New-Wave Olympians

Posted: Thursday, February 07, 2002

Kids, please don't try this at home. Especially from the roof of your house.

Doing twisting, turning dives from the two-story chimney of his family home onto mattresses commandeered from his bedroom when his parents were gone -- like, duh! -- is how Eric Bergoust began the long, strange trip that led to his first Olympic gold medal at Nagano in 1998, and possibly a second in Salt Lake City later this month.

But even the irrepressible Bergoust finds it odd that an insurance company would recreate his peculiar introduction to aerial skiing in a pre-Olympic TV spot.

"I was really surprised when All State featured that,'' said Bergoust, who was probably more upset that a stunt man portrayed him in the commercial. (All they had to do was ask!)!

"I was even worried about putting that photo on my web site (,'' added Bergoust, suddenly sounding strangely responsible at age 32. "I don't want to be liable for someone trying to imitate me.

"I want to throw out a disclaimer: Don't do it! I was a highly trained, crazy little kid at the time!''

Meet the new breed of Winter Olympians, an assortment of aerialists, snowboarders and mogul skiers who, with Gen X music trumpeting their arrival, have crossed over from the no-limits world of the X Games and brought their carefree athletic talents and lifestyles to the traditionally staid Winter Games.

Welcome to the world of moguls skier Jonny Moseley, whose trademark Dinner Roll jump will earn him either a second Olympic gold medal or several broken bones.

Enter the strange, daring world of Bergoust, who after sailing to a height of more than 30 feet will twist and flip three times only because the international governing body won't let him attempt four.

Here's a world that in the last 15 years has moved from its province on ESPN2 and MTV into prime time. Halfpipe snowboarders have evolved from a sidewalk society of slackers into an elite gathering sanctioned by no less than the tight-collared aristrocrats of the International Olympic Committee.

To suggest that these relatively new Olympians look at the their assignments differently than, say, Michelle Kwan or Picabo Street is like saying George Bush and Osama bid Laden have different views on international diplomacy.

Not that they aren't excited at the prospect of representing their country on the international stage.

"I was stoked,'' J.J. Thomas, a 20-year-old halfpiper and former X Games champ, said of learning he'd been picked to the U.S. Olympic team. "I was, like -- good, great, cool.''

True. But how is Thomas handling the spotlight, the pressure to win and the potential monetary bonanza that might follow?

"No biggie,'' he replied. "I'm just having fun.''

Parallel slalom snowboarder Peter Thorndike also just wants to have fun-un. That's why he didn't fully understand the seriousness of teammate Chris Klug's liver disease -- the same one that killed Walter Payton -- until he watched an NBC in-flight feature that detailed Klug's comeback from a liver transplant.

"We all kinda razzed him about it,'' Thorndike said of Klug, who also was on the flight. "It was pretty cool.''

In retrospect, however, the Olympics may have needed this infusion of unintentional irreverence more than the new-look hotdoggers needed the international stage.

"I think the Olympic Committee looked at snowboarding as a breath of fresh air. Snowboarding is youth,'' said slalom racer Rosey Fletcher, who has a diamond embedded in a front tooth and an affinity for wild-colored wigs when clubbing in Europe.

"The Olympics had gotten to the point that kids were interested, but had to be driven to watch them,'' Fletcher added. "But the allure of snowboarding has always been the lifestyle, the way music and sports feed off each other. It's why young people embraced it.

"I always thought it provided a freedom (traditional) skiing never did.''

There is, of course, a tradeoff. For in attracting the attention of corporate America and more traditional -- ie., older -- Olympic viewers comes a need to, what, tone things down a smidge? Become more -- dare we say it? -- respectable?

X Games types who once said money was never a driving force now watch Moseley doing well-paid endorsements for Sprint. Some go as far as to suggest their Olympic brethren have sold their souls.

Fletcher, runnerup in the parallel giant slalom World Championships in 1999 and 2001, says she can live with the tradeoff.

"Some snowboarders feel the Olympics have stolen the soul from the sport,'' she acknowledged. "And, if you let it, it will.

"But the Olympics only solidified snowboarding as a sport to a vast number of people who didn't know it existed,'' Fletcher added. "If that's selling your soul, so be it.

"Snowboarding needed the Olympics, too. We've certainly gotten more of corporate America involved now, and that's helped the sport. Some snowboarders see that as a bad thing, but I say the more, the merrier.

"When I started out in snowboarding, it was all studded hair and punk look. Now the image is more refined. But inside, snowboarders are the same. The lifestyle is the same, the attitude is the same.''

Even an old school Olympic traditionalist like TV commentator Jim McKay seems ready to embrace the new wave.

"One of the things I'm most looking forward to is the freestyle skiing,'' the ABC veteran turned NBC storyteller said recently.

"I remember the first time I saw it near our house in Vermont. Kids were doing all these wild things in the air, and people along the sloops would yell, 'Stop it! Don't do that again.' Next thing I know they're doing it competitively.

"It still looks dangerous, something only crazy kids would do,'' McKay added. "But I watched a live coverage NBC did a couple of weeks ago, and the winners looked like the nicest, most appealing kids. And I thought, 'They'll be a big story.' ''

That's hardly the reaction Bergoust was seeking when he moved his early jump training from his chimney to a bridge over a nearby river. He would launch himself from a mini-trampoline set on the bridge's edge, work on his twists and land in the river.

And. just for grins, he'd often wait until an approaching motorist provided an unsuspecting audience.

"Look, we lived on a ranch 20 miles from town, so we had to find ways to entertain ourselves! It was entertaining for us to entertain other people, I guess,'' Bergoust offered. "So, just before a car came across the bridge, we'd run across, disappear over the side of the bridge and freak 'em out.''

Are we sure Jim McKay is ready for this?

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