On the biggest day of his competitive life, Ross Powers was surprised to find his mother and brother in the gathering crowd during practice on the Olympic halfpipe in Park City, Utah.
“Good to see you guys,” he told them. “What are you doing tonight?”
Nancy Powers didn’t miss a beat.
“We’re going to the medals ceremony!” she gushed.
Her snowboarder son laughed and said, “Oh, yeah.”
By that evening, Powers was indeed standing atop the medals podium. And from that perch he could see his sport — once a bother to traditionalist skiers making their way down the slopes of America’s resort mountains — turning into the hottest thing on snow.
Now 36, the 2002 gold medalist feels like something of the grand old man of snowboarding with his induction into the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame during ceremonies April 11 in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.
|Ross Powers receives his gold medal in the men's halfpipe snowboarding at the medal awards ceremony at the Olympic Medals Plaza during the Salt Lake City Olympic Winter Games on Feb. 11, 2002 in Salt Lake City.
“I think about the legends and my heroes growing up,” he said. “This is an amazing honor.”
But the truth is, it was probably cemented on that afternoon 13 years ago at Park City Mountain Resort, when Powers and teammates Danny Kass and J.J. Thomas had 30,000 spectators roaring over a 1-2-3 finish in men’s halfpipe — the first U.S. medal sweep at the Winter Games since men’s figure skating in 1956.
The most electrifying moment belonged to Powers, who made an impossibly spectacular ride on the day after his 23rd birthday — starting with a monstrous method air trick that sent him soaring as much as 20 feet above the lip of the pipe.
“Because it was so smooth, it didn’t feel out of control or crazy, and I knew I was going to land it,” he said. “I knew it was good, but until I saw it afterward I didn’t know just how big it was.”
Or how big things would get. When Powers won an Olympic bronze medal four years earlier in Nagano, Japan, snowboarding was still something of a fringe curiosity in the Olympic family. Suddenly it had become America’s meat-and-potatoes event.
Having already invested 14 years in the sport, Powers had already seen growth — from the days when most mountains allowed snowboarders on just one run, or even banned them, to seeing 4-year-olds riding beside 60-year-old men. When women’s halfpipe gold medalist Kelly Clark and Powers did a promotional appearance at the Daytona 500 soon after the Games, “it really opened my eyes,” he said.
“We’re walking around a NASCAR race in Florida,” he said, “and people are coming up to us saying, ‘I want my grandson to get into snowboarding.’ It just showed you how many people were watching and got excited about it.”
Powers had been excited since his first brush with a board during his Vermont childhood.
Nancy Powers worked at Bromley Mountain with a woman whose son was employed by Burton Snowboards. On his eighth Christmas, Ross Powers found a snowboard under the tree and went up the mountain that day.
“It was raining and I could barely make it down the hill,” he remembered, “but I fell in love with it. The mountain was my babysitter every holiday, every weekend.”
He competed in his first U.S. Open within a year, and by 17 he was a world champion. From the X Games to the Olympic Winter Games, Powers did it all, and won more medals than any halfpipe rider in history. And then he did more.
He’d narrowly missed making his third Olympic team to Torino in 2006. The next generation of riders were already making tricks bigger and more extreme, and Powers decided to “walk away and not chase what wasn’t going to happen.” Instead, he walked into snowboardcross.
“I was watching Seth Wescott the first time it was in the Olympics and thought, ‘You’re an all-around snowboarder — you should do this,’” he said.
He made the U.S. team by 2009 and even reached a world cup podium. In 2010, he found himself in a three-way deadlock for the last U.S. Olympic Team berth. To break the tie, officials went to the results of the world cup immediately preceding the Games — where Powers had finished ninth, one spot behind Nick Baumgartner, who got the Olympic spot.
He retired from competition and soon was named director of the snowboarding program at the Stratton Mountain School in Vermont, from which he’d graduated in 1997.
“Working with kids, I get the same feeling I had when they learn a new trick or they get on a podium,” Powers said.
“It’s amazing to see how many kids are doing it now. It was such a small, tight crew in the beginning. I wouldn’t have dreamed of seeing a commercial with a snowboarder in it, and now it’s part of our world. I didn’t have big dreams. I was just happy to be doing something I loved with a lot of friends and travel the world — and just get to be a snowboarder.”
John Blanchette is a sportswriter from Spokane, Washington. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.