Monday, February 9, 1998
Start shreddin' the news
Lumpy died 38 days ago, buried in an avalanche at Kootenay National Park that killed six others.
Geoff (Lumpy) Leidal was one of Ross Rebagliati's best friends. They used to ski together at Whistler, snowboard together, just hang out.
So before he had his gold medal run at Mt. Yakebitai and long after the confusion and the celebrations were over, it was his lost friend that Canada's newest hero kept talking about. The friend who missed his greatest day.
"I dedicated this race to him,'' Rebagliati said in one of a series of interviews he gave after winning the first Canadian medal at the Winter Olympics, a gold in the snowboarding giant slalom event. This was for Lumpy, but not only for him.
This was for a father he used to fight with, who had paid his own way from Vancouver to be beside the course on race day. This was for his grandmother back home who, after getting a call from him on a cellular phone before the medal presentations, told him about all the mistakes he had made on his first run down the course. This was for everyone who told him he was crazy to get into an unconventional sport.
This was for his start in snowboarding, which began as his idea and ended up the very same day as the reason his father asked him to move out. Ross Rebagliati was 15 years old the day he came home and told his dad he wasn't going to ski competitively anymore.
His father Mark was furious. So many hours, so many lessons, so much money lost. "I'm taking up snowboarding,'' Ross said. With an emotional response, his father kicked his son out of his house.
Along with his dog, Rebagliati left for his girlfriend's house. He was gone for seven days until sanity prevailed. Yesterday, his father called the gold medal achievement by his son "the greatest day of my life.''
For Rebagliati, it was a day of achievement, of raging emotions, of some fear and some excitement. There was all the hugging and the goodwill at the bottom of the hill, from his fellow Canadian team members, from the Americans who seemed as happy for him as the Canadians were, from the insiders of this niche sport starving for a larger stage. They were all so happy for Ross Rebagliati.
But then there was the chaos. First with his leaving the snowboarding venue at Shiga Kogen. Rebagliati left in a Canadian van. Protocol had it he was supposed to leave in a Nagano van. Upon his departure, a pack of snowmobiles was dispatched to stop him from leaving the site.
Then later, in Rebagliati's uncomfortable welcome to celebrity status, security broke down after the medal presentation and the anthem was played at Central Square at Nagano City. It was, for lack of a better term, a mob scene. One Japanese fan broke through security to ask for an autograph. Then another fan. Then another. Until people were grabbing at him and one person tried to pull his medal from around his neck.
"He was a little bit frightened by the whole scene,'' said Paul Rivard, the press attache for snowboarding. "It was like one of those Beatles scenes you used to see. People were screaming, mobbing him.
"We have already spoken to our security people. We don't want this to happen again to any of our athletes.''
But before that, Rebagliati said he has been preparing all his life for this major victory, for becoming a genuine celebrity in his home country. Gold medals do that to athletes - they change people's lives.
"It's been in the works for a few years, getting to this point,'' the 26-year-old said. "Everybody has been my school for this. I'm not afraid of (being a celebrity).''
It didn't appear after Rebagliati's first run that he was going to be in the medals. He was in eighth place. But then everything changed. The second run began. The course slowed. Heavy fog rolled in. The winds picked up. The race was delayed and almost cancelled.
"The visibility was limited,'' Rebagliati said. "It wasn't easy to see anything but the gates. The light was flat. It was pretty hard to see the snow. But I've had luck with adversity in the past ... I knew I'd rather have a no-time than a slow time.''
And one by one, those who were ahead dropped back, including Canadian Jasey-Jay Anderson, who led after the first run, but wound up in 16th place.
The Canadian favorite, Mark Fawcett, had ended his race early, crashing to the snow, but was one of the first at Rebagliati's side to celebrate.
"I let him know that he's one of my inspirations,'' Rebagliati said. "He said maybe it's time for me to be his inspiration.''
At the end of the first day of Olympic snowboarding, many of the thousands on hand stood and cheered. This was a victory for a Canadian but also a victory for a brand new Olympic sport.
"It was electric here,'' Rebagliati said. "The vibe going through the crowd was pretty wild. The spirit of the Olympics really shone today.''
He was asked about his plans to celebrate. "It's going to take a long time to celebrate,'' the gold medallist said. "I'm going to be celebrating the rest of my life.''