Any road to the Olympics is long, and this season it was professional snowboarding’s most well-traveled route. To the 80 or so men and women traveling the contest circuit in hopes of capturing one of (what would be) fourteen U.S. Olympic Team spots, the journey seemed to take forever.

Endless waiting in airports, hoping bags the airlines lost would finally show up. Countless hours driving through blizzards at two in the morning in shitty rental cars to some event and some place they’d probably rather not be. Between December and March, I traveled to five contests trying to keep up with the five-ring circus. In the same amount of time, the top-30 competitors went to eleven events, if not more. While not all of them were Nagano qualifiers, all were important in making the Olympic dream come true.

We know where it ends, but where does the road to the Olympics begin? For some young athletes, it starts the minute their parents put them on a pair of skis, or when they begin competing and training at early ages, aiming to one day represent their country at the Olympic Games. But I don’t know one snowboarder who ever dreamed when they started riding that what happened last February would ever be reality. Most of us were just bored skiers and aspiring skateboarders who read ISM and Thrasher like the Bible.

Today, what we once considered underground has been replaced by the dreams of “Gen-X” marketeers, and in 1998, pro snowboarding is about ESPN, corporate sponsors, and the Winter Olympics. What was not so long ago just a whispered rumor immediately threw the world’s top GS racers and halfpipe riders into a hailstorm of qualifier, prequalifier, pre-prequalifier, and sometimes completely inconsequential qualifying competition (not to mention the pressure and confusion that rode shotgun the whole way).

Probably the most well-known halfpipe competitor is Todd Richards, logger of more frequent travel miles than anyone except Captain Kirk. Everyone’s seen pictures of Todd riding and competing. This is the other side of that story: the travel, exhaustion, frustration, glory-the road.

Late November ’97

Todd and I traveled to Salt Lake City-site of the 2002 Winter Games-for the first Olympic press conference with absolutely no idea of what to expect. Shortly after our arrival, Todd and other Olympic hopefuls were quickly ushered from room to room to take headshot photos for the Associated Press and countless other newspapers and magazines. In one room, about twenty black-cloth cubicles filled with people from TV stations (ranging from CNN to a small Oklahoma station) awaited the group of riders, microphones in hand. After the mini stock-question interviews came the station identifications (“Hi, this is Todd Richards, and you’re watching the Olympics on CBS,”-real exciting stuff), as well as riveting inquiries from clusters of reporters like, “As a role model, don’t you think you should set a good example for kids and wear a helmet?”

Through it all, Todd handled it like a true professional, even after proclaiming, “Skateboarding is 100 times more difficult than snowboarding, so why isn’t it in the Olympics now, too?” Only to receive nothing but blank, uncomprehending stares in return.

It was going to be a long winter. Definitely.

December ’97

Todd dropped in cold turkey at the FIS World Cup halfpipe in Whistler, B.C., and took first place. Stoked after winning a contest without warm-up runs, he headed to the first official Olympic qualifier: The Grand Prix in Sugarloaf, Maine.

This opening event didn’t go as well as Todd had hoped, but he still finished with a respectable fourth place. The men’s finals were held in almost complete darkness-not a very efficient way to run a contest, considering the judges could barely see the top of the pipe. Rumors about how the Olympic team was to be selected were flying by this point. We even heard that if you won a Grand Prix you were automatically on the team. So if Todplaced fourth at every G.P., would he not be allowed to go to Japan despite the fact that he consistently places in the top three at almost all other halfpipe contests? We didn’t know, and nobody seemed to have a straight answer for us. The whole qualifying process was completely confusing, especially for the riders, who were kept in the dark the whole time. Answers changed daily. The Nagano dates neared. Stress levels started to rise.

One night in a movie theater, Todd told me: “I thrive on the pressure of competition, but the whole thing is so gnarly because I feel like I have the weight of the country on my shoulders.”

January ’98

After Christmas, the top riders journeyed to Gerlos, Austria for the Pro Seiben Grand Slam of Snowboarding-better known as the 100-grand Huck For Bucks. Todd knocked himself silly in a fall and went home with a big headache, more stress, and no prize money.

With the second Grand Prix looming, we headed to Crested Butte, Colorado for the X-Games. Considering how much hype and media exposure surrounded the event, Todd seemed a lot less concerned and definitely more relaxed than he did in Maine. The pipe was perfect, the skies were crystal clear, and Todd nabbed a solid third place.

When Todd dropped into the halfpipe at the second Grand Prix in Mt. Bachelor, Oregon six days later, not even a blizzard could have stopped him from taking first-and hopefully his rightful spot on the Olympic team.

By now, Terje’s Olympic boycott was known worldwide. I asked Todd which contest, out of all he’s done, had been most important to him. “Winning the U.S. Open the second time,” he replied, “because it is the Olympics. It always has been, it always will be, the biggest contest in the world. Not because of the money, but because of the prestige-more so than any 100-grand event. I think they’d have the same turnout at the Open even if there was no prize money.” Why the second time, I asked. “Because Terje was there,” he said.

Yet his response to Terje’s boycott was simply, “I respect his decision.” Now, after the Olympics, he probably respects it even more.

Late January/February ’98

Todd played Resident Evil II in the lobby of our Mammoth hotel because the TV in our room was broken. I knew Todd was a video-game freak, but watching him play on the evening before the third and final Grand Prix, I realized how much a form of therapy they actually are to him. One of Todd’s teammates, Tyler Lapore, told him ex-MTV Veejay Kennedy was on The Late Show With David Letterman a couple nights earlier, and Kennedy said her money was on Todd to win the gold at the Olympics. He was stoked to hear it, but only said, “That’s pretty intense.” No pressure there.

I asked Todd if having his girlfriend Lindsey travel with him to events helps him keep his mind off that pressure. His answer was a resounding, “Yes, because it’s like having a slice of home with you. When she’s not there it sucks, because it’s nice to have someone to talk with about things other than snowboarding.”

Then there’s me constantly in his face, taking pictures and asking questions all the time. I’m glad I’ve known Todd for so long or I would have felt like a real pain in the ass.

Between vids and Lindsey, something must help because the next day he took second place and cemented his position on the first-ever U.S. Olympic Snowboard Team. Other riders weren’t so lucky. At the end of the day Ross Powers, Ron Chiodi, and Bjorn Leines had all supposedly made the team as well, but the next morning the men’s team had been cut to three riders, and the fourth spot was given to the women’s team see sidebar. Just as quickly as he was in, Bjorn was out. Talk about screwing with someone’s head.

And On To The Show

The official team announcement happened in a room filled with reporters, cameras, friends, and peers. I won’t lie about it-after watching those athletes compete all winter to earn their spots on the brightly lit stage, the announcement was very dramatic and made us all feel incredibly proud of them.

Then reality set in. I watched Todd and the rest of the team receive the first of what will be many Olympic supplies and itineraries while Keith Calkins of the Games Preparation Committee bellowed: “This is the first day of your new lives! You are now Olympic athletes representing the United States, and no one will ever be able to take that away from you!”

The team glanced up warily from the stacks of forms they were to fill out. In the whole of their careers, none of these pros had ever been addressed in such badgering, militaristic style. Though they neared the last week before the Games, it was still a long way to Nagano.

I figured that by following one of America’s top hopefuls, I might be able to go to Nagano, too, but instead TWS was given only one Olympic photo pass (by the IOC through U.S. Skiing) putting me off the bus. Instead, I sat on the couch for a week (like the rest of the snowboarding world), trying to get a glimpse of my friends competing on their most global stage to date.

No such luck. After being subjected to figure-skating practice for about five days, I had to go out to buy some food and toilet paper. Apparently, while I was gone, the men’s and women’s halfpipe contest aired for a few brief minutes. I only learned that Todd rode his best, and crashed trying to win.

A Few Days Later

My phone rang. Todd was on the other end wanting to know if the Beaver Creek halfpipe had been cut and if I wanted to meet up again. Sometime during our travels he’d said the worst part of the road to the Olympics was “not being able to progress much, because you have to stay perfect with what you already know in order to win contests.”

An hour after I hung up the phone, I watched Todd going bigger, and pulling impossible new tricks better than I had ever seen before. He seemed unfazed by the long pilgrimage he’d just completed.

Finally, I asked him how Japan had been. All he said was, “Long.”ge, the announcement was very dramatic and made us all feel incredibly proud of them.

Then reality set in. I watched Todd and the rest of the team receive the first of what will be many Olympic supplies and itineraries while Keith Calkins of the Games Preparation Committee bellowed: “This is the first day of your new lives! You are now Olympic athletes representing the United States, and no one will ever be able to take that away from you!”

The team glanced up warily from the stacks of forms they were to fill out. In the whole of their careers, none of these pros had ever been addressed in such badgering, militaristic style. Though they neared the last week before the Games, it was still a long way to Nagano.

I figured that by following one of America’s top hopefuls, I might be able to go to Nagano, too, but instead TWS was given only one Olympic photo pass (by the IOC through U.S. Skiing) putting me off the bus. Instead, I sat on the couch for a week (like the rest of the snowboarding world), trying to get a glimpse of my friends competing on their most global stage to date.

No such luck. After being subjected to figure-skating practice for about five days, I had to go out to buy some food and toilet paper. Apparently, while I was gone, the men’s and women’s halfpipe contest aired for a few brief minutes. I only learned that Todd rode his best, and crashed trying to win.

A Few Days Later

My phone rang. Todd was on the other end wanting to know if the Beaver Creek halfpipe had been cut and if I wanted to meet up again. Sometime during our travels he’d said the worst part of the road to the Olympics was “not being able to progress much, because you have to stay perfect with what you already know in order to win contests.”

An hour after I hung up the phone, I watched Todd going bigger, and pulling impossible new tricks better than I had ever seen before. He seemed unfazed by the long pilgrimage he’d just completed.

Finally, I asked him how Japan had been. All he said was, “Long.”