SLAM!Sports
February 17, 2006
Zoom and 'board
By ERIC FRANCIS -- Calgary Sun

BARDONECCHIA, Italy -- Somewhere amid the whoops and waves, kickers and banks, Tom Velisek's medal chances in the very first Olympic snowboard cross event took a faceplant yesterday.

And it didn't faze him one bit.

"Coming out of the fourth corner, I caught a phantom snow snake and that was pretty much the end of it," chuckled the 25-year-old Canadian.

With a shrug and a smile, the product of Nelson, B.C., was content to chalk up his Olympic undoing to something he probably made up with his pals.

"It's when you're riding down the hill and everything's going great and then -- wham! -- that's a phantom snow snake," explained Velisek, shortly after fellow Canadian Jasey-Jay Anderson finished fifth.

"Hey, anything can happen at any time. That's what makes it such a cool sport."

Welcome to the newest and gnarliest addition to the Winter Olympics, a four-man roller derby on snow that is the short-track speed skating of the hills.

Tony Hawk meets NASCAR.

In the latest version of a sport that produced Ross Rebagliati and the Flying Tomato, snowboard cross caters to the spectator, which is why close to 10,000 people who jammed into the Melezet ski complex left trying to score tickets to today's women's event.

Imagine seeing a competitor at these Games having fun without winning a medal.

Only at boarding.

Even Anderson was cool with a semifinal collision and subsequent disqualification that kept him out of the final dash for gold.

"When I crashed, I thought I went over the stubby (gate) but oh well," said the Mont-Tremblant, Que., product, who filed a mild protest to no avail. "As far as the disappointment, it's boarder cross."

Demanding the most of a racer's acrobatic and alpine skills, the course set up by Whistler's Jeff Ihaksi is a narrow, never-ending series of bumps, turns, jumps and obstacles that make passing tough and staying on your feet even tougher. The top two racers of each heat move on until a winner is declared in the 'big final.'

"Any snowboard cross racer will tell you it's 50 percent talent and ability and 50 percent rolling the dice," said former snowboarder-turned Canadian coach Mark Fawcett.

"The sport keeps reinventing itself Olympics after Olympics and continues to push along at a level we never dreamed about

15 years ago."

Stoking the crowd from start to finish, competitors battle to the end, only to cross the finish line and embrace one another, exchange high-fives and form devil-horns with their fingers. Even the losers play to the grooving grandstand, including Velisek who performed his trademark Tomahawk (forward flip) when coming over the course's final jump.

"I think snowboarding is really becoming the heart and soul of the Olympic Games," said American gold medallist Seth Wescott, a halfpiper at heart.

Winning his 'small final,' Anderson claimed fifth, teammate Francois Boivin of Jonquiere, Que., was 10th, Drew Neilson of Vernon, B.C., 17th and Velisek 23rd.

"The sky is the limit for boarder cross," beamed Velisek, pumped up about Canada's top-rated women, Dominique Maltais and Maelle Ricker, competing today. "It's easy to know what's going on. There are no judges and everybody likes a good wipeout."

Even if it's caused by a phantom snow snake.


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