Ross Rebagliati: The First Time

Snowboard racing is divided by moments-infinitesimally small increments of time separating winners from the field. Our sport’s first-ever trip through the Olympics was characterized by similar slices of a clock’s hands. A turn here, some sly movement-an expression telling us how intense pressure can get when snow-sliding under the scrutiny of the entire planet.

Most of the world recognizes Ross Rebagliati not as the first person to win a gold medal for snowboarding in the Olympics, but as the first snowboarder to have one taken away due to testing positive for marijuana. Even after the return of the medal by the International Olympic Committee, Rebagliati found himself the butt of a million jokes playing up on snowboarder stereotypes-everyone got their licks in, from Jay Leno to Doonesbury.

On February 8, 1998, Ross Rebagliati’s first Olympic snowboarding gold-medal win at Mt. Yakebitai was a historical moment owed to a lifetime of experience, not the series of comi-tragic media events that followed.

Racing for over ten years and holder of two prestigious titles, Rebagliati edged out Italian silver-medalist Thomas Prugger by just two-hundredths of a second. “Better no time than a slow time,” he summed up before dropping into a perfectly challenging course in front of more than 10,000 charged spectators (and the aforementioned world, once skiing’s GS was canceled and TV coverage went live).

Race day provided a perfect blueprint for snowboarding’s Olympic experience: sunny, blue skies one moment, foggy snow the next, competition at its peak-thirteen of the 28 disqualified or did not finish. Rebagliati, a 26 year old from Whistler, was swarmed once his Giant Slalom win became official, but he let TWS exclusively share his ride from the race course to the medal ceremony in Nagano. At first, he was in shock, but as the drive wore on the remarkable feat he’d just pulled began to set in. The days ahead would provide challenges of a different sort, but the first time remains priceless as precious mettle.

What’s your impression of today’s race?

It was the best race in snowboard history. They were the closest times-the best riders in the world-all of them competing in the same race from both tours. The first run was perfect. We had sun, the course was prepared perfectly. Then the second run came around with the big ol’ fog bank that came in. It was just like, “Okay! Here we go!” But I knew a lot of those guys are fair-weather-purely Alpine riders. I knew for a fact those guys were going to be hating it, and I can do well in that stuff. On the second run we still had excellent course preparation. Both the course setters U.S. Coach Peter Foley and Swede Bjorn Andersson were chosen because of the courses they’ve set previously this year. We could see one gate ahead, so we waited until we could see at least three gates, but then we got below the fog bank and could see the whole course.

After the first run you overtook friends and teammates.

Coming through from eighth to first-I don’t know what to say about that, but we’re all trying to win medals and make the podium. We all could’ve easily made podium today, but unfortunately for Mark Fawcett and Jasey-Jay Anderson, it didn’t go their way and went mine. I hope they don’t mind laughs.

Did you think the pressure was getting to some of the racers?

Maybe in a few instances, but they’ll never admit to it. I think in this race we saw a lot of guys making uncharacteristic mistakes. A lot of the Austrians were favored to do well at this event. Who knows why they didn’t, but you can’t rule out the pressure the Olympics have.

What can you be thinking after winning?

It hasn’t sunk in yet. It sunk in a few moments ago that I’d actually beaten a lot of the best riders in the world, but it didn’t have much to do with the Olympics. I’m sure the Olympic experience ll probably sink in … uh, probably for the rest of my life.

Earlier you said this was a dream come true for snowboarding kids all over the world.

When you’re growing up, the Olympics are the event to watch; everyone looks forward to it. Since I’ve been fortunate enough to come through on that dream, hopefully tens of thousands of kids will realize that they can also have the same dream and accomplish the same things I’ve managed to. There’re a lot of dreams out there, but the Olympics are right up there with the best of them. So … yeaaah!

Maybe you can give us a brief rundown of how you started snowboarding?

I started snowboarding in 1987. My first board was a Burton Elite 155 with three fins on the back of it. Seatbelt bindings. My first pro win was the Mt. Baker Banked Slalom in 1992. That was absolutely my first race, my first season on the pro tour.

You beat Craig Kelly?

Kelly was second. I always looked up to him because I saw him in all the magazines. He was the best, so for me to beat him in the Mt. Baker Banked Slalom was like, “No way, I can’t believe it.” He Craig was three-hundredths behind me. After two runs! He actually got me my first sponsorship with Burton. I had all these offers way back in ’87-from Tim Windell with Sims, Kerri Hannon with K2, and George Pappas with Kemper. But because Kelly was the best, I went for the Burton sponsorship. This race hasn’t even sunk in at all. I’ve been trying not to think about it since it came about, right? I’m just trying to compare it with other events. Driving in this van down to this place is totally different than any win I’ve ever had.

Your Baker win was when you still did freestyle?

I was still doing freestyle-that was the cross race-I was in my hard boots and plate bindings on a PJ6, I think. Kelly was on his freestyle board. After that, I started on the World Cup Tour and lost all my sponsors because they thought I didn’t have a chance. But I came in second place at Bormio Italy that same year in a GS. It was one of my first podiums on World Cup Tour. The next big race I did well in was Linz Austria-I mean, I had a few top-three results but my first pro win on World Cup was when I won the European World Championships in Germany in ’94. Then that same year, I came in second at the Mont Sainte Anne World Cup in the Super-G. Then the next week I won the Super-G at the U.S. Open. That put me in second place for the year overall and was my best season so far. I’ve done well in other events, but that’s pretty much the highlights.

Brad Steward When did you stop doing freestyle? You were damn good.

That must’ve been in ’92. I came last in the U.S. Open. I felt I had good runs and was getting ripped off by the judges. I came from a ski-racing background, too, so I already knew the line-like how to come into the gates and stuff like that. That was an advantage over a lot of the snowboarders at the time. It was a relief to stop the freestyle, though, because I could still freeride and not worry about being judged. I wasn’t into going upside down … I don’t know, man! I’m pretty pumped right now!

Understandable. I remember when I stopped ski racing, my dad kicked me out of the house because I was like, “I’m never going to ski again, I just want to snowboard.” He was like, “What do you mean? All these years we paid the team dues. We bought all the chocolate almonds so you wouldn’t have to go around the block and sell them to all the neighbors.” I was going on fifteen at the time. He booted me out of the house. Booted my dog right down the stairs behind me. I went and lived with my girlfriend for a week or so, then started mingling back into the family atmosphere after that. My dad never said anything.

My first amateur race I ever did was at this place called Hemlock, B.C. I came back from there, I think I was third or whatever. I told my dad and he was like, “Oh yeah? Right on.”

Then I got this sponsorship from Burton, and they said they were going to send me ten boards. They couldn’t give me any money; I just wanted them to hook me up with a whole bunch of boards so I could sell them and pay for my season. I told my dad and he said, “I’ll believe it when I see it!” So I went down to Craig Kelly’s house in Mt. Vernon, where they sent all my stuff. I came back with fifteen snowboards on the top of my van. Told the border patrol I had nothing to declare. I had like 10,000 dollars’ worth of boards.

B.S. Your dad was really proud of you.

Yeah, exactly. He started realizing it was more fun than what I was doing in ski racing where there were like 7,000 or 70,000 competitors and the chances of me ever making it to the national team were low. He’s been behind me ever since.

You said racing was the only way you could make money.

If I was going to continue to be a professional snowboarder I knew I had to go on the Alpine side of things. Not only that, but I enjoyed it anyway. I love racing, I always have. Anything with time-I don’t even play video games unless it’s a timed thing.

How about freeriding? I did a shoot in Alaska a few years ago with Eric Berger, and they Snowboard Life gave me the cover. That was freeriding, but I was still on a hard-boot setup with plate bindings. It just goes to show you can freeride on whatever you want, right? The only reason I took the hard boots and plates is because I spend 200 days a year on that. I can’t just all of a sudden switch over to freestyle when they’re going to be taking pictures. I’ve got to be comfortable on what I’m riding. There’s a huge difference between the feelings.

Do you have a freestyle board?

Nope.

I’ve got hundreds of Alpine boards. I think Canadian teammate Trevor Andrew will be hooking me up with a freestyle setup after the race here. Hopefully it snows a couple of feet or more. Definitely. I’ve been waiting a long time to rip it up. I haven’t been able to ride powder for a couple of years, and a lot of people give me shit for it. They just don’t understand what it means to be dialed into something, go on to something else, then come back. You can lose the feeling. I only have a few days here and there, and if it’s good snow I’ve gotta take the Alpine stuff out.

When did your last sponsor drop you?

Two years ago.

What was going through your mind then?

I felt a little bit betrayed because I had done everything they could ever have wanted me to do. I placed in the top-three twice, I won the European Championships and the U.S. Open. But what it came down to was the Alpine industry was suffering, and they didn’t have the money to pay the contract we signed. There’s nothing you can do about that.

Did you still think you could make a living racing?

There’re those few guys in the world who do make enough money to call it a living. Especially the Europeans, because their TV coverage is really good. It’s pretty good in the States, too. But up until two years ago, there was nothing in Canada. It forced me to find European sponsors, which didn’t really turn out, but it gave me a jump start on things. It got me my house in Whistler, and I’ve made money off that. I’m going to keep racing until they don’t let me start anymore.

Did the Olympics present a light at the end of the tunnel?

When they told us we were going to get the Olympics, it was like, “Yeah! We brought snowboarding to this level.” I’ve been with it right from the very beginning, so I felt responsible for creating the popularity of Alpine snowboarding. I never really thought about what it would be like to be in this situation now; I was just stoked the sport itself made it. When I qualified for the team then I was nk I was third or whatever. I told my dad and he was like, “Oh yeah? Right on.”

Then I got this sponsorship from Burton, and they said they were going to send me ten boards. They couldn’t give me any money; I just wanted them to hook me up with a whole bunch of boards so I could sell them and pay for my season. I told my dad and he said, “I’ll believe it when I see it!” So I went down to Craig Kelly’s house in Mt. Vernon, where they sent all my stuff. I came back with fifteen snowboards on the top of my van. Told the border patrol I had nothing to declare. I had like 10,000 dollars’ worth of boards.

B.S. Your dad was really proud of you.

Yeah, exactly. He started realizing it was more fun than what I was doing in ski racing where there were like 7,000 or 70,000 competitors and the chances of me ever making it to the national team were low. He’s been behind me ever since.

You said racing was the only way you could make money.

If I was going to continue to be a professional snowboarder I knew I had to go on the Alpine side of things. Not only that, but I enjoyed it anyway. I love racing, I always have. Anything with time-I don’t even play video games unless it’s a timed thing.

How about freeriding? I did a shoot in Alaska a few years ago with Eric Berger, and they Snowboard Life gave me the cover. That was freeriding, but I was still on a hard-boot setup with plate bindings. It just goes to show you can freeride on whatever you want, right? The only reason I took the hard boots and plates is because I spend 200 days a year on that. I can’t just all of a sudden switch over to freestyle when they’re going to be taking pictures. I’ve got to be comfortable on what I’m riding. There’s a huge difference between the feelings.

Do you have a freestyle board?

Nope.

I’ve got hundreds of Alpine boards. I think Canadian teammate Trevor Andrew will be hooking me up with a freestyle setup after the race here. Hopefully it snows a couple of feet or more. Definitely. I’ve been waiting a long time to rip it up. I haven’t been able to ride powder for a couple of years, and a lot of people give me shit for it. They just don’t understand what it means to be dialed into something, go on to something else, then come back. You can lose the feeling. I only have a few days here and there, and if it’s good snow I’ve gotta take the Alpine stuff out.

When did your last sponsor drop you?

Two years ago.

What was going through your mind then?

I felt a little bit betrayed because I had done everything they could ever have wanted me to do. I placed in the top-three twice, I won the European Championships and the U.S. Open. But what it came down to was the Alpine industry was suffering, and they didn’t have the money to pay the contract we signed. There’s nothing you can do about that.

Did you still think you could make a living racing?

There’re those few guys in the world who do make enough money to call it a living. Especially the Europeans, because their TV coverage is really good. It’s pretty good in the States, too. But up until two years ago, there was nothing in Canada. It forced me to find European sponsors, which didn’t really turn out, but it gave me a jump start on things. It got me my house in Whistler, and I’ve made money off that. I’m going to keep racing until they don’t let me start anymore.

Did the Olympics present a light at the end of the tunnel?

When they told us we were going to get the Olympics, it was like, “Yeah! We brought snowboarding to this level.” I’ve been with it right from the very beginning, so I felt responsible for creating the popularity of Alpine snowboarding. I never really thought about what it would be like to be in this situation now; I was just stoked the sport itself made it. When I qualified for the team then I was stoked. I was like, “Well, I’m here now and I can’t lose no matter what happens at the race. I’ve already won the Olympic experience, and you can’t replace that.” I just came in with no pressure, stoked I made it to represent Canada and be one of the first to compete.

You had trouble making it onto the Canadian Olympic Team?

Yeah, laughs I don’t know how much I can say without getting myself into more trouble. Our qualifications were based on 50 percent past results and 50 percent from the six qualification races. I came in second to Mark Fawcett in the first three, combined with my past results, and I thought that would prevail. I went to Europe to make sure I started in the top seed in this race, but took time off right before because of shin splints. Anyway, after the last three qualifications-because I didn’t show up and I hadn’t gotten a letter from my doctor yet saying what happened-I ended up tying for fourth place to be the fourth team member. And since the CSF didn’t think I was supporting the qualification, they were going to take the other guy. My coach called and told me the story-I was in Switzerland. I had to write a letter to the IOC explaining I had shin splints and they might have jeopardized my performance. After I did all that they finally went with me. His voice turns sarcastic So I hope I didn’t let them down. All along you’ve been doing ISF tour?

Yeah, ever since 1987 I’ve been doing ISF-sanctioned events. Last year I started on the FIS tour because I’d lost my major sponsor. The FIS tour covered about 70 percent of my expenses. I really needed that. If it hadn’t come about, I seriously would’ve had to retire, or drop down from World Cup to national, and there was no way I was going to do that. I would’ve had to take at least a year off to try and find a sponsor.

Did you agree with FIS governing the Olympics?

No.

Yet, financially, they saved you.

In the end it prevailed, actually. And honestly, who knows how the ISF would’ve been able to handle the extra load. Maybe they could’ve risen to the occasion. It was hard to believe an organization could just come in and take over a sport we had been promoting for the last ten years-no matter if it was the best thing or not, just based on principle. That’s what it’s all about, I think-remembering where you’re from.

How do you feel about it now?

See, I don’t know what to say about that. I try not to get too involved with the political side of things. I can’t complain laughs. I did what I had to do, it was simple economics, and it had nothing else to do with anything.

Where will you be next year?

That’s a good question; I think it still hinges on the TV. What’s the point of having a sponsor if you’re not getting exposure? But it’s hard to say what’s going to happen. I’ve got a goal: I’ve never been ranked first in the world. I’ve been second, but I want to win the overall title. Then I’m just going to follow the money, wherever the big events are. You know Terje didn’t come to the Olympics because he was so hardcore, but he can afford to say that. He knows he’s the best; everybody knows he’s the best. He doesn’t need to win the gold medal. If he doesn’t consider it a loss, then it’s not a loss. I’m not above everybody else like he is … maybe now I am laughs.was stoked. I was like, “Well, I’m here now and I can’t lose no matter what happens at the race. I’ve already won the Olympic experience, and you can’t replace that.” I just came in with no pressure, stoked I made it to represent Canada and be one of the first to compete.

You had trouble making it onto the Canadian Olympic Team?

Yeah, laughs I don’t know how much I can say without getting myself into more trouble. Our qualifications were based on 50 percent past results and 50 percent from the six qualification races. I came in second to Mark Fawcett in the first three, combined with my past results, and I thought that would prevail. I went to Europe to make sure I started in the top seed in this race, but took time off right before because of shin splints. Anyway, after the last three qualifications-because I didn’t show up and I hadn’t gotten a letter from my doctor yet saying what happened-I ended up tying for fourth place to be the fourth team member. And since the CSF didn’t think I was supporting the qualification, they were going to take the other guy. My coach called and told me the story-I was in Switzerland. I had to write a letter to the IOC explaining I had shin splints and they might have jeopardized my performance. After I did all that they finally went with me. His voice turns sarcastic So I hope I didn’t let them down. All along you’ve been doing ISF tour?

Yeah, ever since 1987 I’ve been doing ISF-sanctioned events. Last year I started on the FIS tour because I’d lost my major sponsor. The FIS tour covered about 70 percent of my expenses. I really needed that. If it hadn’t come about, I seriously would’ve had to retire, or drop down from World Cup to national, and there was no way I was going to do that. I would’ve had to take at least a year off to try and find a sponsor.

Did you agree with FIS governing the Olympics?

No.

Yet, financially, they saved you.

In the end it prevailed, actually. And honestly, who knows how the ISF would’ve been able to handle the extra load. Maybe they could’ve risen to the occasion. It was hard to believe an organization could just come in and take over a sport we had been promoting for the last ten years-no matter if it was the best thing or not, just based on principle. That’s what it’s all about, I think-remembering where you’re from.

How do you feel about it now?

See, I don’t know what to say about that. I try not to get too involved with the political side of things. I can’t complain laughs. I did what I had to do, it was simple economics, and it had nothing else to do with anything.

Where will you be next year?

That’s a good question; I think it still hinges on the TV. What’s the point of having a sponsor if you’re not getting exposure? But it’s hard to say what’s going to happen. I’ve got a goal: I’ve never been ranked first in the world. I’ve been second, but I want to win the overall title. Then I’m just going to follow the money, wherever the big events are. You know Terje didn’t come to the Olympics because he was so hardcore, but he can afford to say that. He knows he’s the best; everybody knows he’s the best. He doesn’t need to win the gold medal. If he doesn’t consider it a loss, then it’s not a loss. I’m not above everybody else like he is … maybe now I am laughs.