March Madness may conjure up images of athletes leaping in the air in gyms all over the country. But the scene also happens outdoors this month as snowboarding competition finds boarders and free riders getting huge air off jumps and out of the halfpipes with Grand Prix cash on the line.
This weekend, the 23d US Snowboarding Championship will be in full swing at Stratton Mountain in Vermont in a three-day event that brings together the best riders in the world, such as Shaun White, Kelly Clark, Danny Kass, and Hannah Teeter, for three days of events, along with local riders who get a chance to mix it up with the pros.
The action begins tomorrow night with a rail jam, an invitational event under the lights featuring top riders Leanne Pelosi, Rahm Klampert, Jeremy Jones, and Molly Aguirre. White, fresh off a World Cup win at Lake Louise last weekend, will ride all three events.
White, the 19-year-old phenom, suffered a meniscus tear that kept him out of the pipe for two prolonged recuperation periods.
"I was out for three months, then reinjured it, and was out for another three months," said White, a San Diego native who is best known for his consistency and huge air jumps out of the pipe. "The worst thing for me mentally was that I hadn't crashed, so I couldn't tell how I did it. But I haven't felt any new pain for a long time. I think I've pretty much come back."
Like many boarders, White finds the sport caught between "the core" and the demands on boarding pushing it big time and commercial. The core, he explains, is the sense of exclusivity that marked boarding's early days, when boarders were an identifiable and clubby minority in snow sports.
White is just old enough to remember the early days. "All the pros around now are people who were once made fun of because they were boarders," she said.
But White said the big-time events, such as the Olympics, are ultimately good for the sport, even if boarding continues to grow into the mainstream. "There was definitely a lot of fear when boarding went to the Olympics," said White. "But when the sport goes mainstream and gets all the media and things like X Games, then the areas get more sponsors and build better parks and more and more kids want to ride. So it's good for boarding to be mainstream."
The mainstreaming of the sport has hit home for White.
"My dad is 55," he said. "He's been skiing for years, and he just bought a new pair of skis and then tried boarding for the first time. Those new skis are now sitting in the attic."
On Saturday, the men's and women's superpipe finals will launch from the big pipe, and the slopeside finals will finish off the event Sunday. And talk about going commercial -- this year, for the first time the US Open will name two overall event champions, men and women, each of whom will drive home a new Volvo V50 sport wagon in addition to the cash prizes.
The overall junior winners will win snowmobiles, so most riders are encouraged to enter all three events in order to have a shot at the overall.
"This event keeps getting bigger and bigger, and having a chance to win the Volvo for overall is really cool," said White.
White is one of the favored male riders in tomorrow night's rail jam, following his long list of wins this year, which include the prestigious Session at Vail rail jam. He will be challenged by Jones, who this year received the Transworld Magazine Readers' Choice award. On the women's side, last year's champions, Pelosi and Klampert will be back to defend their titles and will be challenged by Aguirre, winner of the Sessions at Vail rail jam and the Breckenridge Grand Prix.
The biggest draw of the weekend will be the superpipe Saturday, for which race officials figure on a crowd of upward of 20,000. And once again, the showdown is among the sport's top draws, including two Olympic gold medalists, Clark and Ross Powers, who will take on Teeter and Kass.
Sunday, the Open wraps up with the men's and women's slopestyle finals, and with his recent win at the X Games, White is one of the favorites. In the Sessions at Vail, White threw down four 900s in a row, the first time the feat has been done in competition. Defending US Open overall champ Kass is expected to mount a huge challenge, as is the stylish JP Solberg and Nicolas Muller. The woman to watch this year is Natasza Zurek, winner of the Burton European Open. Challenging Zurek will be three-time X Games gold medalist Janna Meyen, with strong podium bids also from Pelosi and Aguirre.
Also on Sunday, top podium winners get $20,000, with an added $5,000 up for grabs for the Tylenol Best Trick judging. This year's US Open will be broadcast in a two-hour NBC special April 9 at 2 p.m.