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Saturday, January 28, 2006
Updated: May 14, 11:38 AM ET
Palm Reader

By Scott DeSimon

Copious man-tears were shed last night at Aspen's Wheeler Opera house at a preview for Palmer: Miserable Champion, a documentary on anti-hero Shaun Palmer. X Games icons such as Ross Powers, Nate Holland and Andy Finch (in an air cast after tweaking his ankle in Friday's snowboard SuperPipe practice) turned out to peep the work-in-progress. What they saw was an emotional blast that transcended the usual gee-whiz action sports movies to touch a universal nerve of redemption.

The film, being put together by multiple X Games gold medalist Palmer and sports management agency Octagon, tells the epic story of an athlete with otherworldly talent and even greater demons; a troubled mofo straight from the trailer parks of Tahoe who channeled his anger into dominating whatever sport he chose: Snowboarder X, mountain biking, Moto X and Skiercross. The man was a force who could be stopped by no one—except himself.

And that's exactly what happened. After losing out on a spot on a pro Moto X team in 2003, Palmer went on what he calls "an extended bender." (Not that it was easy to distinguish the ratcheting up of his self-destructive habits.) He ended up overdosing on cocaine, prescription painkillers and booze on May 30, 2005. When he woke up in the hospital, Palmer knew he had to get his life together and he set his sight on making the Olympics in a sport he helped define, Snowboard Cross, even though he hadn't competed for several years. What he accomplished, like most things in his life, pushed the boundaries of both triumph and tragedy.

Palmer was the guest of honor at the Wheeler, hobbling around on crutches, the result of surgery to repair a severed Achilles tendon on January 16th—an injury that kept him from completing what would have been a Hollywood comeback, but one that instead adds another chapter to his story.

The film bounced between the punk energy of Palmer's early years and the sober reflections of his mom, his long-time agent Bob Klein and talking heads from Danny Kass (a sort of present day PG-13 Palmer) to Jake Burton to X Games founder Ron Semiao. If you knew nothing about Palmer, the film quickly made you realize two things: the dude liked to get wasted and he loved to win. Somehow he managed to do both in equal measures—for a while, anyway.

The lights came up to a room full of misty-eyed tattooed softies making sure they weren't the only ones moved to tears by Palmer's classic rise and fall and rise. But the emotional high point was still to come. To a standing ovation, Palmer slowly made his way down to the front of the theater. He began to thank the audience but was overcome and had to stop. Eventually, he pulled himself together to address the Olympic Snowboard Cross team he had been a part of until two weeks ago.

"You guys are a great team," he said, choking back tears. "I wish you the best of luck over there." With that, Palmer broke down again as the audience rose to their feet to pick him up.

Afterward, the crowd stuck around to remember the raging genius of Palmer and speculate on his future—clean, sober and back in the game.

"I was rooting for him to make it to Torino," said Ross Powers, 2002's Olympic gold medalist in halfpipe. "I really wanted to walk in with him to the opening ceremony."

Surrounded by his friends, Palmer himself was far from his angry young man pose. "Editing this film was therapy," he said. "And the great thing about tonight is that I knew 80% of the people here. They know me. They get me. I'm looking forward to doing the rest of it but it will take time. You' can't tell 20 years and four sports quickly."

The plan is to finish the film in time for next year's Sundance festival and hunt for a distributor. For Hollywood-types, the fact that Palmer didn't get to stand on the podium in Torino might be a story problem. But as the preview showed, perfect endings aren't always the best endings.

Says Palmer's longtime agent Bob Klein, "The story is the story. It doesn't matter about the timing."

Besides, this one isn't over yet—not by a long shot.