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Vermont Made

The U.S. Open of snowboarding draws the world's best riders to the state that launched their sport into the mainstream

By E.M. Swift

Click for larger image Fourteen-year-old Mikkel Bang of Oslo, a halfpipe competitor, was one of the 566 snowboarders vying for $200,000 in prize money. Hubert Schriebl
Every March, just about the time the smoke starts to billow from the sugar houses, the U.S. Open Snowboarding Championships returns to southern Vermont, and dude, what comes with it is definitely not the Stratton Mountain your father knew.

Suddenly, jarringly, the hills are alive with the sounds of hip-hop. Ghostface Killah. Funkmaster Flex. In the Sun Bowl snowboards are sliding down rails on a stairway in a slope to nowhere. Urban culture collides with the Green Mountains, spurred by a sound system that blows the cones right off the pines.

Conversations like the following occur:

"Dude, your helmet is sick." The helmet is retro German army, riding high on the head.

"Sweet, eh? I got it from a street vendor in Taiwan."

"Ni-i-i-ce."

"That thing is holy."

A festival atmosphere pervades the Open, which is just the medicine an Eastern ski resort requires in the dying days of winter. And last weekend, the first official one of spring, that's exactly what the event brought to Stratton, along with 566 of the world's best snowboarders, from more than 18 countries, both amateur and pro. A $70 entry fee was all a young hotshot needed to take his chances against an Olympic gold medalist like Vermont's own Ross (the Boss) Powers, a two-time Open champ.

Competing in three formats -- rail jam, halfpipe and slopestyle -- the boarders shredded their cares away to the delight of some 35,000 spectators over the three days, who watched and cheered with the ardor of believers worshipping at the cradle. For Vermont is the cradle of snowboarding, and the U.S. Open, first held in 1982 on a hill called Suicide Six, outside of Woodstock, Vt., is the oldest and rowdiest competition in this vibrant young sport.

Snowboarding wasn't invented in Vermont, but it entered the mainstream here, shepherded by Jake Burton Carpenter, who founded Burton Snowboards in the town of Londonderry in 1977. Snowboarding's nearest cousins were (and are) skateboarding and surfing, not Alpine skiing. You grabbed your board and a posse of friends, hiked up a snowy hill and rode till you dropped. No major ski resort allowed snowboards on the lifts in those early years. Stratton became the first.

"In the early '80s Stratton's mountain manager, Paul Johnston, said we could take a few runs with the ski patrol to show them that we knew what we were doing," Carpenter recently recalled. "He deserves a lot of the credit. No one else really wanted to give us a chance. The deal was, we had to give lessons and certify all snowboarders before they could ride the lifts. We had to be Nazis about it, or they'd have shut us down."

The certification process was nothing radical. A boarder had to prove he could turn both directions and stop. One student who took five tries to pass was Tricia Byrnes, now 29, whose family drove up to Stratton from their home in Greenwich, Conn., for vacations when she was growing up. Byrnes eventually caught on. She won the Open in 1992 as an amateur, and this year she took home $10,000 from the $200,000 purse by finishing second in the women's halfpipe. "This event has always been a big deal to snowboarders," says Byrnes, who has competed in every Open since '89. "This is the one event that's always been there for us. It's not about TV ratings and money, it's about putting on a good competition for the riders. The crowd that comes up from New York and New Jersey brings all this energy the riders feed off. You're like: I don't want to suck today in front of all these people. I want to be better than my best."

After two years in a little-known ski area called Snow Valley, just east of Manchester, the Open moved in 1984 to Stratton, where it has found a home. "We were showcasing the sport at a time when many ski resorts in the state didn't allow snowboarding," says Stratton's communication manager, Myra Foster. "In the early days it was mostly an adolescent male phenomenon."

Hmm. What do adolescent males like, phenomenally? Let's just say the lads didn't let the partying ruin their snowboarding fun. Kegs were rolled up the hill at night and buried near the halfpipe during the Open. Snowball attacks were annually waged on helpless VIPs perched on elevated platforms.

"But what makes the event unique is that it's put on by riders, for riders," says Maria McNulty, the event's director at Burton Snowboards, one of the Open's sponsors. "We try to reinvent ourselves each year, to be progressive by polling the riders to see what new formats they'd like to try."

Two years ago that meant throwing out the quarterpipe and adding the rail jam, a highly technical competition that is a direct link to the sport's early skateboarding roots. "People are, like, hitting the rails," says 17-year-old Hannah Teter of Belmont, Vt., who finished fourth in the halfpipe at Stratton and will be a name to watch at the 2006 Olympics. "Freestyle is definitely where it's at in snowboarding. That's where you find the cool kids. Not many people race gates, even though that's in the Olympics. Boardercross, [a racing event that] will be in the Olympics in 2006, is already simmering out. It's just not as exhilarating as freestyle."

And exhilaration is what it's all about. "There's a place in snowboarding for structured formats like the Olympics'," says Kelly Clark, the West Dover, Vt., native whose halfpipe gold in 2002 further propelled snowboarding into the cultural heartland, since it was the first won by a U.S. athlete in Salt Lake City. Last Saturday, Clark won the U.S. Open halfpipe for the second time, pocketing $20,000. "But it's nice to have events like this to balance it out. It's fun."

Which is why the Open prefers to use a jam format for its competitions. In a jam a rider takes as many runs as he can fit into a given time period, similar to surfing. It encourages riders to try new tricks. Only your best run counts. The jam format led to a breakthrough men's halfpipe competition on Saturday, in which both Danny Kass and Ross Powers, the silver and gold medalists, respectively, at the 2002 Olympics, became the first to land back-to-back 1080s (three-revolution spins) during the same final. "The jam allows you to try what you most want to try but doubt you can land," said the 21-year-old Kass, who is from Vernon, N.J. "Growing up in the East, the Open is the most sought after, looked-up-to contest of the season. The technical level today was higher than at the Olympics."

"For snowboarders the Open has more prestige than the Olympics," said Colin Langlois, a rail jam winner in Mammoth in 2003, who grew up in Morrisville, Vt. "You win here, and you've won the oldest snowboard competition in the world."

It's holy, dude. Totally holy.

Issue date: March 29, 2004


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