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The Chuck Wielgus Blog: Snowboarding in Sochi

2/11/2014

Wielgus (small)During my career, I have been given numerous opportunities to work with a wide range of sports. While living and working in Vermont, I organized and ran the Inaugural State Swimming Championships, helped to establish lacrosse as a high school sport, and coached basketball. In South Carolina, I spearheaded an initiative to develop public parks and recreation programs, and was the point person for the construction of Hilton Head island’s first public recreation center.

When I came to USA Swimming, I was encouraged to bring an entrepreneurial spirit and to look for ways to raise the profile of the sport. Over the years, some people have complimented me for my vision. While flattering, anyone issuing this compliment is not fully aware of my history.

In the winter of 1982, I was asked by my friend, Paul Graves, to help organize a new event as part of the Winter Carnival activities that I was in charge of in Woodstock, Vermont. The event was to be a “snurfing” or snow surfing competition, which we ambitiously titled “The National Snow Surfing Championships.”

Paul was a champion snurfer. Snurfer boards were over-sized skateboards, with a rope attached to a hole in the front of the board. The rider pulls on the rope, lifting the nose of the board and allowing the rider to slide down a snow covered hill. Most of the riders in this “National Snow Surfing Championships” would be riding snurfers, but there were a few riders who had built their own snow surf boards, which they called snowboards.

We held the event at the Suicide Six Ski Area in Woodstock. There were 26 contestants. Our starting gate at the top of the hill consisted of a kitchen table turned upside down, with the legs sticking up in the air. We had a walkie talkie hook up that allowed us to communicate from the starting gate at the top of the hill to the finish line near the bottom. I was at the starting gate and one of my co-workers was at the finish line with a stop watch; they would start the stop watch when we yelled “go” into the walkie talkie as each racer pushed off between the legs of the upside down kitchen table.. Needless to say, it wasn’t a very high tech operation.

We ran both downhill and slalom competitions. When the event was over we all gathered to celebrate in the ski lodge. Paul and several of the other better riders were very excited about the event and lobbied me to commit to plan and organize an even bigger event the following year.

For me, it had not been a fun day. The temperatures were below freezing; it was just a cold, cloudy, rainy, miserable, Vermont winter day. As Paul and others continued to push me to make a commitment, I finally stated my case, “Guys, this sport is going nowhere,” and with that my involvement was over.

Flash forward 20 years to 2002. Late one night I received a phone call from what sounded like a bar or night club; there was loud music, glasses clinking and people yelling. Finally, I was able to hear a few people talking, and then they started passing the phone around to one another. They were calling from the after-party at the 2002 U.S. National Snowboarding Championships.

The callers included some of the same people who had been among the 26 participants at that 1982 National Snow Surfing Championships; Paul Graves, Jake Burton and Tom Sims, people who would go on to lead snowboarding to the highest level of recognition when it became an Olympic sport in 1998. “We just wanted to talk to the guy who told us our sport was going nowhere,” one yelled into the phone.

It was a happy, boisterous group of revelers who called me that night. I laughed hard at their ribbing and I laugh hard every time I think about that cold miserable day more than 30 years ago when I told the pioneers of snowboarding that their sport was going nowhere.

The First National Snow Surfing Championships in 1982 are considered among the Top 10 moments in snowboarding history. I played a role in that event, but my role will only live on as a footnote to settle a bar bet for the role I played in helping to launch the sport of snowboarding.

Anytime someone has tried to compliment me about something, I enjoy telling them the story of how I completely misjudged the sport of snowboarding. Fewer sports have grown in popularity so fast and it has been great fun to see how far the sport has come from that cold day when my kitchen table served as a starting gate for the inaugural national championships. So much for being a visionary!

 

Chuck Wielgus can be contacted at cwielgus@usaswimming.org. All of his blogs are archived at www.usaswimming.org: click on “News” and then click on “Org News & Blogs”.