On the day the Red Bull Supernatural went down, riders awoke before dawn and stumbled, bleary eyed, into the snowcat waiting for them outside Baldface lodge. The face where the contest was held only gets direct light for a short window of time, and it happens early, so the myriad of details required to make sure the event got underway on schedule had to be taken care of even earlier -- including making sure the riders' legs were "contest ready."
Red Bull Supernatural
It was still dark when 18 of the world's best big mountain freestyle snowboarders were dropped off for their warm-up run; still dark as they lined up along the ridge above, strapped into their boards and squinted off into the distance, wondering how they were going to ride down, when they couldn't see the run below them.
And then the sun rose. The rose-tinted light of early morning hit the Craig's cross first: The handmade memorial to the legendary godfather of backcountry style, Craig Kelly, whose spirit lives solidly on at Baldface even though his person does not, sits in the middle of the ridge, overlooking the lodge on one side, and what the riders quickly discovered was their warm-up run on the other. Then the sun lit the snow on fire, and without any pre-planning, discussion or call-out, all 18 riders dropped into their first run of the day, together.
Later that night, the news that the same man who had reached into the vast expanse of his imagination, pulled the dream that was the Supernatural out of it, and spent two years laboring to turn that dream into a reality had won the event made it out of the Canadian woods, and into the world at large. And a couple jaded snowboard bloggers, typing on keyboards thousands of miles away, re-posted the news, followed by the journalistic equivalent of the sound, "pffbbbt!" -- the idea behind the knee-jerk dismissal being that because Travis Rice created the contest, somehow it was bad form for him to win it.
It shouldn't matter. They weren't there, so they couldn't know -- and after the contest airs on NBC this Saturday it will be clear why it never occurred to anyone who was actually at the event, including the snowboarders who rode in it, to even consider begrudging Rice his victory. Yet somehow, it does matter. Because to judge the success of the Supernatural in terms of "winning" and "losing" is to completely miss the point. And it's an important one.
Ever since the first multi-national corporation stuck a photo of a snowboarder in a jester hat and a Karate Kid crane pose on a billboard, advertising some random product using the the word X-treme, snowboarders have been struggling to gain control over the mainstream definition of what snowboarding "is." The story changes as time changes, and it is almost always a travesty.
We managed to escape the day when every story about snowboarding written by someone outside our culture inevitably compared us to monkeys or juvenile delinquents, only to find ourselves in an era dominated by a star who has become so famous for being freakishly good at winning contests that the rest of the world is starting to believe that his name and "snowboarding" are synonymous, and thus completely interchangeable. And with this belief comes the idea that winning and individual glory is something that is important in snowboarding, when in fact it's actually just an inevitable byproduct of an activity practiced by a very small minority inside the larger group of people who live, breathe and love this sport.
As one of the few snowboarders who registers on the radar of mainstream consciousness, Travis Rice has a rather unique opportunity to try to push another story about what snowboarding "is" out into the world. With his movies he's already begun to refocus the spotlight shining on him onto actual mountains and the people who ride them the most creatively. So why not go a step further: Take a daydream, turn it into a real-life playground, invite the cream of the backcountry style-master crop to jump around in it, call it a "contest," and in doing so try to change our ideas about what a contest could actually be?
There is inherent beauty in competition, in that it brings together groups of people who are truly great at what they do, and hopefully puts them into a situation where they inspire each other to do the thing that they do best better than they ever have before. In an ideal scenario, progression is a communal goal, and the joy experienced when someone pushes the level of the game up another notch is not an individual feeling, but an emotion shared by the collective whole.
To say that Rice achieved this with the Supernatural is an understatement. The shared happiness experienced by a group of friends doing something fun together is the reason most people snowboard -- if it's not why they get into it, it's why they stay. To recreate this, in contest form then, is to come close to telling the true story of snowboarding. People might not understand the message, but at least it's out there. The winning thing? That just kind of happened. It is bringing the Supernatural to life in the first place that was Rice's real victory.
The Red Bull Supernatural airs on NBC on Saturday at 1 p.m. ET. Don't miss it.