Olympic snowboarders take to the course at Seven Springs

SEVEN SPRINGS, Pa. – For most people, the image of relaxation doesn’t involve hurtling through the air, twisting and contorting while strapped to a thin piece of wood and fiberglass no wider than their foot is long.

Then again, when you happen to be an Olympic snowboarder fresh off competing in the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, the term “relaxation” becomes quite relative.

About 130 of the world’s best young snowboarders ranging in age from 12 to their mid-20s – including five Olympians – converged on Seven Springs this week for The Launch, a non-competitive event sponsored by Snowboarder Magazine, which began Sunday and continues through today. This is the first time the event has been held at Seven Springs, after stops at destinations such as Lake Tahoe, Park City, Utah and Bear Mountain, Calif.

Snowboarding continues to grow in popularity, thanks in large part to the enormous exposure of the Olympics. According to Snowboarder Magazine editor Tom Monterosso, events like The Launch are key to continuing that trend.

“The Launch is a way to showcase the sport’s young talent, but I think its ultimate objective is to aid the progression of snowboarding,” Monterosso said. “I think it’s events like this that grow it at its core.”

When the decision was made to bring the event east of the Rocky Mountains for the first time, Seven Springs – hailed by the magazine as “one of North America’s foremost freestyle playgrounds” – was a natural choice, according to Snowboarder Magazine’s creative director, Pat Bridges.

“This is a world-class freestyle snowboarding destination. This is the beacon for snowboarding on the East Coast.”

The Launch typically rotates locations every two to three years, Monterosso said, so officials expect a return to the Keystone State in 2015. Joel Rerko, terrain park manager at Seven Springs, said the resort is excited to play a role in the growth of the sport.

“The Launch has consistently pushed the future of snowboarding and has provided a proving ground for up-and-coming athletes,” he said. “Our park program will provide a perfect venue for the riders by offering creative and innovative features for the athletes.”

For Gold, the week is a welcome break from what has been a busy year.

“It’s pretty nice to just be able to relax and just ride around your friends,” said Team USA member Taylor Gold.

With a last name like Gold, his aspirations to Olympic glory should come as no surprise. The 20-year-old Colorado native’s road to Sochi actually passed through Seven Springs, as he won the Burton U.S. Open qualifier there in 2013.

Noting course conditions prevented him from riding his best in Sochi, Gold said he was less than satisfied with his eighth-place finish in the men’s halfpipe semifinals. But overall, he said, it was an unforgettable experience, and he’s already thinking about the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

“To go and represent my country was just awesome,” he said. “I hope I get another chance to do it.”

Gold’s dream of becoming a professional snowboarder began when he watched the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City. Twelve years later, he can’t imagine doing anything else.

“I love what I do. To get paid to do it is pretty amazing. … I’ve been all over the world and I’m only 20, so it’s pretty special,” he said.

Two other Olympians at The Launch – New Zealand’s Christy Prior and American Seamus O’Connor, who chose to compete for his grandparents’ native Ireland – are living proof there’s more than one way to reach the top.

Snow sports have been a way of life for O’Connor, who strapped on his first pair of skis at the tender age of 18 months and began snowboarding at age 4. By contrast, Prior, at 25, is one of the older snowboarders at The Launch and never touched a snowboard until she was 17, older than many of her fellow participants at The Launch.

“I’m just blown away. They’re so good at such a young age,” Prior marveled.

Her first experience on the snow came during a visit with a snowboarder friend of hers who convinced her to give it a try. And once was all it took.

“I was like sure, whatever,” she said. “The first day out there was amazing. I said, ‘I want to do this all the time’.”

At 16, O’Connor keeps up a hectic schedule, taking online high school courses year-round in between putting time in on the hill and hitting the gym. He, too, is looking ahead to a possible run at South Korea in 2018 – but for now, he’s taking a break from competing and relishes the chance to snowboard for pure enjoyment for a while.

All things considered, though, he said the sacrifices have been worth it.

“I’ve given up a lot of my teenage social life, but on the other hand, I’ve gotten to do a lot of really awesome things. … It’s the best feeling in the world,” he said of snowboarding. “Isn’t that everybody’s dream, to be able to fly through the air?”

As for advice to aspiring young snowboarders, all agree that hard work and making the right choices – not just on the snow but in all aspects of life – is the key to success.

“There are some guys that work really hard on the hill but not in the gym, and that really hurts them,” Gold said.

The roster of Olympians at Seven Springs this week also includes Norwegian snowboarder Emil Ulsletten and 15-year-old Ayumu Hirano of Japan – the silver medalist in the halfpipe at Sochi.