Once a year, amateur snowboarders of all ages come together to celebrate their accomplishments. This spring, hotels were packed, airlines were overbooked, restaurants overflowed, and the slopes of Telluride, Colorado were overrun by jersey-wearing snowboarders, showing what the next breed of riders is made of.

For some, competition is a dirty word. “It’s not about the soul, the spirit of boarding,” they may cry. But after watching riders from all over the country, and even the world, battle it out for four days at the United States of America Snowboard Association (USASA) National Championships, it was obvious the entire event revolved around spirit–among the riders, among the volunteers, and among the spectators (a majority of whom were the riders’ parents). In fact, spirit is such an important part of the event, there’s an award given out to the team (a group of riders from a certain region) that displays the most of it. More than winning and losing, the eleventh annual USASA National Championships competition focused on the spirit of snowboarding.

When asking riders at the event what they thought the Nationals were all about, winning wasn’t at the top of their lists. Family, friends, fun–those were three most dominant answers. The “I’m just glad I made it to Nationals” attitude prevails more than disappointment over poor placement. Even the USASA’s President Tom Collins was out there competing. Not to win, but to have fun and support the event.

Founded by Chuck Allen in 1988 and designed after the National Scholastic Surfing Association, the USASA is about continuing a tradition of greatness. “We’re basically the grassroots of snowboarding,” Allen says.

Right now, there are 35 conferences in the U.S., including one in Alaska. Riders can get involved simply by entering a USASA competition in their region and paying the twenty-dollar annual fee. “Most of it is word of mouth,” he adds.

Since its inception, the organization has grown along the same trend lines as snowboarding itself. “In the beginning, we saw very few of the very young kids and virtually no older folks,” Allen says. “Now there’s a dramatic increase on both ends. Big increases in whole families competing. And that ensures growth of the sport.”

A main focus for the organization is its scholarship program. Anyone who competes is eligible to win a scholarship (as long as they are a student). USASA puts the money in a fund for the rider to use once they enroll in college. The association keeps track of the recipients, many of whom have gone on to careers in professional snowboarding. Allen beams like a proud father when he rattles off names of previous winners: Ross Powers, Chris Klug, Leslee Olson, Tricia Byrnes, Lisa Kosglow, Jason Borgstede …

This year, several changes affected some aspects of the competition. The addition of inverted tricks in freestyle disciplines for example, pushed the level of competition up a notch. And bringing in boardercross as a fifth discipline added excitement as well as increased risk of injury. Also, the break up of the Lake Tahoe region into two separate areas, North and South, gave California a total of six competitive groups (Central California, Mammoth Lakes, North and South Tahoe, San Gabriel, and Southern California Conference). The South Lake Tahoe region dominated the Nationals, taking home a total of 45 medals.

With a marginal snow season, the Telluride staff kept their fingers crossed, hoping things would run smoothly. By the time the competition rolled into town in late March, the mountain had almost forgotten what a snowstorm looked like. Sunshine and higher temperatures during the first three days of competition made for wet, slushy snow in the afternoons. Colder temps at night caused the courses to bicy in the mornings, forcing some events to be pushed back a few hours.

Yet the event is more about the contestants than the contest. Every rider had a different story. How they got into snowboarding, and how they ended up in Telluride. Each region of the USASA is unique as well–some areas don’t have halfpipes, some resorts don’t allow inverted tricks, some have better conditions for racing.

But it’s the success stories rather than the nuts and bolts of competition that make the USASA so interesting. People like 52-year-old David Rimmer from Albuquerque, New Mexico, who competed in the Kahuna age group (ages 50 to 59). He’s been riding for eight years, and although he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease four years ago, he hasn’t held back. His results: sixth place in slalom, sixth in GS, and eighth in slopestyle.

His competition included riders like Jeffery Ching from Citrus Heights, California, who rides for the North Lake Tahoe area.

“I got into competition because one day I was freecarving on the hill and I ran into Don Bostick, who was running the series in our area. He said ‘Come on out, it’s a bunch of old guys.’ And I’ve been doing it ever since–six years.”

Ching was the overall winner in the Kahuna freestyle category (combined halfpipe and slopestyle). His impression of the USASA is one of camaraderie. “You see a lot of people at Nationals you haven’t seen in a year,” he says. “It’s really friendly competition, nothing bitter going on. It’s really just for the kids to have fun.”

That friendly competition is something that’s seen on and off the slopes–riders slapping high fives or hugging their teammates, as well as the riders who just defeated them. On the gondola early one morning, a young woman was advising a young man on her strategy for tackling the giant-slalom course. “Just go as fast as you can. Don’t be afraid to go for it,” she said. Strangers encouraging strangers–an interesting twist, dispelling preconceived notions of dog-eat-dog snowboard competitions.

It’s the carefree, fun-loving attitude that makes this event unique. Like Michael Brooks from Newbury Park, California. He rides with an actual bear head attached to his helmet. “It’s the spirit of the bear,” he says about his headdress. “Good luck and the spirit of the bear with courage and stamina.” About the competition, he says, “It’s great. Fantastic. I’m having the best time of my life up here.”

Family is another key part of Nationals. An event of this magnitude (there were nearly 850 competitors, the most ever) relies on the strength of family support. Volunteers make it happen, from timing the races to processing the results.

There will always be “little league” parents at events like these, taking it all too seriously and pushing their kid harder than they should. But what really stood out was the number of entire families competing. Moms and dads are no longer limited to the sidelines; parents suited up for competition, dropped their child off at a race, and then rushed to their next event.

One husband-and-wife team dominated their divisions. David and Kelly Seelbinder from Kalamazoo, Michigan both competed in the Masters category (ages 30 to 39) and took home several medals. Kelly won overall freestyle honors as well as the overall combined Alpine and freestyle. Both were awarded gold medals for the Alpine overall (slalom and GS).

Of course, when it comes right down to it, competition is truly why the Nationals occur, and no other event pits snowboarder against snowboarder like boardercross. The addition of this event to the USASA program illustrates how important boardercross is to the future of snowboarding.

Murmurs of poor course construction and bad snow conditions were heard among the crowd, especially on the third day, when the event was shut down after ski patrol had to rescue several competitors in the Open Class race. Regardless of the rumors, the truth remains that boardercross is a brutal event, and injuries are to be expected. Unfortunately, one was especially tragic. (See the sidebar on John Webber’s paralyzing injury.)

Yet the thrill of victory prevailed. It was definitely felt by riders like little Elie Tomlinson from Portsmouth, Rhode Island, who took a medal in every event in which she competed, as well as being the only girl in her age group (seven and under) to complete the boardercross course. Or Sam Lubke, who traveled to Colorado from Girwood, Alaska and took home the freestyle overall title in the Grommet boys age group (eight to nine year olds). He also placed in the top three in every event he competed in.

Among cheers and groans, laughter and tears, the USASA is teaching amateur snowboarders how to expand their love of the sport and share it with their peers. Riders of all ages and ability levels are enjoying competition, and continuing to push its spirit from the bottom up.

r course construction and bad snow conditions were heard among the crowd, especially on the third day, when the event was shut down after ski patrol had to rescue several competitors in the Open Class race. Regardless of the rumors, the truth remains that boardercross is a brutal event, and injuries are to be expected. Unfortunately, one was especially tragic. (See the sidebar on John Webber’s paralyzing injury.)

Yet the thrill of victory prevailed. It was definitely felt by riders like little Elie Tomlinson from Portsmouth, Rhode Island, who took a medal in every event in which she competed, as well as being the only girl in her age group (seven and under) to complete the boardercross course. Or Sam Lubke, who traveled to Colorado from Girwood, Alaska and took home the freestyle overall title in the Grommet boys age group (eight to nine year olds). He also placed in the top three in every event he competed in.

Among cheers and groans, laughter and tears, the USASA is teaching amateur snowboarders how to expand their love of the sport and share it with their peers. Riders of all ages and ability levels are enjoying competition, and continuing to push its spirit from the bottom up.