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SPORTS WEEKEND | Skiing

Young Boarders Take to the Road

April 03, 1998|PETE THOMAS

What a wild week it has been, with snow as low as 2,000 feet, prompting resort owners to boast--yet again--that skiing and snowboarding in the Southland has never been better.

This might be true, again, but for a group of promising young boarders, there is no better time than this to head for the Rocky Mountains.

They are being called the magnificent seven by folks in the small community of Wrightwood, and for a pretty good reason. All seven members of Team Mountain High qualified for the U.S. National Snowboarding Championships, Tuesday through Sunday at Telluride, Colo.

"This is absolutely unheard of," says Wendy Keller, their coach and a snowboarder of some note herself, having competed professionally for several years. "I've heard of one, two or three riders qualifying, but never the whole team."

The members, in no particular order, are: Cory Whetstone, 9, Danny Williams, 14, Matt Lebel, 15, Jordan Craft, 12, and Meghan Craft, 14, all of Wrightwood; Matt Colburn, 15, from Pinon Hills, and Johnny Ray, 39, from Lake Elsinore.

"Johnny is the only one who is not going to the championships, because he found another competition he wants to compete in," Keller says.

That makes it the Magnificent Six, but what the heck? Now they all have something in common--a youthful exuberance at having qualified for the largest gathering of snowboarders in the world, with more than 600 expected to compete in various age groups in halfpipe, slopestyle, slalom and giant slalom.

Team Mountain High made it a clean sweep out of the USA Snowboarding Assn.'s San Gabriel Series--one of 27 qualifying regions throughout the U.S. and Canada--and into the national championships through dedication and hard work not normally asked of school-age children.

"We started in September with dry-land training, working with weights on Wednesdays and and doing [isometric exercises] on Thursdays," Keller says. "We did that till the snow came and then we worked six days a week, and every day after school."

Of the six young boarders, nobody dominated the youth competitions like Williams and Lebel, friends since they were 5 who Keller says keep pushing each other to higher levels.

Williams has the edge in terms of talent, often being a giant among men as well as boys. This year alone, he won the Bud Light Bear Mountain Series' slopestyle event, which was open to competitors of all ages. Lebel finished second in the event that combines downhill and jumping. Williams won the USASA's Southern California Series' (Big Bear area) slalom event for 14- and 15-year-olds at Snow Summit. He won a halfpipe event for the same age group at Mountain High, and he has finished at or near the top in several other local amateur and professional events.

Asked if he's a big man on campus at Pinon Mesa Elementary School because of his prowess on a snowboard, he says there is no doubt about it. Asked if that helps him meet pretty girls, he laughed shyly and said, "Yeah, I guess."

On the subject of grades, he says he gets A's and Bs. "If I don't, my parents will kill me," he adds.

Williams doesn't care much for the stereotypical image some have of snowboarders.

"I think it's kind of dumb to judge all snowboarders that way just because one guy gets busted for drugs," he says, alluding to the perception people might have had when Canada's Ross Rebagliati tested positive for marijuana during the Nagano Games. "People don't know what the new snowboarders are really like. We're really starting to straighten out."

Being so good, Williams is growing up perhaps a little faster than his classmates. He already has several sponsors, including Burton Snowboards, who keep him supplied in gear and clothing.

But he wants more.

"Once I get really successful, that's when they start forking over the money," he says.

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