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Cheever fails in bid to repeat as US champion

By Lynn DeBruin
AP Sports Writer / February 10, 2012
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PARK CITY, Utah—Defending U.S. snowboardcross champion Jonathan Cheever joked that he was retiring after this race -- from his moonlighting job as a plumber.

Instead, after failing Friday to qualify for the finals of the U.S. Grand Prix, Cheever likely will have to keep looking for those side jobs around Park City.

"It's tough to be surprised because I know I wasn't riding well," Cheever said afterward. "To be a top athlete and not perform is disappointing, especially at your home mountain."

He said he lacked aggressiveness, perhaps from a nasty crash he took in warm-ups Thursday after over-shooting the hip jump and going through the breakaway fences.

"I didn't attack today," Cheever said. "I always tell everybody it's better to be no time than slow time. I didn't listen to my own advice. I'll learn from it and look forward to the next race (in late February in Quebec). It's unfortunate I don't have a chance to defend my title."

Teammate Graham Watanabe, who actually is retiring after this race, finds himself entering Sunday's finals as the top American racer.

The 29-year-old Watanabe turned in the third-fastest time Friday on the course at Park City's Canyons Resort, behind Australia's Alex Pullin and Austria's Markus Schairer.

The top 32 advanced and Cheever, who has had four top-10 World Cup finishes this season, could manage only 34th.

"Graham is one of the best riders in the world," Cheever said. "He does have a lot of time on this course. He makes the best turns in the game and this is a course he'll excel on. With changing snow conditions, he's my pick to win this thing. It would be nice because it's supposed to be his last."

Taking second overall in the Grand Prix and winning the U.S. title jumpstarted Cheever's season a year ago, as he went on to win World Cup silver twice and finish No. 3 overall in the world.

Now he'll look for the boost in Quebec in two weeks, followed by a trip to Sochi, Russia, site of the 2014 Winter Olympics.

In the meantime, he'll probably have to keep that side job.

Before Friday's qualifying runs, Cheever reflected on being a blue-collar guy on the circuit.

He's had his share of spills, but none compare to what dumped out of a pipe he broke while moonlighting as a plumber a year and a half ago.

"I ended up wearing probably 15 pounds of rotting animal fat," Cheever said of remodeling a restaurant with his father back in Massachusetts. "It's the worst smell you can imagine."

While Cheever looks forward to the day he no longer has to turn a wrench to help pay the bills, that's still the reality.

"If I don't have a podium soon, it looks like I'm going to be doing more (plumbing) because my back's to the wall as far as my finances go," said Cheever, 26. "I'm relying on prize money right now, but it's tough to complain about snowboarding. It could make me broke, but I'd still rather be doing it than putting in toilets. If I have to turn wrenches once in a while, it's still not bad."

Most people in Park City already know Cheever's blue-collar work ethic.

He's installed hot water heaters, and fixed garbage disposals and toilets for friends and businesses around town. He helped remodel bathrooms at the condo complex where the Austrian team is staying for this weekend's event.

He's even left his mark on the Cabriolet lift that shuttles skiers and riders from the parking lots to the resort, having prepped and painted many of the open-air buckets in the fall of 2010.

Now he'll probably have to ride those up Sunday, not as a competitor, but as the biggest supporter for his teammates.

"I'll be there for my team on Sunday," Cheever said. "Even though it's an individual sport, we are a team."

Other top Americans who qualified include Nate Holland, Nick Baumgartner and Jayson Hale, who is racing despite a dislocated right shoulder suffered three days after he won Winter X bronze in late January.

"I can still get out of the gate," said Hale of Sierraville, Calif. "Besides that, you don't need arms to snowboard. I can get down the course just fine. I feel like I'm riding really well this season and want to keep it (rolling)."

For two-time Olympian Watanabe, this is it.

After racing competitively since the mid-90s, and in snowboardcross since 2004, he is ready for another chapter in his life.

"It's not that significant, honestly, because I've always kind of taken it in stride knowing this is a portion of my life; it's not the only thing there is," said Watanabe, who in 2005 became the first American man ever to win a World Cup snowboardcross event. "I had a really good career. If something changes and I come back, so be it. But right now the plan is to be done after this race."

If Friday is any indication, he'll go out in style.

"It was a fun day today," Watanabe said. "Consistency is hard to achieve with snow conditions choppy and changing all day. While I had a good day, I have to commend everybody who flew in last minute from the last World Cup. Riding this course with travel legs is no easy feat. Finals should be an awesome battle."

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