Did you know Maine had a world champion snowboarder before Seth Wescott? Most Maine skiers have no idea that a young field hockey player from Raymond won the title of Women’s World Champion in Snowboard Cross in 1999.
Nikki Pilavakis-Davoren excelled in field hockey at Bonny Eagle High School and at Plymouth State College but never tried skiing until her parents moved to Rangeley while she was in college. She tried skiing while working during college breaks at Saddleback but never got beyond making it down the mountain. That changed when she saw a snowboarder while working at the top of the lift. Fascinated she had to try it and soon was hooked. That was in 1989 and she spent the rest of the winter teaching herself to ride. A fast learner, she wound up at Sugarloaf the following year as a snowboard instructor.
I talked with Nikki last week about her close call and learned a lot about her trip from sprinter to unenthusiastic skier to World Champion snowboarder.
“I was always an athlete and loved to train. As a sprinter I practiced in blocks and lifted weights,” she said. “The strength and reflexes I developed were perfect for the snowboard cross start and the hole shots I got gave me the lead coming out of the gate. That way I could concentrate on my own line without worrying about the rest of the field.”
That explained her quick success in a brand new sport, but what about winning in relative obscurity?
“It’s true that unless you were into snowboarding you probably didn’t hear about me, but I can’t dwell on what ifs,” she said.
Some of the girls Nikki rode against were still in the sport when it became part of the Olympics. Lindsey Jacobellis was one. But a knee injury had led to her meeting her husband at Orthopaedic Associates and she settled down instead of continuing her pursuit. The fame and financial rewards that would have come had her World Championships been Olympic Gold were the “what ifs.” Nikki Pilavakis-Davoren is now living in Yarmouth with her two girls and husband Tim. Now she thinks of returning to coaching, but doesn’t dwell on her near miss at fame.
Snowboarding isn’t the first sport added to the Olympics after Maine athletes demonstrated their prowess by winning championships. In the 1970s, a bunch of Maine skiers won freestyle titles before that was an Olympic event, and Maine contributed to the sport with skiers, coaches and officials. Sugarloaf and Pleasant Mountain had extensive programs and turned out a number of national champions. The only one to become a household name was Greg Stump mostly for his ski films. In addition to winning national freestyle titles, “Stumpy” appeared in ski films from Warren Miller and Dick Barrymore before taking up his place behind the camera.
He was joined in those early days of freestyle by his siblings Kim and Geoff and others from Pleasant Mountain, including Frank Howell, Bruce Cole, Peter Young and others. Lee Lee Morrison skied out of Pleasant Mountain and made the Canadian Freestyle team. There were others, such as the Dowlings from Cape Elizabeth, but the one who hit it the highest was a Sugarloafer.
Joan McWilliams won her first U. S. National Freestyle Combined title at Wildcat as a 15-year-old high school freshman in 1976 and repeated five consecutive times through 1980. In 1979, the event was finally sanctioned by FIS and McWilliams won the first ever Nor-Am competition. She also won the combined titles in 1980 and 1981. As a senior in college, the Sugarloafer returned to competition in 1983 to earn a berth on the newly formed U.S. Freestyle World Cup team and won every event she entered. Unfortunately she outjumped the hill in the Nationals and torn ligaments and fractured leg ended her career. Joan McWilliams Dolan dominated her sport just before it became an Olympic event. She received a lot of press at the time but no where near what would have come had her victories been in the same competition in the Olympics, which finally included freestyle in 1992.
Of course, the fixation of the media on Olympics to the exclusion of other sports in non Olympic years is well known to skiers. Julie Parisien is known for not winning an Olympic medal, but she finished fourth in slalom and fifth in GS in the 1992 games. The next year she won a Silver Medal in slalom in the World Alpine Championships against the same top skiers she faced in the Olympics. In fact, the World Championship fields are stronger than the Olympics, with six skiers from each World Cup Team. The Olympics have just four in each event, with many nations filling out the field with non World Cup competitors. Kirsten Clark is another Maine skier who fell short of an Olympic medal but won silver in Super-G at the World Championships. These are skiers who competed successfully against the best skiers in the world, but because their victories and medals were not in Olympics they don’t get the recognition.
The Maine Ski Hall of Fame recognize these skiers and riders and most of them are members. Nikki is the most recently inducted member of the Class of 2014. There is more to her story, and we’ll explore it further as I learn more about snowboarding (without actually trying it).
Merry Christmas. See you on the slopes.