Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The little one, Watanabe, takes a victory lap

Third World Cup win for national title

Express Staff Writer

Graham Watanabe celebrates, after winning his second World Cup snowboardcross race last February in Japan. Photo by

When he played midfield for Wood River High School's back-to-back state soccer champions in 1998 and 1999, Graham Watanabe had a knack of slipping through the cracks and making big plays.

His physical size, 5-6 and 150 pounds, led to his nickname of "The Little One."

But Watanabe has made a big impression as a snowboard pioneer since graduating from Wood River in 2000 and launching into the new sport of snowboardcross (SBX).

A Hailey native, the 26-year-old Watanabe became the first American man to win an FIS World Cup SBX race in 2004 at Valle Nevado, Chile.

Traveling with the U.S. Olympic team as a tech in 2006, he was in the right place at the right time and slipped through the cracks as a replacement for the injured Jayson Hale on the 2006 U.S. Olympic team.

If Saturday's World Cup SBX race at Sunday River, Me. is any indication, Watanabe won't have to slip through the back door to earn his second Olympic team berth when SBX is staged next February in the 2010 Winter Olympic Games at Vancouver, B.C., Canada.

Watanabe, in his 34th World Cup start over eight seasons of top-level international racing, won his third World Cup SBX race and became the national men's champion by capturing the men's final at Sunday River. He also won the national SBX title in 2006. And The Little One rose to third place in the 2008-09 SBX standings.

The men's final was an easy victory lap for Watanabe, who recently scored a silver medal at the Visa SBX Championship Series stop at California's Boreal Resort. He hadn't won gold this season until Saturday, and he had been struggling on the course. That changed quickly.

In the seventh SBX of the 2009 LG Snowboard FIS World Cup, Watanabe benefited from an early collision of all of his men's final three contenders in the top part of the Sunday Punch course.

It opened the door to his third triumph ahead of Austria's Lukas Gruener and third-place American Ross Powers, the 2006 Olympic halfpipe gold medalist competing in his first-ever World Cup SBX event.

Until he crossed the finish line first, Watanabe didn't even recognize that his rivals for victory had cut themselves out of the chance for the win. He said afterwards, "I didn't care about what was happening behind of me. I just went for it."

He added, "I am pretty surprised right now. I have not run this course well since we got here. I qualified for finals in 22nd. But it all fell into place and it was meant to be. So I'm happy how everything ended up. I couldn't have written it better. I have my season's win, didn't have to wait for it for four years like last time and also have my title back. There is no way I could have imagined it better."

Four-time Winter X Games competitor and 2006 Jeep King of the Mountain champion Watanabe, also nicknamed "Kung-Fu-Gomez," has now won three of the four World Cup men's finals he has competed in. His last World Cup win was just about a year ago, in February 2008 at Gujo, Gifu, Japan.

And now, the athlete plans to take the rest of the season off, and prepare for the 2010 Olympic Games. He said, "It's a fairytale ending to a pretty darned good season."

With his 1,000-point victory, Watanabe rose to third place in the World Cup men's SBX standings, now with 2,670 points behind Austria's Markus Schairer (4,340) and American Seth Wescott (3,280).

In the overall World Cup snowboard standings, Watanabe is the second American in 12th place overall.

In the ladies' final at Sunday River, Canadian Maelle Ricker successfully competed in an enthralling and tight duel against reigning world champion Helene Olafsen of Norway.

Olafsen finished second ahead of Switzerland's Mellie Francon and current World Cup leader Lindsey Jacobellis from the USA. Jacobellis now leads by 1,450 points having gained 5,100 points so far.

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