Snowboarder Palmer looks for
another peak after some valleys
National Multi-Sports News
TELLURIDE - They call him "The
Miserable Champion." At age 41, snowboarding pioneer Shaun Palmer has seen
plenty of both - championships and misery. Now he's searching for a happy
It was supposed to arrive four years
ago, when snowboardcross - the sport he helped invent alongside old-school
skiing buddy Glen Plake - made its Olympic debut at Turin in 2006. That was
the discipline Palmer virtually owned since its evolution into competition
at the Winter X Games, the event in which he won three of his six Winter X
Games gold medals dating to 1997. The others came in skicross, downhill
mountain biking and a ski/snowboard hybrid race called "ultracross."
And after working his way back from an
alcohol and drug-induced coma that nearly cost him his life on Memorial Day
weekend in 2005, Palmer almost found his happily ever after.
Palmer bucked all odds when he earned
his spot on the 2006 U.S. Olympic Snowboard Team with a World Cup podium
finish in Bad Gastein, Austria, one month before opening ceremonies. At a
race in Italy two weeks later, he ripped his Achilles tendon in half.
"It was pretty…depressing, especially
after you know you're going to the Olympics," said the resident of South
Lake Tahoe, Calif., who was named ESPN's action sports athlete of the year
in 2001. "But, I mean, that's life. We have to take our punches, and that's
why I'm here now. It's not a good thing, but it's definitely motivation for
Palmer is back this season for another
shot at the Olympics, saying that the injury doesn't affect his snowboarding
these days. And after qualifying second at the opening World Cup
snowboardcross race of the season a month ago and 12th here in Telluride
last weekend, it would seem that the speed is still there.
He could become the oldest man to
qualify for the U.S. Olympic Team with a repeat of his 2006 performance, but
he has only three chances left to do it — the next one in Bad Gastein in
January. After two of five Olympic qualifying races, he has finished no
better than 17th. Clearly time is running short for the man, who served for
years as the face of action sports, to go out on top.
"For Palm, his speed is there, and
he's having good days in training. But it's tough. Your reaction times have
to be so quick in all this, and I'm sure that gets harder the older you
get," U.S. snowboardcross coach Peter Foley said. "The pieces are in place,
really, and from a technical standpoint, he's got all the skills, so it's
really up to him."
It's a role Palmer is accustomed to.
Despite professional success in an array of action sports ranging from
skiing and snowboarding to motocross and mountain biking (in which he won
the world championship in dual slalom and came 0.15 seconds short of a
second title in downhill), the notorious partier who once fronted a punk
rock band has never made things easy for himself as a competitor.
His legendary pre- and post
competition binges culminated in a flight-for-life helicopter ride to a
Reno, Nev., hospital after a falling-out with sponsors in 2005. But the
event doubled as a catalyst for change, with the Olympic ideal serving as
the model. "I definitely have an addictive personality. Everything I do is
full throttle," Palmer said. "As far as winning, that's just a substitute
for the addiction. I'm addicted to this too, but it's a healthy one. That's
why I'm trying to stick it out."
After checking himself into a rehab
program to gain a better understanding of his addiction last spring, Palmer
is clearly focused on the challenge before him. But health and sobriety go
only so far in an aggressive sport in which four riders line up at the top
of a mountain and battle their way down an obstacle-riddled course to the
finish line. "The young reflexes are tough to battle," Foley said. "And I
think sometimes that the older you get, the harder it becomes to really,
really punch it and really lay it on the line."
Whether that was the case when Palmer
was eliminated in the first round of head-to-head racing during the Olympic
qualifier Saturday, only Palmer knows for sure. But in a tight heat in which
all four riders were separated by no more than a board length at the finish,
he was as much in the mix as anyone.
And after earning his reputation for
more than a decade off an uncanny ability to grab the "hole shot" out of the
start and hang onto a lead to the finish, no one is counting Palmer out as
the race goes down to the wire.
"Shaun Palmer is one of the best
boardercrossers ever, and to have him on this team and to get his knowledge
and have someone like that as a teammate to pump you up and train with is
awesome," said Ross Powers, whose third-place finish in Telluride put him in
solid position to claim one of the four anticipated Olympic Team spots.
"He's 41 and still one of the top guys out here. I'd love to do well and go
on (to the Olympics) with him."
As for the one they call "miserable,"
Palmer obviously still believes there's a place for him in Vancouver. And he
looks forward to it with the positive determination of a champion.
"You don't want to go back, don't
dwell on the past. That's history. You gotta move forward, and that's
getting to the Olympics. That's the goal," Palmer said. "I just want to win
and walk away."
Shaun Palmer's career highlights
2008: Jeep King of the Mountain
2008 & 2006: World Cup snowboardcross
silver medals, Bad Gastein
2002: Gravity Games skicross gold
2001: ESPY for Action Sports athlete
of the year
2001: Winter X Games ultracross gold
2000: Winter X Games skier X gold
2000: Won Pike's Peak Hill Climb auto
2000: NEA extreme athlete of the year
1999: Winter X Games boarder X gold
1999: NORBA national championship,
dual slalom biking gold
1998: USA Today's Worlds greatest
1998: Details Magazine's athlete of
1998: Winter X Games boarder X gold
1997: Winter X Games downhill biking
and boarder X gold
1996: Mountain bike world
championships silver medalist, downhill
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