With the Winter Olympics set to conclude Sunday, number crunchers everywhere are wondering what country will come out with the top medal count. At time of publication, Norway leads the pack with a stunning 11 golds. Meanwhile, the United States sits sixth with five.
Looking at collective results, one might miss just how dominant the U.S. has been in snowboarding – taking top honors in every event so far, with big air (a new event this year) still to come. Currently, four of five of the US’ gold medals belong to snowboarders. And curiously, two of the four athletes to claim them are originally from coastal Southern California towns with an average annual snowfall of exactly zero inches – save that one time it strangely snowed an inch or two in Huntington Beach – but why?
Shaun White, as is well known, hails from Carlsbad in North San Diego County and took gold in men’s halfpipe. And Chloe Kim, the 17-year-old who took the highest point at the podium for women’s halfpipe is from Torrance in LA’s South Bay. Going into the women’s big air final, which airs (no pun intended) Thursday, San Clemente’s own Hailey Langland is an athlete to watch. She’s won gold at X Games and will be hoping to cement her dominance in Pyeongchang.
Of the 26 athletes that comprise the U.S. Snowboard Team, these three athletes are the only ones that come from coastal SoCal. The rest hail from towns that’d more obviously produce Olympic-level talent. Namely, places with snow. Think Mammoth Lakes or Tahoe in California or towns up and down the Rockies.
The obvious question, then, is how do SoCal surf towns breed Olympic talent?
The most straightforward answer is for a committed rider Southern California offers some of the best park terrain around. Bear Mountain Resort is an easy day trip for any SoCal rider and consistently lands itself on lists of the best parks in the country. And for an extended trip, Mammoth Mountain is a bigger resort with even more goods.
Another side of the same coin is that Olympic snowboarding events are built around two things Southern California’s closest resort (Bear) has in spades – fake, hard man-made snow and interesting features (including a halfpipe).
Ok, so beyond having the necessary resources in relatively close proximity, what makes Southern California snowboarders such a high performing bunch in this Olympics? Ah… but therein lies the crux of the argument.
Allow me to borrow a similar question that puzzled surf fans for the longest time – why have east coasters like Kelly Slater, C.J. Hobgood, and more bested their California counterparts for so long in competition? One convincing argument is that while the eastern seaboard produces great surf less often than the west, surfers are fired up to drop everything to chase hurricane swell, and the mentality in competition is similar.
The same, it would seem, could be argued about SoCal snowboarders. Not living in the snow means trips to the mountains occupy a special place in the psyche of such riders.
In an interview with Vice, Shaun White hinted as much when he explained that as a kid he would go to the mountains to compete then leave and live his “whole other life” at home. That ability to leave the mountain behind prompted him to forego the niceties of competition and just concentrate on beating his opponents without his conscious getting in the way. In some respects, White is still an outsider among core snowboarders while simultaneously one of the sport’s most dominant athletes ever. The same, maybe, could be said for Chloe Kim who trains in Mammoth, and maybe Hailey Langland, too.
Southern California may not be the most obvious American location to breed Olympic hopefuls, but given its track record, it deserves to be.