World-class Maine snowboarder faces new challenge

Posted March 24, 2012, at 6:03 a.m.
Russ Dillingham | Sun Journal

CARRABASSETT VALLEY — The elation of winning a lottery is quickly counteracted by the reality of taxes owed.

Celebrating the birth of a child almost immediately gives way to all-night changings and feedings and all-day bleary eyes.

While he’s only 21 and has yet to experience those particular peaks and valleys, Alex Tuttle now knows the feeling on some level.

Tuttle, a Carrabassett Valley Academy graduate from nearby Stratton, couldn’t have imagined floating much higher after claiming his first career World Cup podium finish — a silver medal — in a snowboardcross race March 14 at Valmalenco, Italy.

That race was the first half of a season-ending doubleheader at the European site. Tuttle’s aspirations of an explosive encore ended two days later in a freak collision and a catastrophic knee injury.

“I got hit by another rider and tore my ACL,” Tuttle said. “In not much more than 36 hours, I went from second place to blowing out my knee.”

Tuttle flew home to a hero’s welcome, the kind that have become second nature to his mentor, two-time Olympic gold medalist Seth Wescott of Farmington.

He also flew home to impending surgery and a summer’s worth of highs and lows in rehabilitation.

Snowboardcross has been compared to NASCAR. Racers compete in tight packs on winding courses and high speeds, wearing little armor other than a helmet.

Injuries are an accepted part of the game. Tuttle needs look no further than the competitor who edged him at the finish line in his breakthrough race. Norway’s Stian Sivertzen went from winning a World Cup gold medal at 18 to a career-threatening injury at 20.

“He was the overall champion a couple years ago and had a bad accident,” Tuttle said. “He’s definitely one of the guys we [measure ourselves] against.”

World Cup snowboardcross events average 70 to 90 entries. Riders compete in two time trials and four rounds of eliminations leading up to the six-man final.

Luck of the draw gave Tuttle the barometer he needed from the get-go.

“I was matched up with [Sivertzen] in the first heat. We were just battling all along,” Tuttle said. “I feel like I pushed him to win that first heat and then I saw how close it was and said, ‘Let’s do this thing.’ It was just a super solid day.”

Tuttle had flirtations with the top of the leader board in previous 2011-12 races. He was eighth in an event at Blue Mountain, Canada, and 10th on American soil at Telluride.

Italy’s concluding crash probably cost a Tuttle a top-10 finish in snowboardcross points. He wound up 12th overall.

“The gains I made over my first real World Cup season, that’s a lot to build on,” Tuttle said. “Three top-10s and one podium. Nobody else who is currently on the U.S. ‘B’ team had done that before.

“I really felt like it had been coming all year,” he added about his runner-up showing. “I had a couple rides where I was right on the edge of big finishes and going for podiums. I just finally had a day where I started to put it all together. From the beginning of the day I knew it was going to be good.”

Unlike Wescott, whose torn pectoral muscle cost him most of this season in the latter stages of his career, the timing of Tuttle’s troubles probably is fortuitous.

Tuttle is far ahead of schedule in the quest to become one of the best riders in the world. Wescott won his Olympic titles at 29 and 33.

“The average age of the World Cup podium guys is probably about 26 to 28,” Tuttle said.

One reason for the learning curve is the long, grinding schedule.

Along with the odd spacing of the World Cup events and the mid-winter X Games competition, Tuttle juggled several weeks off during the holidays, plus a smattering of two- and three-day trips home.

And as the season-ending stop demonstrated, the event itself can be unforgiving, with past success being no guarantee of future fortune.

“It’s very tactical. There are a lot of decisions to be made on the fly,” Tuttle said. “You need a little bit of luck on your side, no question, along with a fast board.”

Tuttle hopes the timing of his injury will prevent him from missing any World Cup starts.

The 2012-13 season is crucial as the final run-up to the 2014 Olympics at Sochi. Tuttle hopes to qualify for his first games.

“I plan to be ready for the start of the season,” Tuttle said. “Everybody has told me the full recovery is six months, and the first race is almost 10 months out at Telluride.”

Forget months. Tuttle now recognizes firsthand how much lives and careers can change — for better or worse — in a matter of hours.

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