one of the brightest and most intelligent team riders that has ever ridden for Sims, including Craig Kelly," says Sims, referring to the four-time world champion and big-mountain snowboarding pioneer who died in an avalanche in 2003. "I see Steve right in there with the Craig Kelly personality and level of intelligence, someone who's more than just a really great snowboarder. He's easygoing and fun to be around, whether we're helicopter snowboarding in the backcountry or having dinner, and I believe he has a real future in the snowboard industry. I've partied with him, I've ridden with him, and he's just a great guy to be around. He's proven himself several times at the very highest level of halfpipe competition, and I see him as being totally capable of performing under the intense pressure of the Olympics."
Sims organized the very first halfpipe competitions back in 1983, while Fisher was still in diapers, and says he can barely believe how far it's all come. Watching one of his team riders make a run at the Olympics is the fulfillment of a vision he had nearly three decades ago.
"February 1981 was the first time I tried metal edges on a snowboard," says Sims, launching into the back-in-the-day origin story that made his career and launched modern snowboarding. "I bought an old pair of snow skis at a thrift shop, took a screwdriver and removed the edges, and then routed the edge of my snowboard and epoxied and screwed down the edges. Up until that point I was still traveling with both my snowboard and my skis everywhere I went, because on hard pack I had more fun skiing. On powder there was no comparison: Snowboarding blew skiing away. But the day that I tried metal edges on hard pack up at Squaw Valley, I turned to my friends Terry Kidwell and Alan Armbruster, the two guys who were with me, and the marketing guy at Squaw Valley who let us on the mountain with our snowboards, and said, 'By the year 2000, snowboarding is going to be more than half the business on the mountain.' I said, 'This is going to be an Olympic sport.' I hadn't envisioned the halfpipe, exactly, but I'd envisioned something like a giant toboggan run, something akin to the snake runs we were seeing at concrete skateparks at the time. A few years later I saw guys dropping into a giant ditch in Truckee and doing airs off the walls, and I staged the first halfpipe competition in March of 1983 up in Tahoe."
Double corks in the Grand Prix superpipe at Copper are a far cry from Sims's original ditch concept, and the signature Steve Fisher Pro Sims snowboard Fisher will be riding in the competition makes those original Sims contraptions look like the museum pieces they are. But Fisher is honored to be part of the company's history.
"I've been really fortunate," he says. "I try to remember that every day. The bubble that we live in as professional snowboarders — wow, is it small. I'm trying to keep things in perspective and remember how lucky I am to be able to be doing this at all."
Despite all the humble talk, when it comes down to it, Fisher's a shrewd competitor. Double cork or no, he's planning to come on strong this weekend at Copper Mountain, and he's got his eye on the prize: not just a spot on the Olympic team, but a gold medal in Vancouver.
"I'm going to go into the first event and try to go with big amplitude and smooth, lofty tricks, really pick up where I left off last year," he says. "I think a lot of guys are going to be busting their ass on overkill to try to get these double corks and other brand-new tricks before the first event, and they're going to have so much anxiety about it that they may or may not land it. I think we're going to be seeing some seriously herky-jerky style until people start getting them dialed, and my plan is to rise above all that by doing what I do best."
Fisher's friend Gretchen Bleiler thinks he's right to trust his instinct.
"Steve is such a naturally talented rider that we call him 'First Run Steve,'" Bleiler says. "He could drop in the first run of the day at eight o'clock in the morning, first day of the season, and throw his most difficult run. He's very consistent and an amazing all-around rider."
Bleiler won a silver medal at the 2006 Olympics and has a trophy case full of hardware of her own, and she's been helping talk Fisher through the mental game it will take to make the cut. "It's a high-pressure situation, and overcoming yourself and your own thoughts is as much a part of it at that level as the physical ability," she says. "It's definitely a whole different game for the guys this year. Everything's changed with these new double corks everyone's trying and the Olympics on the horizon. You can feel the tension in the air with all of these guys, and there's going to be a lot of falling this season, because people are going to be going for it. Steve has his head on pretty straight about what he wants to do, but he's going to have to push himself farther than he's ever pushed himself, for sure."
And he's not the only one. Although it's hard to imagine a scenario in which Shaun White doesn't make the Olympic team, even the Flying Tomato is beatable. After all, the Fish has come out ahead of White at a handful of events, including the 2007 X Games and the final stop of last season's Dew Tour, at North Star, where Fisher placed behind Mason Aguirre to close out the season in second place overall. White will be caught up in the same head game as Fisher and everyone else over the next two months as pressure builds before the Olympics, and he'll be going for the riskiest moves of anyone in the competition, an all-or-nothing strategy that has made him a celebrity but could also be his downfall.
"Fisher seems ready to go all the way," says Bower after watching a morning practice session at Copper. "He's starting off really well and riding strong. We're going to have to address the double-cork issue and see how he wants to approach that, and he'll have some important steps ahead of him, but I think a spot on the Olympic team is his for the taking if he puts his mind to it."
A spot on the Olympic team, and maybe even a Wheaties box.