Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Win at Mt. Hood gives Watanabe an Olympic chance

Snowboard racer earns European World Cup berth


By MICHAEL AMES
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Some might call him an opportunist. But in the unpredictable, dog-eat-dog sport of professional boardercross racing, opportunity rarely comes knocking. When it does, Graham Watanabe has a knack for capitalizing.

Two weeks after his first win of the season—a gold medal at the season's first Jeep King of the Mountain race in Crested Butte—Watanabe has done it again. He placed first at the Mt. Hood National Boardercross Championships held Friday, Dec. 16 in Oregon.

"It was perfect," said a beaming Watanabe days after his second major victory of the 2005-06 competition season.

The Mt. Hood event was a huge opportunity for this former Sun Valley Snowboard Team racer in many ways. Pressure would have iced a lesser athlete.

Not only was the event an X-Games qualifier (he will be racing at the X-games, Jan. 28-31 at Aspen, Colo.), it was also a World Cup qualifier and as such, a sudden-death moment for Watanabe's Olympic hopes.

So far this winter, Watanabe has traveled to World Cup events with the U.S. Snowboard A-Team, but as an alternate, he had yet to actually race.

"I've been around competition, but I haven't been competing," said the 23-year-old Wood River High School graduate and Hailey native.

On the positive side, proximity to World Cup racing has provided 5-6, 150-pound Watanabe with many of the same benefits as U.S. Team members.

Watanabe has been running and training on the same World Cup Courses, experiencing the stresses of travel and all the while, licking his chops for his chance to compete. Since September, he has traveled to five international World Cup races in Chile, British Columbia and Switzerland.

Throughout the early season, he never lost the confidence that, if given the chance, he could win a major event.

"I've been gunning for it. I had the motivation," he said.

By winning at Mt. Hood, Watanabe has guaranteed himself yet another opportunity, or two to be precise, at upcoming World Cup races in Austria and Italy. Both are Olympic qualifiers. A win would put him on the U.S. Olympic Team.

"I'm at least giving myself the chance now—I would have been bummed if I hadn't even had a shot (at the Olympics)," he said.

Prior to Mt. Hood, Watanabe admitted that the Olympics were "making their presence known" and that he, as an athlete with a hope but no guarantee of making the team, "was feeling the pressure."

With the Mt. Hood win under his belt, Watanabe can focus on the tasks at hand in upcoming World Cup races. With the momentum he carries through to Europe, it seems the doors of opportunity are again swinging wide for Watanabe.

Watanabe's gold medal performance at the season opening Jeep King of the Mountain Race will be televised on CBS Sports on Jan. 1, 2006. Check local listings for local times. The race will also be syndicated from Dec. 17-Jan. 21. Check local listings for Jeep King of the Mountain Races.




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