Friday, November 27, 2009

Follow the leader

Snowboarding coach Andy Gilbert is having too much fun to grow up

Express Staff Writer

Andy Gilbert has had an impact on the lives of many Wood River Valley snowboarders. Photo by Mountain Express

When he wrote the lyrics, "I'm growing older, but not up," Jimmy Buffett had the Andy Gilberts of the world in mind.

After eight years as director of the Sun Valley Snowboard Team and 16 years total with the Ski Education Foundation, 39-year-old Gilbert maintains an enthusiasm, attitude and lifestyle that belies his status as a married man with two children.

"Janessa is awesome," Gilbert said of his wife of 10 years. "I don't think a normal marriage would survive what I do."

What he does is oversee one of the West's most successful competitive-snowboarding programs. To coaches, riders and team member parents, Gilbert is authority, friend and super fan. He spends more time on the road than the double-yellow line and sleeps in more strange beds than most salesmen. To him, it's all worth it.

"Watching kids achieve their goals is the most rewarding aspect of the job, whether it's winning a regional event or having a pro-career or just keeping snowboarding as part of their lives," Gilbert said. "The kids here love to snowboard and they don't get caught up in the hype; they just want to go snowboarding."

A true native, Gilbert was born in Sun Valley's former Moritz Community Hospital to parents living the ski-bum dream back when it was both an economically feasible and well-regarded way to spend your days. In the early '70s, the Gilberts returned to their Oregon roots and Andy became a third-generation Mount Hood kid.

"It was wet," he said. "We'd call the hill and they would say, 'It's 32 degrees and snowing.' So yeah, we skied in the rain a lot."

As he grew out of ski racing, Gilbert picked up skateboarding and despite misgivings about it as "one of the dumbest things I had ever seen," he tried snowboarding in 1988. It was barely a sport, the gear was sketchy, but he was hooked.

"Ski racing is fall line, fall line, get to the bottom as fast as I can. Snowboarding made me look at the hill a lot differently, like, 'I wonder if I can shred that off-line side hill over there.'"

Gilbert left the wet Cascade snow and returned to Ketchum for good during the epic winter of 1992-93. Like his parents, he rode Baldy courtesy of a season pass purchased with a credit union loan. He silk-screened T-shirts by night and slept under his work bench. A year after his return, he signed on with the fledgling Sun Valley Snowboard Team as Development Team coach.

"I didn't have any formal training. At first, it was, 'Don't lose anyone and you're done by noon.' But kids have a way of changing that. Kids crack up and have a blast and it rubs off on you."

The coach-rider relationship benefits both parties. Just as the kids' high spirits infected Gilbert, his serious enthusiasm nurtured a number of young athletes. During his tenure, several Sun Valley snowboarders have achieved great success, including U.S. Snowboard Team members Graham Watanabe and Kaitlyn Farrington, as well as Nate Galpin, Claire Cetera, Aprilia Hagglof, and brothers Yancy and Wyatt Caldwell.

Gilbert says coaching is an inherently changing and evolving process.

"It depends on your attitude. When you bring the attitude that can make this kid believe he or she can go a lot further, they can graduate to the next level. You get them to believe in themselves, and then they will believe in you."

As for Gilbert's boarding career, "I have been reduced to 360s. Bottom line, I would like to ride powder all day long. My friends and I still dabble in competing, but the focus has changed."

Has it?

When pressed for five words to describe himself, Gilbert hardly gives pause when he replies, "Trying not to grow up."

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