Jonathan Cheever

Racing toward the Olympics, in between plumbing gigs

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The day before Jonathan Cheever flew to Argentina to open the snowboard cross season, he labored at the U.S. Ski & Snowboard’s Center of Excellence in Park City, Utah.

The job? Replacing six feet of rotted-out piping beneath a garbage disposal. The drain was clogged with a few days’ worth of coffee grounds.

The 32-year-old Cheever has been a snowboarder and a plumber for more than a decade.

Lately, he’s been pretty valuable to U.S. Ski & Snowboard in both and, after an out-of-nowhere finish Saturday, appears headed to his first Olympics in February.

“‘[Plumbing] is still my bread and butter,” Cheever said.

He used the organization’s money for fixing its pipes toward $7,500 in travel costs to Argentina for the first World Cup stop of the Olympic season last weekend.

Years removed from his career highlights, Cheever is no longer a national A team member. He must pay his own way to competitions.

In Argentina, Cheever picked an opportune time to make his first World Cup podium since Feb. 21, 2012, finishing in third place on Saturday. That one result may be enough to make his first Olympics.

“There’s not a switch that’s flipped,” said Cheever, whose previous top finish since December 2012 was eighth. “Everything last year was firing on all cylinders, but there was always just one little thing that would change a result from a top-10 to a top-40, whether it was somebody hitting me in a turn or getting unlucky with some wind or maybe even a bad decision on a roller.”

In U.S. snowboarding team selection, a top-three finish at one of four events — Saturday’s race in Argentina, plus three more in Europe in December — provisionally qualifies for the Olympic team.

Cheever can only be knocked off the Olympic team if three other Americans make a podium at the remaining three selection events. If more than three total U.S. men earn a podium, then the tie is broken by best finish.

It’s unlikely to reach a tiebreaker. The top U.S. men — who all outperformed Cheever last season — rarely land on the World Cup podium. Their stats since the start of the 2015-16 season:

Nick Baumgartner — three podiums in 16 starts (18.8 percent)
Alex Deibold 
— two podiums in 16 starts (12.5 percent)
Nate Holland — one podium in 13 starts (7.7 percent)
Hagen Kearney — one podium in 15 starts (6.7 percent)

Cheever also has a safety net. A potential fourth and final place on the Olympic team is a discretionary pick by a committee after the selection events.

“It’s not guaranteed that I’m on Team USA, but I definitely made things a lot easier on myself,” he said.

A 32-year-old snowboarder making his Olympic debut may sound strange, but snowboard cross is not necessarily a young rider’s event like the sport’s other disciplines.

Lindsey Jacobellis, her Olympic misses aside, continues to be the world’s best female racer at age 32. Seth Wescott won the first two Olympic men’s snowboard cross gold medals at 29 and 33, respectively.

Snowboarding pioneer Shaun Palmer made a World Cup podium at age 41 in 2010.

Today’s top international stars — Alex Pullin of Australia and Pierre Vaultier of France — will both be 30 years old in PyeongChang.

Riders help pay the bills by sticking sponsor logos on the bottom of their boards. On Cheever’s board reads, “Bradford White Water Heaters,” his biggest financial supporter for seven or eight years.

Now, Cheever must focus on his plumbing before the next races in December.

An eight-hour class is ahead to keep his license in his home state of Massachusetts, where his dad has been in the plumbing business for more than 30 years. However, Cheever plans to move to Austria this fall to live with his wife, two-time Olympic snowboarder Maria Ramberger.

“If money was the motivating factor, I would be installing toilets or water heaters,” he said. “I race snowboards because I love everything about it.

“Hopefully, I can line up enough sponsors where, you know, the plumbing is more of a side thing than a main source of income.”

Cheever, who took up snowboarding at age 12, graduated as class president from an all-boys Catholic school in 2003. He pursued a plumbing license while also enrolling at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell in mechanical engineering.

He soon reasoned that plumbing would net more money. He left school after one year and moved to Utah as a snowboarder/plumber. Strong results soon followed.

Cheever made his first World Cup podium in February 2009 and ranked sixth in the world for the season (third among Americans). But the pressure of an Olympic season got to him, and he didn’t make the Vancouver team of four men.

Cheever rebounded to nearly win the World Cup overall title in 2011, but before Saturday he had not made a World Cup podium since rupturing his Achilles in March 2012.

The difference this year is primarily mental. Cheever said he went into Saturday’s race — his 69th World Cup in 12 seasons — believing he was not only the fastest American, but also fastest in the world.

Now, the goal isn’t just to make it to PyeongChang. It’s to find the podium there, too.

“I don’t base my life around the Olympics, but it’s extremely important,” he said. “We sit down, we have a meeting, and we talk about what you have to do to make the U.S. Olympic team, and my heart rate jumps up.”

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