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Downhill Racer 

by Michael Bowen & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & t's a long ride from the slopes at Schweitzer to the Winter Olympics' snowboardcross course at Bardonecchia, Italy. For Nate Holland -- whose hometown is Sandpoint, Idaho -- it's been a journey of 22 years. To win a gold medal, all he has to do is negotiate a downhill snowboarding course -- full of bumps, jumps, banked turns, all kinds of obstacles -- faster than 63 other guys.


They don't all race at once, of course. Snowboardcross -- sometimes called "boardercross," and a debut sport at the Turin Olympics -- models itself after motocross (the late-night sport on ESPN with guys on dirt bikes doing laps and popping like popcorn over insanely steep bumps), except that SBX has four snowboarders speeding downhill and jockeying for position all at once. Whoever gets to the bottom first wins.


With the International Olympic Committee finally awakening to the appeal of the X Games, snowboardcross joins the other two snowboarding flavors (the half-pipe and the parallel grand slalom) at this year's Olympics -- and has the potential to be the phenomenon in 2006 that short-track speed skating was in 2002 at Salt Lake City. Four guys rubbing elbows at 50 mph while strapped onto snowboards during a twisty downhill slide with plenty of potential for wipeouts -- this stuff is made for TV.





& lt;span class= "dropcap " & N & lt;/span & ate Holland just might show up on your screen as part of the final foursome to race downhill for gold. After finishing 17th in the 2004 World Cup of SBX -- a series of boardercross events held mostly in Europe -- he shot up to third last year, winning the tour's October stop in Switzerland. He's ranked fourth overall this season, and he won the SBX event at the X Games held on Jan. 28 in Aspen, Colo.


Seth Wescott of Maine is the reigning world champ, so he gets most of the attention on the American squad. (Just last week, Wescott was on Letterman reading his "Top Ten Reasons I'm Looking Forward to the Olympics," including "I hear Italy has the best Olive Garden restaurant in the world.") But Holland, who's having his best season yet, seems to be peaking at just the right time for the Olympics, where the Americans' chief competition will come from the Canadians, Austrians, Swiss and French. All three kinds of snowboarding events will be held in Bardonecchia (elev. 4,300 feet), a town of 3,000 on the French border, 90 minutes west of Turin.


Holland, 27, grew up freeriding at Schweitzer and 49 Degrees North, and he graduated from Sandpoint High School in 1997. He moved to the Lake Tahoe area when he was 20, taking menial jobs just so he could be around the snowboarding community and enter a few big-air competitions. Soon after Salt Lake City, when it was announced that snowboardcross would be on the program in 2006, the U.S. Olympic Committee invited a dozen top SBX specialists to a training camp at Oregon's Mount Hood; Holland won the ensuing competition. Next came the World Cup tour and his Olympic dreams.


Holland's family members and friends -- 18 people in all -- are making the trip to Turin. But his Reno-Tahoe friends will be there, too. That's because he lives in Olympic Village, Calif., now, where 46 years ago a Winter Olympics that had never heard of snowboarding was held. The Winter Games have changed, and Nate Holland -- tucking for the airborne sections, carving the corners, attacking all-out -- plans to change with them all the way to an Olympic podium.





The Olympic snowboardcross competition will be televised during prime time on Thursday, Feb. 16, on NBC.

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