STRATTON, Vt. -- In the giddy hours after he won his Olympic gold medal for snowboard cross last winter, Seth Wescott of Farmington, Maine, made a prediction that, a decade ago, would have sounded ludicrous.
"What seems to be happening," Wescott said to the assembled press in Turin, Italy, "is that boarding has taken over skiing as the heart of the Olympic Games."
Even allowing for a touch of victorious exuberance, at the start of the 2006- 07 winter sport season Wescott's words appear to be on the mark. For the second time since boarding became an Olympic sport in 1998, the United States dominated the medals, and the competitions in Turin -- like those in Salt Lake City in 2002 -- drew the largest and most enthusiastic crowds to witness any of the snow sports.
It is no coincidence that the rise of boarding in the Olympics has paralleled its growing popularity on the recreational slopes. Just a few winters ago, the debate was heated over whether snowboarders belonged in ski areas at all, let alone sharing the same trails and slopes with skiers.
The argument usually boiled down to a conflict in the way the sports used the same space. It was said that boarders posed a threat to skiers, that their sometimes rebellious behavior and attitudes were off-putting to the older and more traditional skiing public. Many ski areas decided it was simply not worthwhile to have boarders around.
There's nothing like business woes to bring about a change in attitude. When it became clear that snowboarding was much more than a fad and could provide a serious boost to the moribund US ski industry, snowboarders became the buzz of the snow sports world.
Today, only a few prestigious ski areas still have boarding ban s in place: Alta, Deer Valley, and Taos out West and Mad River Glen in the East.
"Certainly the Olympics, and riders like Shawn White and Hannah Teeter -- both gold medalists in Turin -- sparked a lot of interest in riding," said Jeff Boliba , global resort director for Burton Snowboards.
"Resorts have seen the real growth in boarding in recent years, and the ones who respond best are those that can bring them back after the first time," Boliba said. "They see people try boarding one day, then back out. So the focus is making that first experience successful. And that means taking a new rider to the point of linking turns. When he gets there, it's just like the first time you hit a golf ball just right. It keeps you coming back for more."
Stratton Mountain Resort is one ski area that is doing its best to make sure that boarders come back -- and often. Stratton offers a "Mini Mountain Riders" program for children as young as 5. The focus is on personal attention from instructors trained to bring youngsters successfully through their first snowboarding experience.
As the youngsters' skills develop, they can move on to the "Mountain Riders" program for ages 9 to 18. The idea, instructors say, is to let the riders in their formative years rise as quickly as their talent and effort will take them.
Stratton also offers two weekend programs: "Teen Adventure " introduces teenagers to the pleasures of carving through trees, racing, and group activities; and "Teen Instructor" for 13- to 17-year-olds who want to learn to teach the sport to children and newcomers . The thinking is that younger instructors are more flexible and less intimidating to youngsters just learning the ropes.
That Stratton has taken the lead in boarding instruction is no accident. It was here that the young Jake Burton spent his spare time in the late 1970s taking his variations on the Snurfer (the first marketed snowboard) out onto Stratton's slopes to perfect his own version. Today, Burton Snowboards is the largest manufacturer in the world.
"The Olympics gave us the biggest spike in boarding we've seen," said Stratton spokeswoman Myra Foster. "We always see a spike in interest after an Olympic year. By now, the equipment has changed because we wanted to take the first day of pain away. And the new training boards have done that. We feel if you take the pain away and have people boarding in two days, you're going to keep them."
At Sugarloaf, Wescott's home base, work has been under way since the area closed for the season last May on a new terrain park to supplement and improve on the existing boarding opportunities. Wescott is consulting on the park , no doubt with input from students at Carrabassett Valley Academy, Wescott's high school, which uses Sugarloaf as a training area.
With so many Olympic and world-class riders and skiers coming from the Maine academy, Sugarloaf recognizes the importance of its terrain development. "We need to offer terrain that meets the highest standards of international competition, and so our boarding terrain has been a really big commitment for us," said Bill Swain, Sugarloaf's communications manager.
Sugarloaf has cut an entirely new trail, twice as wide as a modern ski trail, served by a high-speed quad and featuring a superpipe aimed at giving twice the amplitude of standard pipes. "There are more rails and features, more and bigger everything," said Swain.
Since boarding now breaks into many forms, from terrain park to free riding and cruising, Sugarloaf is working to make sure all the options and appropriate instruction are available.
Interaction between riders and skiers on the trails is now more common, and with the growing popularity of twin-tip skis, many skiers now show up in the terrain park and pipes, performing all the tricks once pioneered by snowboarders.
"The whole sport is fluid and changing," said Swain. "And we have to make sure that we're able to give everyone who uses snow what they're looking for."
Contact Tony Chamberlain at firstname.lastname@example.org.