CARRABASSETT VALLEY — Fifteen and wide-eyed, Seth Wescott traveled to his first U.S. Open Snowboarding Championships as a spectator, not a competitor.
Today, the 33-year-old Wescott is a master tactician whose ability to handicap and outsmart his competition are the primary reasons he’s a two-time Olympic gold medalist.
Little did those pioneering snowboarders know that Wescott’s keen eyes sized them up, also, that long-ago, late-winter day in Vermont.
“The guys who were the biggest heroes to me at the time were there, and I watched them turn down kids for autographs,” Wescott said. “I always said if I ever was in a position like that, I would make the effort. That’s just a small way to give back to a sport that has given you so much, instead of being the jerk on the other side of the coin that doesn’t want to take the time.”
All of which explains why Wescott’s welcome-home party Saturday at Sugarloaf was five minutes receiving and more than two hours of giving.
Heralded by a disc jockey and serenaded with all the techno-trappings that might accompany NBA player introductions, Wescott zigzagged down the competition hill to the roar of more than 1,000 spectators.
He climbed to the walkway overlooking the “beach” in front of the base lounge, then accepted congratulatory words from Gov. John Baldacci and a staffer of Sen. Olympia Snowe.
Wescott took the microphone for a three-minute series of thank-you remarks before writing the captive audience a blank check.
“I may get carpal tunnel before we’re done.” Wescott said, “but I’m going to try to get to all of you.”
And with that, Wescott retreated to the lower level and signed posters, helmets and snowboards for his biggest boosters of all ages, shapes and sizes.
Just another day in the life of Maine’s most prolific active athlete, a life that got infinitely more hectic when he sped away with his second straight snowboard cross gold in the opening week of the Vancouver Games.
The brief visit to home base ends Sunday, when Wescott embarks upon another post-Olympic promotional tour. Even he is not entirely sure of the itinerary, although at least one stop will involve sounding the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange.
“I pass out for about four hours every afternoon and get decent sleep most nights,” Wescott said. “There’s been a lot more (to do) this time around.”
BROKEN ROAD TO GOLD
Weighing the two Olympic championships side-by-side in other categories, Wescott described his title defense as both more stressful and rewarding.
Snowboard cross was a debut event at Turin in 2006. Wescott was the clear favorite, and relatively speaking, the picture of health.
“It’s been a trying four years. With the injury in 2007 and severely shattering my arm, I was doing the rehab and wondering, ‘Hey, am I going to get the full range of motion back, and how is this going to affect my starts?’ It meant a lot in 2009 to come back and win a World Cup event and be second in the world rankings at the end of the year,” Wescott said.
But haunted by a hip injury that made merely walking difficult over the holidays, Wescott didn’t feel whole in 2010 until winning his time trial at the January X Games.
Unseasonably warm weather in Vancouver resulted in the cancellation of multiple practice runs. And Wescott’s qualifying efforts were a disappointment.
That turned out to be a blessing, though, when higher-seeded foes folded under the weight of newfound pressure.
“Neither of my time trials went well, and that had been my strong suit all year. After that I was sitting on a spin bike, trying to keep my legs going, and the coach brought in my bib which was No. 17. That was my soccer jersey all the way from junior high up through high school,” Wescott said. “It was strange the way things happened that day. All the guys I thought I would be racing got booted out.”
U.S. teammate Nate Holland spun off course in the gold medal race after edging Wescott in the semifinal. It set the stage for Wescott to plot a textbook, inside pass of Canada’s Mike Robertson at the final, sharp bend.
“Jeff Archibald, who is one of our two head coaches and kind of our tactical guy, called me on the radio just before the race,” Wescott recalled. “He said Robertson had the best starts, but that from turn four down, I was about two seconds faster than the rest of the field.”
SUGARLOAFER FOR LIFE
The inevitable transition from a champion to a legend in his still-young sport will take Wescott away from his local fans and friends more frequently. But it won’t change his address.
Wescott spoke Saturday of stepping up his involvement with Sugarloaf as he eyes the twilight of his career. One of his visions involves the development of neighboring Spaulding Mountain for skiing and snowboarding.
And while U.S. teammates choose to congregate and train in more central locations, Wescott continues to favor going it alone in the wilds of Franklin County.
“If I want to go anywhere else, I’ve got friends all over the world who can get me on snow for a week. I’ve seen kids relocate to places like Mammoth (California) for the parks and the pipes, and that just never crossed my mind,” Wescott said. “I have friends who I’ve known since fifth, sixth, seventh grade that I like to hang out with. There’s no way to recreate that anywhere else, spending that time with the people who keep you grounded.”
He also cited the restfulness of the familiar mountain biking and running trails and sleeping in his own bed at night, elements that have become more valuable to Wescott in his 30s.
Rest is on Wescott’s agenda, believe it or not, once the next 10-day leg of public appearances and promotional stops is over.
Wescott and his coaches plan to taper off his training over the next two years, with the notable exception of preparations for the World Championships in Spain next January.
“I’m actually excited for next winter to have a little more down time,“ Wescott said. “I’ve been on the road full-time since ’96 now. I’m looking to take a little bit of a breather and get ramped up for everything I feel is important on the schedule.”
Don’t even think of taking that as a hint at retirement.
“No, I think it’s time to buckle down, train harder and get ready for the three-peat in Sochi,” he said.
Wescott will be 37 when the 2014 Russia Games cycle around. It’s well past the closing of the competitive window for most Olympic-caliber athletes.
U.S. snowboarding has succeeded where its skiing cousin has sometimes failed, in Wescott’s estimation, at rewarding veterans and late bloomers.
“For a long time, if you were a kid who didn’t achieve some kind of standing by age 17, (the U.S. ski team) overlooked you. That’s not a very good way to engage people in the sport,” Wescott said. “I blew out my knee in 2001, and I have friends who would have taken that as an end point to their career. I came back in ‘02 and finished that year ranked third in the world.”
Wescott will use his February fame throughout March to cross the country and try to convert youth of all ages to his sport.
He anticipates that the increasing difficulty and danger of freestyle endeavors will help his segment of the sport continue to skyrocket in popularity.
“You look at what Shaun White is doing and at some of the (catastrophic) injuries just this year, and the freestyle side of the sport is becoming unattainable,” Wescott said. “Now you’re looking at kids having to do double-flipping 1080s just to compete. Our goal is to generate interest in kids all over the United States, get them fired up about skiercross and boardercross.”
Whether it was the snaking souvenir line or massive gallery at the base of the hill that grabbed their attention, nobody had to look far Saturday to see that, in his hometown, Wescott is preaching to the choir.
With his actions on and off the snow.
Below Wescott signs the ski jacket of Sierra Wyman, 12, of Paris, Maine.