Olympic athletes are modern-day heroes, displaying athletic feats across the globe. They break boundaries and astound us, but perhaps more importantly, they inspire us to act, to become better. But what happens when you become the best? Who, then, is your hero, your inspiration?
Recently, two-time Olympic gold medalist Seth Wescott has faced that very conundrum.
“It’s a weird experience when you get to the top of your sport because you can’t look to who your heroes were in your sport anymore. You have to transcend what they did or you’re never going to rise above them,” Wescott said in a recent interview at The Rack, the restaurant and bar he co-owns in Carrabassett Valley.
Wescott, who lives and trains in Carrabassett Valley, has recently found himself looking to athletes in other sports for inspiration.
“This last week, when I wake up in the morning, I’ve been watching the live feed on the internet from the world surf tour [ASP World Championship Tour],” said Wescott, whose most recent “hero” is the 40-year-old American surfer Kelly Slater, who was crowned ASP World Champion a record 11 times from 1992-2011.
Slater’s performance proves to Wescott that he could very well continue on to compete in the 2018 Winter Olympic Games set to be held in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
“I could be 41 and be right there, especially if I’m healthy and I keep working hard in these between years,” Wescott said.
Wescott himself rose to hero status in 2006, when he brought home his first Olympic gold medal in the snowboardcross, a brand new event at the Olympic Winter Games. Four years later, he defended his title in Vancouver and won his second gold medal.
“Being from a state with a small population, I meet people every day who are excited about what I’m doing, and in a way, you really feel like you’re carrying all of their hopes and dreams, and it becomes a very real, intangible thing,” he said.
“You know, it’s a weird process because in individual sports, you spend a lot of time alone,” he said. “I spend a lot of time running in the woods by myself or mountain biking by myself and paddling by myself. You do all this work for all this time to prepare yourself, and then, when you’re physically prepared, kind of all this extra energy comes your way, and you really do get to do something truly special that doesn’t feel like any other day that you’ll ever compete in your life. Just to experience that again, I’m so excited for the next year and a half.”
This winter, Wescott plans to compete in six or seven FIS Snowboard World Cup events, as well as the U.S. Open Snowboarding Championships, Feb. 25-March 3, all in preparation for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia.
Like any hero, Wescott has experienced his share of bumps and bruises along the way. Last winter, he tore his pectoral muscle during the Snowboard World Cup. The injury ended his competition season early and placed him in the operating room.
“Therapy went really well,” Wescott said. “Really, since about June 1, I haven’t been able to tell I was hurt, so it’s been good. I’ve been back in the weight room off and on throughout the summer.
“Most of the summer, I try to do stuff outside, so I got really into paddleboarding this year, spending a ton of time up on Flagstaff [Lake] and just exploring areas of the lake where I’d never been – just trying to work the upper body and rebuild and everything around the shoulder.”
Yet the Olympian’s life isn’t just about training.
He golfed 769 holes at the Sugarloaf Golf Club during the summer, and when the course closed down for the winter, he set to work cleaning up the edge of the forest so golfers, including himself, don’t get tangled up in the underbrush next year.
He has also been working with L.L.Bean to design and test a line of winter outerwear, set to debut in fall 2013.
“It’s really exciting to be able to step into a Maine company that’s 100 years old and be able to have a really direct and dramatic impact on moving a portion of their company forward by leaps and bounds … it’s really going to kind of be night and day for their winter wear.”
When it comes to charitable causes, Wescott’s major focus is getting children active in the outdoors. He is involved in WinterKids, a Maine-based organization that offers children discounted admission and rentals at ski mountains. And for the past few years, he has been supporting talented young athletes through The Level Field Fund, founded by fellow snowboarder Ross in 2001.
“My friends who are doing this with me – it’s Michael Phelps, Ross Powers and Daron Rahlves – we kind of all have the same story. We had to work really hard, do construction jobs in the summer to save money and whatever it took to get there,” Wescott said. “And so we’ve created the ability to give kids grants.”
Early in Wescott’s professional snowboarding career, he couldn’t afford plane tickets or even a car, so he’d take a Greyhound bus across the country to compete.
“Just stuff like that, not being able to afford anything other than Ramen noodles for a year – you know, it’s hard to be an athlete if you never eat protein,” he said.
“My head coach for the U.S. Team, he just has this quote that he uses a bunch that is like, ‘God, I wish I could just coach desire.’ You know, because ultimately, to be the best in the world at something, you really have to have this fire and this passion inside you that is willing to sacrifice and to overcome a lot to get there.”
From the beginning, Wescott has also struggled against stigmas attached to snowboarding. In the 80s, many ski mountains didn’t allow snowboarding, and while Sugarloaf did allow boards, many skiers displayed their prejudice.
“I was a 10-year-old and I’d have adults yelling at me from the chairlift,” Wescott said. “It was just weird. It always blows me away because ultimately, if you look at skiing or you look at snowboarding, it breaks down to this basic element of just wanting to slide on snow because it’s fun.”
Today, only a few ski mountains in the country continue to turn away snowboarders. And just last year, Wescott sat in the office of Dick Ebersol, the president of NBC Sports, and learned that snowboarding beat out men’s downhill skiing in TV ratings during Christmas week.
“I’m amazed at how far that acceptance has come, and it was really neat to have been a part of it in that transition phase,” Wescott said. “You know, I’m sure, whenever I have kids and they’re in their 20s, they’re not going to ever think it was ever that way.”
“I ultimately think that the Olympics deserves a majority of the respect for having gotten it there,” he added.
Wescott ends each year with a free-riding expedition to the Chugach mountain range in Alaska, where he and a few athletes from the Snowboard World Cup are dropped of by helicopter on mountain peaks to make their way down in the backcountry.
“I never want to stop doing those trips, and I think a part of it eventually will transition into guiding and using the experience I’ve gained over all the years going to those places to share that with others,” he said.
Whichever way his future goes, it’s clear that Wescott will continue to be active in the outdoors. In 2005, a tandem paragliding flight in Switzerland sparked an interest he plans to pursue after the 2014 Olympics.
“I just always thought it would be so cool,” he said, “on days when the winds are calm here, to go hike Sugarloaf in the summer and go fly off it, ride in the thermals.”
Visit Wescott’s official website at sethwescott.com.