Go For The Gold


Jonathan Cheever takes a run during FIS Snowboardcross
World Cup qualifications on Dec. 18, 2009, in Telluride, Colo.

The quest for an Olympic medal is not always a monomaniacal endeavor. Some of the most famous winter Olympians have included a bobsledding prince and a skiing bricklayer. Next year, if all goes well for Jonathan Cheever, Sochi may see a snowboarding plumber.

At 5 feet 9 inches, 185 pounds, with just five percent body fat, Cheever is a cannonball on a snowboardcross course. In six full seasons on the World Cup, the Boston native has earned four podiums and, in 2011, nearly became the first American man to win the discipline’s crystal globe for attaining the No. 1 year-end ranking had he not collided with a Czech rider in the first round of the final race.

“The collision got a two-page photo spread in Snowboarder magazine,” Cheever said. “It was kind of cool – well, bittersweet.”

If Cheever makes it to Sochi, he would not be the first American plumber to compete in the Olympics – or the first to race well. In 2002, Adam Heidt from Long Island, N.Y., placed fourth in luge, just 323 thousandths of a second shy of capturing the nation’s first Olympic medal in men’s singles.

In every other way, Cheever, 27, has cut his own path and left an indelible impression.

At Cheever’s first U.S. training camp, “This kid rolls in wearing a leather jacket and jeans,” teammate Nick Baumgartner said. “That’s what he always used to ride in!  I’m like, ‘Who is this clown?’”

The two eventually became close friends even though Cheever continued to race in Lee jeans until a few years ago.

The denim only disappeared, Baumgartner said, when “the X Games tried to make a rule that you can’t race there if you wear tight pants.” It was just as well because Cheever had completely ripped the back seam of his favorite jeans – and underwear – at an earlier X Games, exposing the anatomical feature most closely associated with his trade. “The plumber crack is trying to get out all the time,” Baumgartner said, chuckling.

As for the Fonzie jacket? Cheever shelved it for aesthetic reasons.

“Since I packed on more mass, the leather jacket looks like I got it from Baby Gap,” he said.

Now, almost exactly one year after rupturing his right Achilles tendon in a flukey slow-motion fall on Austrian snow, Cheever desperately wants a podium finish.

This Saturday, Cheever will have a chance when the Canyons Resort hosts a Grand Prix event just up the road from his home in Park City, Utah.

“I’m under a pressure cooker to perform well,” he said. His funding depends on it. “I don’t want to be holding up a 7-Eleven this off season. I’m ready to win.”

Last year, Cheever finished no worse than ninth place in World Cup races. This year, he has rarely made it past the first round. 

“I’m physically fine,” he explained, “but my instincts are just a little slower.”

“He just needs to believe in his plan and stick with it,” said U.S. snowboardcross head coach Peter Foley. “Sometimes he does this thing where he second-guesses his decisions.”

At the Olympic test event in Sochi in mid-February, for example, instead of clearing a set of three rollers as discussed, Cheever cleared two and absorbed the third one. But he landed with too much speed, caught air, and was eliminated in the first round.

“Bad luck,” Cheever said. “There are a lot of jumps in Sochi and I definitely excel in jumps.”  But if he returns to Russia for the 2014 Olympic Winter Games, success won’t depend on whether the course suits his style.

“I think you have to make every hill your style,” he said.

Cheever began the process about 10 years ago and he had no idea where the sport would lead.

(L-R) France's Pierre Vaultier, Austria's Max Schairer, and
Americans Jonathan Cheever, Nate Holland, Alex Deibold and
Kevin Leahy compete in the semifinals of the men's
snowboardcross during Winter X Games 2012 in Aspen, Colo.

After being voted class president at an all-boys Catholic high school just north of Boston and graduating in 2003, Cheever flew to New Zealand to try competitive snowboarding. He made the podium in whatever he entered – from halfpipe and slopestyle to snowboardcross – and the two-week trip suddenly consumed the whole summer.

In the fall, Cheever entered the University of Massachusetts - Lowell to study mechanical engineering. At the same time, he was getting his plumber’s license and realized, “I can make more money turning wrenches than I can as a mechanical engineer with a Bachelor’s degree.”

His father, Mark, is also a plumber and after consulting with his parents, Cheever said, “I decided plumbing would be alright.”

In 2004, Cheever packed his tools and moved to Park City to make a run at a second career, in snowboarding. Two years later, Cheever ranked third in the NorAm snowboardcross standings even though he had only competed in three events. The U.S. coaches were abuzz.

In 2009, Cheever made his first World Cup podium, in Stoneham, Quebec, where he placed second behind that year’s newly-crowned world champion Markus Schairer of Austria.

During the 2010 Olympic season, however, Cheever hit a slump and missed the cut to compete in the Vancouver Games with his buddy Baumgartner. “I caught Olympic fever; I felt a little too much pressure,” Cheever recalled.

His dismal results also meant he had to pay his own way in 2011. It turned out to be his best year.

That season, he broke through with two second-place finishes – including another one at Stoneham where he and Baumgartner raced in every heat together and Baumgartner beat him in the final.

Then, at the World Cup finale, with the crystal globe within reach, Cheever was the fifth-fastest qualifier before he got tangled with Michal Novotny of the Czech Republic in the first heat and the dream dissolved.

But he will always have plumbing.

Yet rarely do Cheever’s two professions intersect. He could cite only three examples in a recent phone interview: Once, the U.S. women’s team complained about a faulty shower on the road; another time, he installed a water softener for the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association’s executive director of athletics Luke Bodensteiner; but the highlight was when the maintenance man at the Center of Excellence had just quit and Cheever was called in to fix two broken sinks.

“I was lucky,” he said of the sinks. “I was desperate for work.”

Whenever he’s not bent over the pipes in low-riding Lee’s, Cheever prefers to keep it light. Maybe he will even bring his fashion sense to Sochi.

“Now that the X Games [event] is gone, I’m waiting for the jeans to come back,” Baumgartner said.

“I haven’t seem ‘em yet but I’m waiting!”

Aimee Berg is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.