Age is nothing but a number for snowboarder Lynn Ott
Lynn Ott doesn't get much attention for snowboarding, and that's the way she likes it. She contests the obscure parallel giant slalom, an offshoot of the first snowboarding event held at the Olympics in 1998. It resembles alpine skiing's giant slalom, and is dominated by Europeans.
It isn't part of the Winter X Games. It gets late-night treatment on NBC's Olympics coverage, and rightfully so.
It could be the only event at the 2014 Olympics with no American women participants. There are zero ranked among the top 20 in the world. To find anybody who competes on the World Cup circuit is a challenge.
Yet, when I called her up, the first words out of her mouth were, "I know why you're calling."
U.S. Snowboarding published a press release Jan. 16, announcing its team for the world championships in Quebec. (Snowboarding world championships are a bit like a Triple-A All-Star Game, for halfpipe at least. Shaun White has never competed in it. The Winter X Games are a better gauge of Olympic prospects.)
In the press release, the roster list was littered with bio hyperlinks and ski/snowboard club affiliations. The shortest entry, buried at the bottom, was plainly written but peculiar:
Lynn Ott, Bend, OR 10/20/1967
That's why I was calling. A 45-year-old snowboarder? No, Ott said.
She didn't want 1967 in this story, much less bolded. She said it's incorrect (though not only does U.S. Snowboarding use 1967, but also FIS, the sport's international governing body.) Her real birth year is in the 1970s, she said, not getting any more specific on the record.
"Used to say I was born in 1900," Ott said in a phone interview from her home base -- no longer in Bend, but in Boston, where she bartends. "It said I started racing in 1973 or something like that. I tried to get it fixed."
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported the Pennsylvania-raised Ott was 42 years old in an article before the 2010 Olympics, but Ott said three sponsors found it and called her, unhappy.
"[Age] looks bad for sponsors," she said. "I'm hitting that wall every direction I go.
"Everyone's always looking for younger, perkier bartenders."
Excluding curlers, Ott is the oldest U.S. athlete competing in a winter Olympic sport's world championship this year before the Games. She was one of two U.S. women entered in parallel giant slalom at snowboard worlds. A sister event, parallel slalom, will debut at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
At least one U.S. woman has competed in parallel giant slalom at every Olympics since its addition in 1998, but Ott has never been that woman. She tried and failed to make the team in 1998, 2002, 2006 and 2010, despite entering more than 400 domestic and international competitions since 1995. Though she's arguably still the second-best slalom snowboarder in the U.S., it's unlikely her fifth attempt this year will be successful.
"On the women's side I don't think -- pure guessing -- it doesn't look like there's a spot there yet unless it looks like somebody starts posting [better] results," said Peter Foley, U.S. Snowboarding's head coach and Ott's coach in the late 1990s.
In 1997 Ott was also the second-best American, and four women would end up making the 1998 Olympic team. Not Ott. She broke an ankle the preceding spring and couldn't recover in time.
"I've been ranked between two and five for my entire career in the U.S.," said Ott, but she's never made U.S. Snowboarding's "A" team that receives funding.
Her trip to Quebec last week for her sixth world championships conjured memories of her second missed Olympic team. In January 2002, Ott said she was training on a Quebec course when she lost control and landed between two trees, breaking her pelvis a few weeks before the 1980 U.S. hockey team lit the cauldron in Salt Lake City.
"A permanent rain cloud follows behind me," she said.
She can't remember how close she came in 2006 but said she was the "length of a snowboard" shy of a result that could have gotten her to the 2010 Olympics.
"Things just didn't line up for me in order to get [to the Olympics]," Ott said. "Even now I'm kind of just sort of half-assing my season. I've just been racing because I really like it.
"In my mind right now, it's not like I'm shooting for the Olympics. I'm going day by day."
Ott's dabbled in halfpipe, snowboardcross and even big air (not an Olympic event -- yet). She got her fiancé hooked on the sport. She's been called uncoachable and butted heads with the national federation. Yes, she's a snowboarder.
"I love the speed of racing," said Ott, also a mountain biking and autocross enthusiast. "I like to go fast."
Ott said all the traveling put her into "tens of thousands" of dollars of debt, not unheard of for Olympic sports athletes. She's paid off three credit cards and is almost out of the hole.
"Jeez, was it really worth it?" she said, pausing. "I look at people who spend $45,000 on a wedding. I think trying to go to the Olympics, it is worth it."
In all the years, she's stood on the World Cup podium once, a third place in a snowboardcross in 1996.
"When I first started, the [halfpipe] walls were maybe seven feet tall," she said. "Now they're 20. [...] The first couple World Cups I went to, people would be smoking at the start. Now it's a serious thing. People go to bed early."
The most memorable experience came in Chile, where she and five others needed more than 50 hours to drive a van 1,000 miles. They didn't have the right paperwork to cross a border into Argentina, she said. Police swindled them. They broke an axle. It got so forlorn she was reminded of the novel turned film, "Alive."
"That story has somewhat become legendary," retired two-time U.S. Olympic snowboarder Lisa Kosglow said by phone. Kosglow is six years younger than Ott, according to FIS, and U.S. Snowboarding's athlete representative.
Ott bartends until 2 a.m. at The Tap, where they serve $15 Coors Light buckets along Boston's Freedom Trail. She wakes up in her shared apartment at 6:00 a.m., drives her 1999 Subaru Impreza with 150,000 miles logged on it two hours to a New Hampshire hill, rides for three hours, drives back and goes back to work. She's a gym rat, too -- she says she can squat 285 pounds and doesn't ache the next morning. Her lifestyle doesn't leave time for much else.
"I've seen American Idol maybe once in my life," she said. "I don't own a TV. The only thing I see on TV is SportsCenter because I work in a bar."
The self-described introvert found her calling after stints at Home Depot's human resources and plumbing departments and UPS, paving roads and delivering pizzas.
"When I get behind a bar, it's a whole different thing," said Ott, who studied communications at Northern Arizona. "I can be whoever I want to be."
She described what it's like serving 100 patrons, sometimes by herself, taking orders. She compared it to snowboarding. She zones out and forgets her problems, her past, perhaps her age. Then she's reminded.
"Guys who are 22 hit on me," she said.
So did U.S. Snowboarding. It put her on the team a week before the world championships as an injury replacement. She had feeble chance of a high placement (she recorded a 37th out of 46 racers and a DNF) and had to scramble to find co-workers to fill her shifts. So why do it?
"It keeps me young," she said.