"Up in the air" were Graham Watanabe's chances at Stoneham, Quebec, Canada in the fifth and final LG Snowboard FIS World Cup snowboard cross event prior to the 2010 Winter Olympics at Vancouver.
The 27-year-old Hailey resident and 2000 Wood River High School graduate survived several ups and downs, but "The Little One" dug down deep and performed in the most important race of his life Thursday.
Watanabe survived goofs in the first trial run and nailed the best qualification time in the second run—eventually finishing second to Frenchman Pierre Vaultier and clinching his second Olympic berth.
He was thrilled.
"I don't even really know how to summarize it," Watanabe said. "It's a confirmation of everything I have worked for. Making it to the Olympics is a difficult task, especially with a team like ours. Achieving that goal is a big step in achieving a bigger goal in my snowboarding, which is to be the best I can be."
He added, "I'm so relieved. Now I finally can lean back, relax and have a good time. The stress is over. Of course it would have been great to take the win but I'm happy about my Olympic spot."
It wasn't all smooth sailing for Watanabe. In qualifications he went down on his first run. The pressure was on for the second run with Watanabe needing to qualify in order to be considered for the Olympics. With some heavy concentration and focus, Watanabe came through to not only qualify, but post the fastest qualifying time.
"That made it interesting for today because it added more pressure for myself. I wondered if I could continue it or if I had used up all my gusto in qualifiers," said Watanabe.
U.S. Snowboarding head coach Peter Foley said, "For Graham this is amazing. The amount of pressure that was on him was huge. He just charged all day, had great starts and killed it. It was a ton of pressure that he dealt with great, and that's a good sign heading toward the Olympics."
Watanabe was also a member of the 2006 Olympic Team, but under different circumstances. Sent to Italy as a wax tech after he failed to qualify, Watanabe was plugged into the Olympic lineup at the last minute when a teammate was injured during training. This time, Watanabe said he feels like he belongs in Vancouver.
He said, "I felt like I was Olympic caliber in 2006. I had raced all season against all those same people. But I also felt like I had teammates who were better suited for that position and it took injuries for me to get in there. This time I feel like I belong there. I put in several years of progress and consistent riding in the top group."
He has done well enough on the LG Snowboard tour this winter to currently stand in second place with 2,120 points, behind Vaultier's untouchable 4,800 (four 1,000-point wins). It was Watanable's best finish all season, good for 800 points. He leads third-place Nate Holland of the U.S. by 260 points. There are six Americans in the SBX top 13, led by Watanable.
Olympic snowboard team named
Olympic gold medalists Shaun White (Carlsbad, CA), Kelly Clark (Mt. Snow, VT), Hannah Teter (Belmont, VT), and Seth Wescott (Sugarloaf, ME) each highlight a talent-filled roster as the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA) announced the 2010 Olympic Snowboarding Team Monday.
USSA President and CEO Bill Marolt, together with the U.S. Olympic Committee and Team partner Visa, announced the roster of 18 athletes to compete in the snowboard events at Cypress Mountain in Vancouver.
"We are going in to the 2010 Games with one of the strongest athletic lineups possible," U.S. Snowboarding Head Coach Peter Foley said. "We're hoping to go into Vancouver and build on the successes we saw in 2006. This Team is in position to do great things."
After winning four of five events at the Sprint U.S. Snowboarding Grand Prix, White, who took the gold medal in 2006, has kept his stronghold on winning halfpipe events and will be a favorite in Vancouver.
"Shaun is truly an amazing competitor. After winning in 2006 he has been non-stop and has played a huge role in the progression halfpipe has seen in these past four years," U.S. Snowboarding Halfpipe Head Coach Mike Jankowski said.
Joining White is a lineup of talented riders with unique style, including Louie Vito (Sandy, UT), who has back to back double corks in his repertoire and Scotty Lago (Seabrook, NH) who reaches mesmerizing heights with each hit in the halfpipe. Greg Bretz (Mammoth Lakes, CA) who has the coveted double cork in his bag as well, completes the men's roster.
Danny Davis (Detroit, MI) would have qualified for the Olympic team with a fourth in the Grand Prix standings, but suffered an injury earlier this month that will keep him out of competition.
On the women's side of things, the Olympic Team will be comprised of the same talent it featured in 2006.
Clark also won four of the five Grand Prix stops to make the team, and has been using her time to lock down new tricks that she plans to add to her run as she looks for success in Vancouver.
Filling out the women's roster, Olympic silver medalist Gretchen Bleiler (Aspen, CO), Teter, and 2006 Olympian Elena Hight (South Lake Tahoe, CA) all bring the Olympic experience and heavy-hitting tricks to make the grade at Cypress Mountain.
Defending snowboardcross champ Wescott fills out one of the most talented SBX men's teams making its way to Vancouver.
"It was a huge battle to make this men's SBX team. Six different U.S. riders have already been on the World Cup podium this season, and only four of them make the Olympic Team," Foley said. "Vancouver is going to be an incredible fight for the podium, and our guys are ready for it."
Five-time X Games gold medalist Nate Holland (Squaw Valley, CA) is gunning for success after an unfortunate fall in the 2006 Games.
After getting a surprise shot at being an Olympian in 2006, Graham Watanabe (Sun Valley, ID) is prepared for 2010, toting World Cup wins and an X Games silver medal on his way in. And, joining the seasoned Olympians is World Championship bronze medalist Nick Baumgartner (Iron River, MI).
In the women's SBX field, Lindsey Jacobellis (Stratton Mountain, VT), who earned silver in 2006, has taken win after win in the four years leading up to the 2010 Games and looks strong going in to Vancouver.
Joining Jacobellis are Olympic newcomers and solid contenders Faye Gulini (Salt Lake City) and Callan Chythlook-Sifsof (Girdwood, AK).
Finalizing the Olympic Snowboarding Team are the alpine racers, who are led by 2006 Olympian Tyler Jewell (Steamboat Springs, CO), who came out on top of the team selection process.
Two-time Olympian and 2002 bronze medalist Chris Klug (Aspen, CO) joins Jewell for the men. He notched two top-eight results on the World Cup this season to grab his third team spot and was on the original Olympic Team in 1998 for the sport's debut. Michelle Gorgone (Boston), who also competed in 2006, will represent the U.S. for the women.
Snowboarding kicks off with the men's SBX on Feb. 15.
Greg Bretz, Mammoth Lakes, CA, 19, 12/19/1990
Scotty Lago, Seabrook, NH, 22, 11/12/1987
Louie Vito, Sandy, UT, 21, 3/20/1988
Shaun White, Carlsbad, CA, 23, 9/3/1986 (2006 Olympian)
Gretchen Bleiler, Aspen, CO, 28, 04/10/1981 (2006)
Kelly Clark, Mt. Snow, VT, 26, 07/26/1983 (2002, 2006)
Elena Hight, South Lake Tahoe, CA, 20, 08/17/1989 (2006)
Hannah Teter, Belmont, VT, 23, 01/27/1987 (2006)
Nick Baumgartner, Iron River, MI, 28, 12/17/1981
Nate Holland, Squaw Valley, CA, 31, 11/8/1978 (2006)
Graham Watanabe, Sun Valley, ID, 27, 03/19/1982 (2006)
Seth Wescott, Sugarloaf, ME, 33, 06/28/1976 (2006)
Callan Chythlook-Sifsof, Girdwood, AK, 24, 04/17/1985
Faye Gulini, Salt Lake City, 17, 03/24/1992
Lindsey Jacobellis, Stratton Mountain, VT, 24, 08/19/1985 (2006)
Tyler Jewell, Steamboat Springs, CO, 32, 02/21/1977 (2006)
Chris Klug, Aspen, CO, 37, 11/18/1972 (1998, 2002)
Michelle Gorgone, Boston, 26, 10/18/1983 (2006)