February 15, 2006
TURIN, Italy (AP by Fred Goodall)—When it looked like Graham Watanabe's goal of competing in the Turin Olympics would go unfulfilled, he decided to help other Americans win medals in snowboardcross.
"If I couldn't bring home the gold, he said Wednesday, "then I wanted to do anything I could to give somebody else a chance.
An alternate on the U.S. team, Watanabe happily traveled to Italy as a wax technician for friends on the squad.
The right wax can help riders get more out of their boards in specific kinds of snow and at varying temperatures and humidity levels. As snowboarding's profile has risen, wax technicians have become key assistants to many top riders.
Watanabe was happily getting his friends' boards ready for Thursday's race when Jayson Hale tore up his knee during a practice run Tuesday and a roster spot abruptly opened.
Suddenly, Watanabe, a 23-year-old from Sun Valley, Idaho, who two months ago was having difficulty getting into World Cup events, will be racing in the Olympics.
"It's all, obviously, a big surprise. I came here with no expectations as a rider, Watanabe said. "It's not as gratifying as qualifying directly, I'm sure, but it's still very exciting.
Watanabe, who according to the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association Web site once made a belt buckle out of a Nintendo videogame controller, trained on the Olympic course for the first time Wednesday.
He was awaiting the arrival of his boards, which were being flown from Salt Lake City to Turin, but was confident he would be prepared for the start of competition at Sauze d'Oulx.
One of his duties as an unofficial staff member for the snowboardcross team was videoptaping the course, so he's already familiar with its layout.[pagebreak]"I don't think it will a problem, he said. "I've just got to relax and get ready like it's any other race.
Still, competing in the Olympics seems like a gigantic leap for a rider who won one World Cup event but didn't qualify for any others until winning the U.S. Snowboardcross Championships in December.
In three races since, his best finish was 11th.
"I did win one and that opened some doors for me. At the same time, it made gauging what was success for me more difficult, Watanabe said. "As frustrating as it was at times, I really feel like things are coming together.
Watanabe had been staying with team technicians, personal trainers and doctors, mostly sleeping on a sofa, while helping his friends set up their boards. Things had been so hectic since he was added to the team that he'd barely had time to talk to family back home in the United States.
"I thought I'd let things die down a little bit, he said, adding that his first call was to Salt Lake City to make sure he got his boards on a plane.
"I don't know if anybody's trying to get over here to watch, Watanabe said. "If that happens, it'll be a nice surprise. Right now, I'm just focusing on what I've got to do.
Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press