Ten years ago today, Ross Powers launched himself into the brilliant blue Utah sky. Ross first slid down into the frozen wall of the halfpipe and then rocketed right out of it, way above its icy lip and hung there, 40 feet up, maybe more. For perhaps a second, he was flying, literally flying, testing the pull of gravity, a black silhouette against the blue, emblematic of humankind's eternal push to be greater than anything that had come before.
It was, for a moment in time, perfect.
The Olympic Games are rich with moments and memories, and over the past few editions, Summer and Winter, there have been so, so many:
Jason Lezak's out-of-body final lap in the pool to save the 400-meter relay for the American team in Beijing. On the track, Usain Bolt's 100- and 200-meter runs at those same Olympics. Cathy Freeman's overwhelming 400 in Sydney.
To compare snowboarding to swimming or track and field is of course apples and oranges. Yet the essence of the Olympics is that instant where everything comes together to produce a transcendent moment, one of lasting memory.
"It's one of my favorite memories, too," Ross was saying the other day on the telephone, laughing, and as it turns out he was taking the call in Park City, Utah, where the 2002 snowboarding events were held. He's now director of snowboarding at the Stratton Mountain (Vt.) School, and was in Park City with a bunch of the school's kids.
Ross came to those 2002 Games as the 1998 Nagano Games halfpipe bronze medalist, among other accomplishments. He was one of a number of 2002 medal favorites.
The day before the 2002 halfpipe was his 23rd birthday. The morning of the event, as the crowd was starting to form at the bottom of the hill, he ran into his mom, Nancy, and his younger brother, Trevor. Ross said to them, just making conversation, "Hey, what are you guys doing tonight?"
Nancy replied, full of confidence, "I'm going to the medals ceremony!"
Ross recalls now, "I just kind of laughed."
The tension broken, Ross just went out there and ripped it. The pipe itself was huge and fast and everyone knew it. The U.S. Ski Team crew, along with the guys at Burton, had Ross' board waxed just so to maximize performance.
The trick that Ross performed to perfection is a basic maneuver in a snowboard pro's repertoire. It's called a method air or, alternatively,a method grab. It's the same trick in skateboarding -- after sailing off the pipe (or skateboard ramp), the rider reaches down his or her hand and grabs the edge of the board, between the feet. When it's done to form, it looks like you're kneeling in mid-air.
Even though it's relatively basic, the advantage of the method grab is that -- when you hit it -- it can produce amazing amplitude, which is snowboard talk for big air. What no one yet knew, until Ross threw it so spectacularly, is that starting with the 2002 Olympics big air was the way to go.
At the Nagano Games, because of the way the rules worked then, it really wasn't that way. In his moment in the sky, Ross forever changed the rules of the game. Shaun White and everyone else -- they would follow Ross.
He felt that morning like he was in on a big secret: "It feels good," he recalls thinking, "to have a big trick."
Especially one he was going to throw first. That would get the crowd into it, big-time.
"I dropped in," Ross recalled, "and let it flow along the right wall … and then went smooth through the flats and definitely did the biggest transition I ever did in the halfpipe," and up, up, up he went.
Most calculations are he went 18 to maybe even 22 feet off the lip of the pipe, at least 40 feet up. "It felt smooth and easy," he said, adding, "When I was in the air it just felt good. I was just confident and had the feeling, no question, I was going to land it."
He landed it, and followed with more complex tricks, ones involving the sorts of gymnastically oriented spins and rotations that are part of the snowboarding landscape.
About three-quarters of the way through the run, he remembers thinking, this could well be a gold-medal run -- don't blow it: "You gotta land, you're almost to the bottom, you have a good run, just keep going and finish."
The judges gave him a score of 46.1, way ahead of the rest of the field.
Two other Americans rounded out the medals: Danny Kass took second, 3.6 points back of Ross, and J.J. Thomas third.
The 1-2-3 sweep was the first time Americans had swept the medals in an event since 1956. That had been in men's figure skating.
The day before, American Kelly Clark had won gold in the women's halfpipe.
The U.S. team's performance in the halfpipe in 2002 is largely credited with pushing snowboarding from the fringe to the mainstream.
Ross remembers being with Kelly at the Daytona 500, just days later. "These elderly women were meeting us and saying, 'You guys are great! Snowboarding is so great! I want to get my grandkids on those boards!' It was huge for snowboarding."
Beyond his work for the Stratton school, Ross remains actively involved in promoting his own foundation, which he launched in 2001, the year before the Salt Lake Games, to help athletes with the talent but not the support they might need.
Meanwhile, an extension of the Ross Powers Foundation, the Level Field Fund -- launched about 18 months ago -- provides grants covering everything from instruction to entry fees to travel. Michael Phelps, Daron Rahlves and Seth Wescott have helped out; the fund has already awarded more than $220,000 to more than 50 athletes in sports such as snowboarding, swimming, skiing, judo and skeleton racing.
Ross and his wife, Marisa, are by now the parents of two little girls. Meredith is 4. On her snowboard, she is good on heel edges already and, Ross said, "That's really cool to see." Victoria is 8 and, as it turns out, spent the 10th anniversary of her dad's victory out on Bromley Mountain in Vermont -- where Ross himself learned to ride -- racing in her very first boardercross event. Guess who won?