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Nate Holland still motivated by repeated Olympic heartbreak

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At 38 years old, Nate Holland knows PyeongChang would likely be his last chance to add an Olympic medal to a trophy case already blinding with seven X Games snowboard cross gold medals.

“I’m not there to get top 10 and go check out a hockey game,” Holland said last month. “I’ve had three Olympics that I’ve done that.”

Holland entered all three Olympics since snowboard cross debuted as the reigning X Games champion. A medal contender, if not the favorite.

He washed out each time. In the quarterfinals in Torino. In the four-man final in Vancouver. In the first elimination round in Sochi.

“There’s something about these five rings that give me a lot of drive, ambition and joy,” Holland said on NBC after his 2014 disappointment, “but they do cause a lot of heartbreak.”

Some snowboarders are ambivalent about the Olympics. Not Holland.

He remembers watching the 1988 Calgary Winter Games growing up in Idaho, a decade before snowboarders were let in. After snowboard cross was added in 2003, a motivated Holland made the subsequent World Cup team and reached the podium.

Holland chalked up a 14th-place finish in Torino in 2006 to being “young and reckless.” The miss that sticks with him to this day is Vancouver 2010, when he was the only finalist not to earn a medal.

“That’s probably the No. 1 memory of racing is that feeling of failure when I got to the bottom,” he said. “Out of a four-man heat, they’re ushering me off, pushing me out of the finish corral.

“Dude, you gotta leave. What are you doing here still? We’ve got to do a podium ceremony.”

“I’m still out of breath. My heart rate’s at 180 still.”

“What’s going on? No, dude, you need to leave. Thanks for coming, goodbye.”

“Those are motivating factors in the gym when all I want to do is go home and go change some diapers,” Holland said.

Holland and wife Christen (who commissioned that trophy case as a Christmas gift) welcomed daughter Lux on Nov. 1, 2015. Lux is already riding on her own three-foot Burton board. In Uggs.

“Thank God for FaceTime,” Holland said. “I’m able to call every day when I’m in Europe and have breakfast with my daughter.”

Her dad is trying to become the oldest U.S. Olympic snowboarder in the sport’s two-decade history and the oldest medalist from any country.

“Some say I’m too old,” Holland says. “I say BS.”

Holland is realistic, though. The man who used to ride by the motto “wreck or win” has become more calculated and listens to his body. The Advil doses are more frequent. He enjoys the spa.

“I come back every year and there’s definitely some question in my mind whether I’m fast,” said Holland, whose detailed injury history included coming back from a December 2013 broken clavicle to win X Games and make the Olympic team. “Every year, I give myself a little pat on the back. I’m like, all right, I’m still in that group. I’m not sitting three seconds out.”

Holland was the fastest at the PyeongChang venue on Feb. 27, 2016, winning the Olympic test event.

He may have picked up nuances on the new Olympic course that the riders half his age have not, but Holland also hasn’t made a World Cup podium since. Snowboard cross was cut from the X Games after 2016.

If Holland can’t crack the top three at any of the four Olympic selection events in December and January, he might be left off the U.S. team.

Holland said he won’t work any harder this winter than he did in 2006, 2010 or 2014. Each time, he felt satisfied with what he put in. What he left the Olympics with — Team USA clothes, maybe some hockey ticket stubs — is what’s unfulfilling.

“You want something that you can’t have,” he said. “I don’t have an Olympic medal, and I’m really passionate about it.”

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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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Lindsey Jacobellis wins fifth snowboard cross world title

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Make it five world titles for Lindsey Jacobellis, who extended her dominance in snowboard cross outside of the Olympics on Sunday.

Jacobellis, 31, led nearly from start to finish of both her semifinal and final in Sierra Nevada, Spain, edging Olympic bronze medalist Chloe Trespeuch of France for gold. Italy’s Michela Moioli, the 2016 World Cup season champion, took bronze.

Jacobellis and Trespeuch exchanged words in the finish area after spending most of the final within a board of each other.

“I’m defending myself,” Jacobellis told Trespeuch. “You’re running into me. Sorry Chloe, but you’re trying to push me off, and I’m holding myself. You’re going to come into me like that.”

Jacobellis’ biggest rival, Czech Olympic champion Eva Samkova, went off course in her semifinal after posting the fastest time in qualifying last week.

Jacobellis has competed at worlds five times and won gold each time. No other snowboarder or freestyle skier has won a world title in a single event more than three times.

“Every year, it gets harder and harder because the level with women keeps increasing,” Jacobellis said. “I want to be remembered as someone who is supporting that next, younger generation as well as continuing to raise the bar.”

Jacobellis is one of the greatest Olympic sports athletes of all time, yet she has not won an Olympic gold medal. In 21 career appearances in major championships snowboard cross competitions (Olympics, X Games, Worlds), she has 15 gold medals.

Jacobellis infamously lost gold on a celebratory board grab on the penultimate jump at the 2006 Torino Olympics, settling for silver. She then washed out in the semifinals in both 2010 and 2014.

The PyeongChang Olympics will bring another round of expectations, and one more opportunity to claim that elusive gold. It may be her last chance, but Jacobellis refused to put a timeline on the rest of her career.

“Still just taking one week at a time, one month at a time, just living the dream,” she said. “I don’t like to look too far in the future because you’re missing what’s going on right now. I’ve made that mistake before in the past, where you’re too worried about what’s coming, and you’re not seeing what’s right in front of you.”

In the men’s event Sunday, France’s Pierre Vaultier took gold to follow up his Olympic title. The top American was Nick Baumgartner in fourth.

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NBC Olympics researcher Rachel Thompson contributed to this report from Sierra Nevada.

Lindsey Jacobellis
20th — 2001 X Games
21st — 2002 X Games
Gold — 2003 X Games
Gold — 2004 X Games
Gold — 2005 Worlds
Gold — 2005 X Games
*** Skipped 2006 X Games
Silver — 2006 Olympics
Silver — 2007 X Games
Gold — 2007 Worlds
Gold — 2008 X Games
Gold — 2009 X Games
*** Skipped 2009 Worlds
Gold — 2010 X Games
Fifth — 2010 Olympics
Gold — 2011 Worlds
Gold — 2011 X Games
*** Tore ACL/meniscus in 2012 X Games training run
Gold — 2014 X Games
Seventh — 2014 Olympics
Gold — 2015 Worlds
Gold — 2015 X Games
Gold — 2016 X Games
Gold — 2017 Worlds