It was noon and I had already been booted from two cars. Joe said he had room to take me to Buck Hill if I wanted. Grenier was going with him. Fourteen-year-old Norm would have shrieked at the possibility of sitting in a car with Joe Sexton and Chris Grenier. Current Norm though, twenty-three-year-old Norm, he played it cool.
"I'd take a ride," I said.
We walked out of the hotel and people started loading in and it soon became obvious that I wouldn't be taking a ride.
Egan was getting an Uber, she said I could hop in.
The Uber pulled up and the boards were in the trunk and…yea. No dice. I ran back into the hotel. The lobby that, only thirty minutes early had been packed full of boarders and industry heads, now looked painfully empty. There was hope though. When in doubt, turn to the foreign homies.
Theo and Freddy and Mees sat in pleasant conversation, unphased by the mass exodus that had occurred around them. They told me that Benny was going to give them a ride. They said there was room.
"Where's Benny?" I said.
"Tomorrow is the first annual Heavy Metal Day in St. Paul," Theo said, his delightfully proper English accent wrapping around me like a warm blanket. "Benny is with the governor right now getting a plaque."
"Wait," I said. "Actually?"
It seemed like a good joke. Benny is with the governor and Grace Warner is hanging out with the mayor and Freddy Perry got a beer with the president last night. Sure.
"Yeah," Theo said. "He was just with the governor and now he's coming here."
Shit, I thought. Look how far we've come.
"It was cool," Benny said as we got on the highway heading out of St. Paul. "He seems like a cool guy."
Look how far we've come.
I'm a Midwest virgin. Or I was. I guess you could say I'm initiated now. At the very least, I get it. It makes sense why the Midwest breeds top-tier rail riders with the efficiency of a farmer breeding cattle. The laps are endless. The rope keeps spinning. It was a ride day and the athletes (sure, they've earned that) did not disappoint. Winkelmann was boosting the hip. Benny Milam got a surprise Snowboarder's Journal cover (can I mention that in here?). And last year's champs Pat Fava and Egan Wint were riding along with the rest of the field that included former Heavy Metal alumnus and newcomers alike. Mixed in, of course, were the locals, warming up for the last-chance qualifier.
The sun went down, and the temperatures went with it. My toes were no longer a part of my body. They were a separate entity, something I had no communication with, no feeling.
The rope turned on. The kids turned on too.
The last chance qualifier truly was everything you'd expect from a rail jam: a back flip on, a few 450s, a lot of 270s, and that one kid who has really really good style and good trick selection for no reason (I hope you know who you are because I don't remember your name). But in the end, it was Jordyn Gricol and Beck Lobben who earned their tickets to the main event.
The Minnesota State Capitol is this grand, elegant building. There are arches and pillars and marble—the classiest stone. The size is overwhelming. The building towers over everything and, like a star on a Christmas tree, a little gold topper sits above the domed roof. Below that, below all of that, there was us.
My weather app had promised sun, but there was no sun. Really though, I shouldn't have been complaining. When you think of Minnesota in February you usually think of negative temperatures and high winds, so the mid-twenties weren't awful. Still, I was cold.
The only thing that kept me warm was the fear I felt watching practice for zone 1: The Winch. Sorry, let me be more specific, winch jump to scaffolding.
When you hit a rail, you are in charge of your destiny. Anything that happens can be explained away to a certain extent. The winch changes things, it's a variable. Variables scare me.
There's always a chance you can get tangled up in a winch. You need to throw it far. The riders needed to throw the winch handle over the marble ledge to avoid any potential catastrophes. Twice Irie got tangled up in the rope and it happened once to Benny too. Thankfully, their quick reflexes helped them avoid certain death.
Practice moved on. Zone two and zone three offered more traditional, and less nerve-racking, options. The crowd had grown. It was like a flash flood. There was nobody and then I blinked. Then they were all there.
It was Super Bowl weekend and I guess I should have gotten into the spirit of that more. I should have taken side bets like they do in football: Will Ryan Paul front flip? Will Joey Fava crabwalk? What's the over/under on how many times Grenier will say electric when talking about the riders? I should have gotten into the swing of things because I wouldn't have been alone. Like any real sporting event, the riders lined up and the national anthem started to play. I was standing next to Freddy Perry when the music turned on. He looked at me.
"Hey," he said. "Name that video part."
Nothing exists in a vacuum. No trick is an island. When a jibber lands a trick in a setting like Heavy Metal, the crowd reacts. When the crowd reacts, the jibbers react. It's like a game of tennis where the speed of the ball keeps getting faster and faster. 360s turn into claps which turn into 540s which turn into screams which turn into 720s which turn into roars. It's a natural progression. Pete Croasdale and Ben Bilodeau were lawn-darting while Winkelmann and Seb Toots (yes, that Seb Toots) were showing off their slope chops. In the end though it was Vizz and Egan who walked away as zone one champions. Vizz, like the sleepy little boarder he is, sloth rolled the jump while Egan, God help her reckless soul, back flipped the gap. Egan, standing tall at four foot something, back flipped the gap and the crowd rightfully lost its collective mind.
We moved to zone two and it seemed the crowd kept getting bigger. The energy was palpable. It wasn't a vibe, it was physical. The air was heavy with the screams of loyal Minnesotans out to support snowboarding in its purest form. You were able to feel it. It felt good.
On the rider's right was a gap to down bar and on the left was a down bar with a seven stair after. Que Ryan Paul's front flip. Ryan Paul back 270'd onto the rail then front flipped the stairs only to go up and do a mirror of it, switch back two to switch front flip.
Zone two, maybe more than anything, was a transitional piece. It was a way for the riders to adjust their legs—and minds—away from the wham-bam of the jump and into the more precise world of jibbing. It's no surprise that, when it came to precision, Luke Winkelmann and Veda Hallen walked away the victors of zone two. They're surgeons, it's what they do.
Ok, zone three: The kink rail. Maybe I'm biased but to me, the kink rail is proof that there is still inherent goodness in the world.
Picture this, you've been in the car for a long time, a very long time. You're on a road trip. You need to pee, there are no bathrooms anywhere though. You keep driving and you wait and wait, and you feel like you are going to explode or perhaps even die. Finally, you see it, you see a rest area. You pull off and run in and you finally release everything that's been killing you. There's a wave of ecstasy. You've never felt more relief in your life. You believe in God again. That's how I feel whenever I see a good kink rail.
The kink rail may be good but that does not mean it is good for you. In the warmup for zone three Benny clipped getting on and, from the look of it, popped his shoulder out. He got a quick homie yank on his arm and in true Lethal Weapon fashion popped it back in. Let the games begin.
It was slow-moving in the beginning. Who would be the first one to make it to the end? There were a few close calls before Iris Pham put a board slide through the kink. It was…just…perfect. There is no other word. She walked away as zone three champion. Speaking of perfect, Goop and Grace both did the best possible versions of their switch board pretzel and fifty-fifty, respectively.
And then there's Joey. Grenier called him the Crabwalk King but that doesn't do him justice, not after the back lip. He was the only competitor to go heals through the kink rail and he did it, drumroll please, twice. His back lip in the qualifier caused an eruption from the crowd and, when he did it again in the finals, they roared even louder. I could see it in Joey's face, he was at a loss. He couldn't believe what had happened. He stood at the base of the capitol as hundreds of screaming snowboard fans showered him in praise. It was snowboarding finally getting the respect it deserves.
So, the zone winners had been crowned. There were still two spots left for the taking though. We needed the overall. The riders gathered and the crowd leaned in. The cold seemed to disappear, in its place stood only tension. There were nerves. Who would it be? We had ideas of course. I asked judge Mikey LeBlanc what he thought. In return, I only got some vague, cryptic answer that wasn't an answer. I turned to Tommy Gesme, another judge for the occasion.
"What he said," was all Tommy gave me.
And then it was called.
For the men, Luke Winkelmann. Don't be persuaded by his Red Bull contract. This was no inside job. This was just a snowboarder riding at his highest level. It was as simple as that. For the women, it was no surprise. Egan Wint, who started the day with a back flip for the ages, ended it with the overall title. That makes it two years in a row for Egan.
I was talking to her before we flew out and she told me she was nervous. She told me that everyone kept asking her if she was going to win for a second year.
Well, now she can tell them yes.
The event will be broadcast on ESPN2 on Saturday, February 25 at 9PM Central. Stay tuned for full recap dropping this week!