The USASA Nationals is the largest snowboarding competition in the world and the place where freestyle riders J.J. Thomas and Danny Kass got their start before standing on the Olympic podium in 2002.
While no one is predicting future Olympic greatness from any of the 32 Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club riders who qualified for this year's competition, the idea of competing at the highest national amateur level certainly is exciting for those heading to Angelfire, N.M.
More than 1,000 riders from across the country will gather at the small resort near Taos on March 21 through 27 for the U.S.A. Snowboard Association Nationals.
Five titles -- slalom, giant slalom, boardercross, slopestyle and halfpipe -- will be up for grabs in 10 age categories.
"This is probably the largest number we've had qualify," said Cactus Nemec, head ability coach at the Winter Sports Club. "We have a much larger freestyle program, which is characteristic of the sport in general. Racing is an important part. It's just a smaller part, but we have a lot of kids that qualified in slalom and giant slalom, as well."
For a variety of reasons, not all 32 who qualified for nationals are going to compete, Nemec said.
The only way a rider was guaranteed a spot at nationals was to finish first in his or her age group in an event. But the Snowboard Outreach Series, the regional series in which Steamboat Springs athletes compete, is so large that the second- and sometimes the third-place finisher ended up qualifying, as well.
"This is the breeding ground where guys like J.J. Thomas and Danny Kass came from," Nemec said. "The cool thing, for those riders who are very motivated and on top of their game from ages 14 to 18, if they get a first place in slopestyle or halfpipe in the open class at nationals, they get an automatic spot at the X Games. So there's more at stake than bragging rights."
Nemec is in his second season as the head ability coach, but he encourages the coaches who work with him to take a backseat approach to competitions, particularly with the younger riders.
"We're making sure the kids are having a really good time and figuring out what it is about the sport they like," he said. "It works out pretty well. So far, we're getting a real good attitude from the kids."
Some Winter Sports Club athletes live for competition, so the opportunity to race or put down great runs in the freestyle events at nationals is a huge accomplishment for those individuals.
Other than competitions, all the snowboard race training takes place at Howelsen Hill, and Nemec said the staff at Howelsen has been tremendous in allowing him to build as many jumps to train on as possible.
While not all are attending the nationals, the following 32 Winter Sports Club athletes did qualify by virtue of their excellent regional finishes: Ryan Oleski, Blake Eddington, Matt Ladley, Kai Rogers, Maddie Schaffrick, Grant Murray, Chloe Banning, David Manthei, Carter Smalley, Charlie Peddie, Chad Oliver, Steven Reed, Emily Robinson, Mick Dierdorff, Jake Eagerton, Brad Saunders, Kenzie Rowland, Augusta Nelson, Pierre Perret, David Zavik, Drew Dummit, Sara Sable, Summer Smalley, Davis Johnson, Ben Siegel, Jon Casson, Randy Reed, Nathan Rothe, Hana Zittel, Austin Reed, Teddy Heid and Theresa Ward.