One wild ride

Snowboardcross makes Olympic debut with Simmons, Smith

If snowboardcross wasn't extinct, it certainly was endangered.

It was shortly after the 2002 Winter Olympics, and the men's U.S. Snowboard Team had swept the podium in the halfpipe competition in Salt Lake City. At a time when snowboarding was increasing in popularity and American riders were receiving as much publicity as Alpine skiers and figure skaters, snowboardcross became an afterthought.

"Boardercross died for a year," Jason Smith said.

There was an international snowboardcross tour sponsored by the International Ski Federation (FIS), which sanctions World Cup events, but the sport became more race-oriented, which didn't appeal to North American snowboarders.

Smith, a snowboardcross racer who lives and trains in Steamboat Springs, and Erin Simmons, a Canadian racer who lives with her husband, Kevin Nemec, in Stagecoach and rides for the Steamboat Ski Area, were in limbo.

Other than the X Games -- ESPN's way of mainstreaming extreme snow sports -- snowboardcross did not have a popular national or international tour or much of a following. Only halfpipe and Alpine snowboard racing were Olympic sports, and they were added in 1998.

"When you watch the Winter Oly--mpics, you think, 'I would love to go represent my country.' That's the biggest thing," Smith said. "When snowboarding actually got in, I was like, 'I'm not that good at either (pipe or Alpine).' I was like, 'I may not get a chance to go.'"

The International Olympic Com--mittee changed everything in 2003.

"Snowboardcross was added based upon its growing popularity and strong international competition base," said Tom Kelly, vice president of marketing and communications for the U.S. Ski Association.

Simmons and Smith found themselves back on the international scene, competing on an improved World Cup circuit to earn points and a national ranking. Becoming an X Games champion wasn't the pinnacle for either

athlete anymore. For the past three years, the two weren't only chasing competitors over jumps and around turns, they were also chasing what seemed like an impossibility in 2002 -- an Olympic berth.

Becoming an Olympian

Growing up near Whistler in British Columbia, Canada, Sim--mons got an early start on her skiing career.

"I started when I was 2," she said.

Smith also started skiing when he was 2 but switched to snowboarding when he was 7. Simmons waited until she was 12, but snowboarding wasn't an Olympic sport when either began riding, so they didn't see the Olympics in their futures.

"I don't think I ever did dream of going to the Olympics for this," Simmons said. "I wanted to go to the X Games."

Smith also had his eyes on the X Games, growing up near Aspen, where the winter sports event is staged. Snowboarders had the chance to win cash, prizes -- and fame -- at the X Games, but they couldn't win Olympic medals.

"Growing up, being a skier-slash-snowboarder all my life and not seeing snowboarding in the Olympics," Smith said, "I would think, 'Someday it will be in there. I know it.'"

Simmons and Smith struggle to verbalize what it means to be an Olympian.

"The X Games is the biggest contest in snowboarding," Smith said. "The Olympics is the biggest sporting event in the world."

Simmons consistently placed in the top 15 during World Cup races before her selection to the Canadian Olympic Team, including two podium finishes in Whistler, so her spot on the Olympic team was all but guaranteed.

Smith, on the other hand, locked up his Olympic berth in dramatic fashion, winning a World Cup race Jan. 14 in Kronplatz, Italy.

"Coming into the last one, I knew I had to win it if I wanted to go the Olympics," he said. "Apparently, I'm starting to get the reputation as an under-pressure, clutch rider. Hopefully that will come through in the Olympics."

Smith was in New York City for the naming of the U.S. Olympic Snowboard Team and got to be on The Today Show and was around for the taping of the Late Show with David Letterman.

Simmons, on the other hand, is living in Routt County but is a Canadian Olympian. Her parents read the newspapers and watch TV, but she hasn't been mentioned much individually.

Simmons and Smith leave early this week for Turin, Italy.

Being an Olympian

The two friends will stay -- albeit with their respective countries and teams -- at the Oly----mpic Village in Bardonecchia, Italy, where all the snowboarding events will be held.

The sleepless nights haven't set in.

"I have a three-minute period of getting nervous," Smith said. "Two heats before I go. Then I grab my snowboard and get ready to get in the gate, and it's gone."

Simmons' stomach used to churn before races.

"Now I can control it a lot better," she said.

The snowboardcross competition begins Feb. 16 with the men's qualifying runs and finals. The women race Feb. 17. Before that are days of course inspections and training runs.

"That's so much training," Simmons said. "I'm going to be like, 'Let me race.'"

There is good reason for her eagerness. The Canadians arguably are the best women's snowboardcross team in this year's Olympic field. The U.S. men hold a similar honor.

"We're gonna kill it," Smith said.

For Simmons and Smith, the 2006 Winter Olympics begin Friday with the Opening Cere--monies. Both will participate.

"We were told to prepare for a 10-hour day," Simmons said. "Some people are avoiding them because they have to compete, which is crazy. I would still walk through. It's a chance of a lifetime. What am I going to do, sit in my hotel room?"

Simmons said there has been pressure from the Canadian Federation to win medals in Italy. With the 2010 Winter Olympics being in Vancouver, the Canadians want to make an impression during this Olympiad.

"I know during the last Winter Olympics, there was a huge ordeal that Canadians kept missing the podium," she said. "Fourth. Fourth. What's with the fourth? There is a big push, and Project 2010 is already under way."

The only pressure to win felt by Smith is internal.

"For us individuals, we are all going there to race our best races and be on the podium," he said. "After seeing the men sweep the podium in the halfpipe (in 2002), it gets us all fired up to have an all-American podium."

If the American men do well in Turin, it could affect the future of snowboardcross in the country. If the sport is received well in its debut, it could affect the future of snowboardcross around the globe.

"This will make or break boardercross," Smith said.

-- To reach Melinda Mawdsley call 871-4208 or e-mail mmawdsley@steamboatpilot.com

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