Olson’s win is latest step in comeback
COPPER MOUNTAIN – To get there, you have to start somewhere.For Olympic boardercross hopeful Leslee Olson, that somewhere was the women’s boardercross final Thursday at the Winter Gravity Games.The once-retired 26 year old from Mt. Bachelor, Ore., won gold in a wild final after front-runner Erin Simmons of Steamboat Springs took a bad line into the second turn and flew off course.Washington’s Marni Yamada swooped in for a second-place silver after Simmons blew out, and 15-year-old Aspenite Jordan Karlinski flew past Kathrin Kellenberger on the second-to-last kicker for bronze.After she crossed the finish line, Olson dropped to her knees and was swarmed by friends and competitors.”I just am in shock,” she said. “I don’t know. I crossed the finish line and it was just emotion.”
The emotion was there because of the shared history between the two riders who were jostling for the lead out of the start gate. In 2000, Olson, then a multi-disciplined start in her sport, won Winter X gold in boardercross in Mt. Snow, Vt.A year later, in her title defense, she was neck-and-neck with Simmons on the same course when she nearly lost her life. When Simmons sliced in front of Olson off one of the huge kicker jumps on course, Olson flew off at the wrong angle and traveled 60 feet through the air before crashing violently onto hard, flat snow. The immediate head injury she suffered was so severe that she stopped breathing. She had to be air-lifted to a nearby hospital where she lingered between life and death. When she finally reached full health six months later and had been cleared by doctors to snowboard, Olson began competing again.
The life-threatening injury was forever life changing, though. After re-thinking her priorities, Olson walked away from pro snowboarding in the summer of 2003 to go to college for nursing. At the time it appeared her decision was final. Then, after the fall semester this year at Oregon State, she shifted priorities again. The dream of competing at the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy, pulled her back to competitive snowboarding.And that pull brought her to Copper on Thursday where she again found herself in a tight spot going up against Simmons. The win was, to say the least, a special one.
“I’m pretty lucky to be here,” she said. “The goal now is to get to the Olympics. I’ve got a lot of steps I have to take to get there. … I just started coming back this season and I just jumped right back into competition. It was kind of rocky. It was discouraging a little bit because I wasn’t doing very well. This feels amazing.”Smiles all aroundThe podium finish was also a special one for Yamada and Karlinski.Yamada said this season has been the worst she can remember snow-wise in the Pacific Northwest, and the lackluster conditions have taken a toll on her riding.”I’m stoked because I haven’t had a really good season,” she said. “I’m excited to get in an actual race, because it’s been kind of slow. Our mountains have been closed, and I haven’t had any training or anything.
Karlinski, who qualified for her first Winter X Games this year, said she is still surprised every day by the riders she is competing against. To finish on the podium, as she did Thursday, represents an even bigger shock. “I do get nervous, because the other women have so much experience,” she said. “This is my first year really competing in high-level events. It’s really nerve wracking, but it’s really fun. I’ve learned to chill out a little.”With the win, Olson picked up $10,000. Yamada was awarded $5,000 and Karlinski, still not old enough to drive, earned $2,500.For more information on the Winter Gravity Games go to www,vaildaily.comStaff Writer Nate Peterson can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 608, or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.Vail, Colorado