SALT LAKE CITY – Somewhere in the chaotic exchange between the teens gathered in the computer lab and some of the world’s best snowboardcross athletes, the question came, and two-time Olympian Nick Baumgartner seized it.
How hard is it to learn to snowboard?“Snowboarding is tough,” said the 35-year-old two-time Olympian. “You can go from beginner to intermediate in three days, but you can’t leave the bunny hill until you know how to do it.”
Skateboarder turned snowboarder Hagen Kearney jumped in with his own experience of taking up the sport in his teens.
“My first day of snowboarding, I hated it,” said the 25-year-old, who impressed the teens gathered in a crowded room at the Boys & Girls Club in Salt Lake City’s Poplar Grove neighborhood Tuesday afternoon with the admission that he races in the leather jacket he wore during his visit.
Before Kearney could elaborate, Baumgartner put that initial dislike in perspective.
“And — he was the fastest man in the world in our last world cup competition because he didn’t give up,” Baumgartner said, referring to Kearney’s first career world cup victory in the season’s first race.
If the teens, who were invited to spend some time with the U.S. snowboardcross team, were impressed, they didn’t show it. In fact, it wasn’t clear what the teens thought until Boys & Girls Club staff began discussing which teens had signed up to make the trip to nearby Solitude Mountain Resort this weekend to watch the athletes compete in the Toyota U.S. Grand Prix.
Suddenly it was crystal clear that the teens were eager to know more about a sport most of them said they’d never seen as they clamored to make sure their names were on the list to attend Saturday’s races.
After about 20 minutes of questions — and two videos that definitely impressed the teens — there was a mutual decision to head to the gym, where they could shoot hoops and chat individually with each other.
For the teens, it was a chance to learn something new. For the athletes, it was a chance to encourage the teens to think about trying new things.
“I hope a couple of the spots hit home,” Baumgartner said. “Like the fact that Hagen, the first time he tried snowboarding, he didn’t like it. But he worked through it, and now he’s one of the best there is. It’s just, things aren’t easy, and it’s tough sometimes to try new things. But if you don’t try new things, you’re not going to have as much fun.”
Baumgartner, a two-time world medalist and two-time Winter X Games champion, grew up in a large family that included many foster children.
“I probably taught six different kids how to ride a bike for the first time,” he said. “I enjoy the kids, and when I say I’m an overgrown kid, I mean it. Playing with these kids is pretty cool.”
Two-time Olympian Faye Gulini might have a little extra credibility with the youngsters because she grew up in the Salt Lake Valley — about 20 minutes from where the Boys & Girls Club is located. She asked the kids how many of them have snowboarded, to which about half responded affirmatively.
“That’s something I thought a lot about before I came in today,” Gulini said. “It does take some sort of wealth in the beginning to get started and get competing, so I think that’s why I sculpted it more about getting them out and having fun. That’s what it’s all about. It may not be every day of the season, and it may not even be every season. But any time you get the opportunity, take advantage.”
Alex Deibold, 2014 Olympic bronze medalist, said he enjoys encouraging the students to apply the lessons they’ve learned to whatever their own dreams happen to be.
“I think you have to understand that a lot of them may never have the same sort of experiences on the hill or access to the same sort of opportunities that we had,” Deibold said. “But the lessons of hard work, determination and those sorts of things are transferable to anything.”
Baumgartner told the teens he’d probably traveled to 20 countries since he became a professional snowboarder.
“By doing something I loved, and working really hard at it, I got to see the entire world,” he said.
Many of the teens opted to shoot hoops with the snowboarders, and one young man offered them a tangible thanks for spending some time with them. Dylan Kirchman, 12, offered handmade gifts, including paper boxes and ceramic knuckle covers, to each athlete, detailing how he and his friend made the items.
The athletes were impressed and touched, asking Kirchman to pose for a picture with them and their gifts before the outing ended.
“I love doing this kind of stuff,” Gulini said. “Something like this is meant to say, ‘Hey, you’re at this prime age where you can really do anything, and you should — even if it's just for fun.’”