CARRABASSETT VALLEY, Maine — When Farmington’s Seth Wescott began snowboarding, the sport’s best competitors had all the typical aspirations you might expect of elite athletes, save one: Neither Wescott nor his peers expected to compete for an Olympic gold medal.
It’s not that they had doubts about their ability.
There was simply no snowboarding in the Olympics.
Now, 16 years after his graduation from Carrabassett Valley Academy, that has changed.
The International Olympic Committee added the halfpipe competition in 1998, the parallel giant slalom in 2002, and Wescott’s eventual specialty, snowboard cross, in 2006.
And Wescott, now 33, has been riding that growing wave of interest and support the entire time. In 2006, he won the first Olympic gold medal in men’s snowboard cross, a rough-and-tumble — emphasis on the tumble — four-man race during which competitors vault off jumps, rocket through banked turns, and sometimes trip each other and crash spectacularly.
“Our biggest goal [at Carrabassett Academy] was to become a world champion at that point,” said Wescott, who failed to qualify for the Olympic halfpipe team in 1998 and 2002 before focusing on snowboard cross for the run-up to the 2006 Games. “I don’t think that many of us thought that we would have had an opportunity within this time span to go for multiple Olympic berths.”
On Feb. 15 — the fourth day of this year’s Vancouver Winter Olympics — Wescott will try to win his second gold medal in as many tries.
And he knows it won’t be easy.
“There is drama,” he said, explaining his sport’s unpredictable nature succinctly.
In any given race, you can be flying. In any given race, you may be at the top of your craft.
And in any given race, all it takes is one fellow snowboarder in the wrong place, at the wrong time, and you’re flat on your face, out of contention.
“I’m not in a sport like men’s downhill [skiing] where I have the whole thing to myself and it’s just about my performance,” Wescott said.
“That’s the wonderful thing about the sport, and it’s a reason that I love it as well, but it can be tough when you’re on the other side of the coin.”
On the right side of the coin
In 2006, Wescott became one of Torino’s media darlings after winning the gold medal. His success fed a nation desperate for success after skier Bode Miller, another CVA grad, failed to medal.
Wescott’s agent, Peter Carlisle, has worked with the snowboarder since 1998, and said that American businesses had been eager to associate themselves with the sport, but were often wary of its free-spirited stars.
Enter Seth Wescott.
“He’s a well-spoken, good-looking, thoughtful guy in a sport that many people find attractive because it’s this freestyle, sort of young, wild sport,” Carlisle said. “From corporate America’s standpoint, they all want a piece of it, but you’re somehow trying to balance that [wildness] against corporate America [and its conservative nature].”
John Ritzo, who has been the headmaster at CVA for 24 years, said Wescott has changed little over the years, and has always treated others well.
“Seth was always a really good kid, just easygoing, no trouble, very serious about what he was doing,” Ritzo said. “He’s a great people person and he’s grounded. He’s courteous, he’s kind. He gives everybody the time of day, he talks to people and he’s approachable.”
Those traits, along with his business acumen — he’s a co-owner of a Sugarloaf restaurant — are among the reasons Ritzo’s glad to have Wescott on CVA’s board of trustees.
Birch Royall, an alpine ski coach at CVA who was a year ahead of Wescott at the school, said Wescott was one of many great athletes who studied and trained at Sugarloaf during that era.
“A lot of guys stuck out like that,” Royall said. “But Seth? There is an air about him, something of quality about him, that allows him to [excel at an international level].”
Eyes on Vancouver
Wescott admits that he caught all the necessary breaks in Torino, Italy, during the 2006 Olympics. He said it’s amazing to hear comments from fans who feel a repeat performance in Vancouver will be a cinch.
“Fans’ expectations are that they want you to do it again, you know?” Wescott said. “Even having done it before, I know that it’s not the easiest thing to do. I think people do think it [will be easier this time around]. The reality is, having everything to come together on that day is a really hard thing, to have all those stars aligned.”
That’s not to say Wescott is planning on joyriding through his Olympic experience.
He says there are about 10 men in the world who are capable of winning the gold medal. He says he knows he’s one of them.
The boards he has been riding all year were designed specially with the tight corners of the Vancouver course in mind.
And he says he’s a better snowboarder now than he was in 2006.
The problem: Everyone else is better, too.
“There’s the Olympic tourists and the Olympic competitors, and I’m going in there with the mindset of being an Olympic competitor,” Wescott said. “More than anything I’d love to defend my gold, but as we’ve said, there’s a lot of external factors and I’m trying to kind of temper my expectations until I get to that day.”
On that day, however, Wescott said he’ll be ready to cut loose.
He says that he hasn’t felt the same excitement he felt when he qualified for his first Olympic team in 2006, but he’s sure the atmosphere in Vancouver will help fuel his competitive fire.
“I’m really excited to get there, get into the spirit of everything that’s going on, and see what kind of a performance I can pull out of it,” he said.
Wescott said there are plenty of ways he might choose to define what a “successful” Vancouver Olympics looks like.
A gold medal would be nice.
Simply avoiding injury in a sport where two of his friends have died in competition over the past six years is another goal.
“It’s a success if I’m healthy at the end of the Games,” he said. “The biggest way that I would like to be able to quantify it this time is that [I can say] I had the opportunity to ride up to my ability level. I think if I have that opportunity then I’ll be there in the final, and hopefully be standing on that medals podium.”
And after Vancouver? Wescott isn’t young, by snowboarding standards, but he’s not planning on retiring, either.
He is, however, hoping to compete on his own terms through the next Olympiad.
“I think [competing] in Sochi would be really interesting, being in Russia,” Wescott said. “I think at 37 I can easily be there still. I think this in-between [period] of these next four years will be different.”
Wescott said there are some venues on the World Cup tour that he doesn’t particularly enjoy, and said U.S. team officials are working with him to work out a more moderate competition plan for the next four years.
“I don’t want to grind out the world tour for the next four years, that’s for sure,” Wescott said. “I’ve been basically living out of a suitcase for snowboarding since I was 17, and I’m 33 right now. I’m ready to spend a little more time at home or just a little more time in other places in the world in the winter, getting to enjoy win-ter.”
Other long-range plans: Remaining involved in the future of his home mountain.
“I see being here at Sugarloaf. An ultimate scenario would be to find a number of different jobs that I could do throughout the year,” Wescott said. “I have a good relationship with the people at Boyne [which owns Sugarloaf] and want to creatively bring my experience of going to hundreds of ski areas all over the world and seeing what works and doesn’t and trying to implement some of [the positive] here.”