Commentary

Slope style

Updated: February 12, 2010, 11:38 AM ET
By Jon Mahoney | ESPN RISE

Ben WattsMichael Schmitt/ESPN RISE MagazineSince his first time on the slopes, Ben Watts has been special. At only 16, he's on the 2010 U.S. Snowboarding Rookie Team and competes on the Winter Dew Tour and U.S. Grand Prix.

This story appeared in the Oregon edition of the Jan./Feb. ESPN RISE Magazine.

Alan Watts had never really been a big fan of snow. So he was understandably a little uneasy when he went to pick up his 7-year-old son, Ben, at a snowboarding lesson and didn't see him coming down the slope with his class.

The snow was falling at a good clip and visibility was low that day at Mt. Bachelor, so Alan feared something had happened. The instructor put Alan at ease by telling him Ben had been moved to the intermediate class because he'd had lessons before and was clearly better than the group he'd been placed in.

Only this was Ben's first lesson.

"It came to him real easily," says Alan.

Ben Watts didn't stop there. Since picking up his board, Watts has quickly become one of the top young talents in the country. Only 16, the Summit sophomore earns close to six figures a year as a professional snowboarder and is a member of the 2010 U.S. Snowboarding Rookie Team.

"With his skills, you're thinking he could be 18 or 19," says Dave Reynolds, who coached Watts with the Mt. Bachelor Sports Education Foundation snowboard program.

Watts originally was more into skateboarding. His dad built a 4-foot ramp for him in the backyard when he was 8 and Watts began entering skating competitions. A number of Watts' fellow skaters received free gear for the events, so his father put a highlight tape together and sent it out to skating companies with the hopes of netting a similar deal. At the end of the package was some snowboarding footage.

The company that showed the most interest in Watts ended up being top snowboard manufacturer Burton, which thought Watts had so much promise as a snowboarder that it gave him a sponsorship deal two months after he turned 10.

"It was a really exciting time for me," says Watts. "That was when snowboarding took off. I didn't really think snowboarding could be such a big thing for me."

Watts trained with the Mt. Bachelor Sports Education Foundation from age 8 to 13 and went undefeated locally in slopestyle snowboarding while losing only one competition in halfpipe. He also captured slopestyle and halfpipe titles at the 2006 European Open in Switzerland and a halfpipe crown at the same event in 2007.

[+] EnlargeBen Watts
Michael Schmitt for ESPNRISE.comAt just 13, Watts raked in top-tier sponsors like Burton, Nike 6.0, Monster Energy Drink and Oakley.

From there, companies wanted to pay Watts to ride. At 13, he teamed up with Burton, Nike 6.0, Oakley and Monster Energy Drink to officially become a pro rider.

His first big win as a pro came in 2007 at the USA Snowboard Association Nationals at Northstar in Lake Tahoe, Calif. Competing in the open division, Watts took the overall title after finishing first in slopestyle and third in halfpipe.

Watts wasn't exactly in a celebratory mood after the win, however. Earlier in the week, his friend Tyler Eklund fell while practicing and was paralyzed from the neck down. Immediately after the event, Watts donated his winnings to a fund to help Eklund's family.

"He's always been a good friend of mine," says Watts. "It was really heartbreaking to see it happen."

"I just went off and cried a little because I was so proud of him," adds his father.

It was a pretty impressive show of maturity for a 13-year-old during a difficult time. But for Watts, it was nothing out of the ordinary. He's never really acted his age. Unlike most teenagers, he doesn't play video games. He's a big fan of architecture, and in particular he's fascinated by skyscrapers like the Sears Tower and the Empire State Building, both of which he's visited.

Instead of today's top musical artists, Watts prefers listening to legends like The Beatles, Led Zeppelin and The Who. He got his first electric guitar for his 11th birthday and has also learned to play the acoustic guitar and piano. He's written and recorded more than 20 of his own songs.

"Music really serves as a relaxation, a way for me to communicate my thoughts and my feelings even if nobody is there to listen," says Watts. "It's a completely different aspect of my life that's separate from snowboarding."

Attending Summit (Bend, Ore.) during the fall and spring -- Watts takes online classes while competing in the winter -- adds a degree of normalcy to his life. The sponsorships, money and media attention haven't fazed him.

"He's almost embarrassed by the attention he gets," says his dad.

"I'm just a normal kid," adds Watts.

Albeit one who's competing on the Winter Dew Tour and in the U.S. Grand Prix. Last year, his best finish was a sixth-place showing in halfpipe at the Grand Prix in Killington, Vt.

And he's getting better by the day. He can already do a 900-degree spin off all four angles of snowboard spins -- frontside, backside, switch backside and cab.

"When something is put in front of him, he can figure it out pretty dang quick," says Reynolds.

With the U.S. Rookie Team, Watts has had the privilege of learning from legendary snowboarding coach Bud Keene, who helped transform Shaun White into a snowboarding superstar.

Clearly the future is bright for Watts, and he's already accomplished quite a bit for someone his age. But perhaps his greatest feat to date is getting his dad, who once hated the snow, to snowboard regularly.

"There have been some priceless moments," says Watts.

And there are sure to be many more to come.

Jon Mahoney is a football and baseball editor for ESPNHS. Email him at jon.mahoney@espn.com.

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