Riding High: Vermont's laid-back Olympians go with the snow | Culture | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Riding High: Vermont's laid-back Olympians go with the snow


Published March 27, 2002 at 4:00 a.m.

  • Jordan Silverman
  • Ross Powers

The scene was just like I'd pictured it Ñ two snowboarders, a guy and a girl, casually dressed and posed under a large Burton banner. Hordes of media and fans waiting for interviews and autographs. But Vermonters Kelly Clark and Ross Powers appear unexpectedly mortal and nonchalant for a couple of gold-medal winners. Clark, a mere 18, has the visage of earnest youth; Powers, 23, wears a frat-boy demeanor, slouching slightly in his chair. They utter a quick "Hi" as I walk in, but remain seated. Powers offers a handshake.

The two are autographing photos of themselves, scrawling in black marker on the glossy images and flipping them into the "done" pile. This is the only clue that their names are now in the headlines. They are world-champion snowboarders, but they could also take prizes as America's humblest.

And how was that whole Olympics deal?

"It was just such a powerful few days," Powers says. He is cordial, granting me full attention with his dark, calm eyes. "It was really great for snowboarding. The weather was good, lots of people were there…being on U.S. soil Ñ the combination did a lot for us. It helped people who wouldn't usually watch it, watch it."

"Thanks, Ross," says Clark in a mock-anchorwoman voice.

Powers smirks and she chuckles. "As far as inside the industry," he continues, "I think snowboarding is not going to lose its individuality."

This was the principal dispute of the Winter Olympics: Is snowboarding a legitimate sport? Does it merit the same honor that skiing and figure skating have demanded for so many decades? After all, aren't snowboarders just surfer dudes at a higher altitude?

Now that the hoopla has died down, and Powers and Clark have returned to Vermont, they're being welcomed by an Olympian homecoming celebration, hosted and sponsored by Burton Snowboards. The Burlington factory outlet has offered its premises to the public for such activities as screenings of relevant Winter Games footage and beginning snowboard lessons. Even as we talk in the factory's secluded "Soft Goods" conference room, tents are being set up outside, along with big-screen TVs and practice ramps made of plywood and packed snow.

But Clark and Powers are calm and collected, as if the party were for someone else. In spite of their long post-victory media tour, they're still free of the practiced, wide-eyed excitement that has animated the likes of Michelle Kwan and Nancy Kerrigan in the presence of TV microphones. Auto-graphs aside, Clark and Powers seem like average American teens. Their PR woman, the ever-beaming Leigh Ault, is down to earth, and dares to leave the room from time to time, leaving her young protŽgŽs unattended.

Even the boarders' pastimes are mundane: "hanging out" is their favorite, along with outdoorsy sports like mountain biking and skateboarding. But what with all the jetting cross-country and meeting celebrities like Britney Spears, just hanging out is a rare luxury these days. Clark says she misses her mother.

When I ask them to describe their sudden fame, they exchange glances, drawn out of their Zen placidity. "Weird," Clark asserts. "Definitely weird. One thing that's changed is, we barely get to snowboard anymore."

Powers nods in agreement. "But we do get to do lots of other cool stuff."

"Like come here, right?" says Leigh, who has just entered and plops down on the couch.

Powers smirks again Ñ he's good at that Ñ and adds, "Every day is different. We never know what's next. I wish I didn't need to sleep."

"I was going to go to Sweden on Monday," notes Clark, "but I had to coordinate so we could come here."

She recounts a recent trip to Japan, where she was inundated by snowboard enthusiasts; the sport is universally adored there, she says. Suddenly I am reminded of Ryuji Nagai, a Japanese reporter I met last week. He was visiting Vermont to cover snowboarding for the Tokyo-based snowstyle magazine. Sweden shares the same enthusiasm, as Clark will probably discover when she finally heads east.

Now that they're home, and exhausted by the maelstrom of publicity, Powers finds the telephone constantly ringing in his mother's house. "Kids you haven't seen since grade school, family you never knew you had, call you up," he describes. Powers' mother came out to Utah to see his winning ride down the Olympic halfpipe, and she's delighted, he says, to take messages for her gallivanting son. "I'm just looking forward to getting on the snowboard," Powers adds.

This yearning is echoed by Clark, and it's this dedication that verifies the legitimacy of their sport. What's important is strapping onto the board; the rest is just a bundle of "cool, definitely weird" perks. Their only goals relate to snowboarding Ñ Clark is already planning for the 2006 Winter Games, Ross is enthused about the U.S. open. If future snowboard champions follow in their footsteps, the sport may bring a much-needed understatement to the Olympics' traditional hype and egomania.

My time with the Vermont champs is nearly up. A team from ESPN is noisily assembling their equipment outside the glass door. I ask Clark and Powers what they've done with their medals.

"Did you bring them here?" Leigh prompts.

"I got mine in the car," Clark says indifferently.

"I think mine is at home," Powers says, and laughs suddenly. "It's getting scratches all over it. I think the ribbon is gonna fall right off."