By Jesse Wood
Nearly 15 years have passed since the High Country hosted a USASA-sanctioned series.
Now, two local business owners and passionate snowboarders, Andy McDaniel and Donnie Hefner, have brought the seminal event back to the region for the 2016-17 winter season. The first USASA (United States of America Snowboard and Freeski Association) event in the Southeastern division takes place at Beech Mountain Resort on Jan. 7. The series concludes at Appalachian Ski Mtn. on March 11.
In the ‘80s, Greg Barrow, former owner of the Edge of the World (EOW) outdoor outfitter and guide shop in Banner Elk, started a rad snowboarding series that would later morph into an EOW USASA-sanctioned event in the ‘90s, one of the first on the East Coast. This was before snowboarding hit the mainstream when some of the local ski resorts didn’t even allow snowboarders on the slopes.
“The sport of boardercross wasn’t even invented yet. The first couple [events], we called it Chinese downhill,” McDaniel said. “It was a blast … Generation X for real. Right here in Boone, we had punk rock at night and snowboard contests the next day … It was a really cool time to be in Boone.”
These snowboarding competitions would attract 80 to 120 people, McDaniel said. But sometime in the late ‘90s, the series fizzled out as interest waned and participants moved on with their lives. Also, Barrow, who “had the right amount of passion and enthusiasm to keep it going,” moved to Fernie, British Columbia in Canada to open another Edge of the World shop.
McDaniel said that many of the individuals who participated in the USASA series of yesteryear work in the industry as company/product reps, shop owners, ski/snowboard instructors and/or professional riders.
Hefner, a local contractor and caterer, spent 14 years as an instructor at the French Swiss Ski College at Appalachian Ski Mtn. and 9 years as an organizer with the winter Special Olympics – not to mention his early career in NASCAR. McDaniel, also a contractor, made the leap to the pro circuit as a sponsored snowboarder and national competitor for a couple years before settling down to raise a family in the High Country.
“I found my limits as a rider for sure,” McDaniel said. “But I had a blast. It was a great experience.”
Both still compete at USASA events and at the local beer-league known as SMARL – Sugar Mountain Adult Race League.
It wasn’t until a couple years ago that McDaniel and Hefner started talking about reviving the USASA series, and soon they began jumping through the hoops and filing out the paperwork. Of 25 groups and/or individuals applying to host a new USASA series, the Southeastern series in the High Country was the only one approved. They received notification, validating their efforts, in September.
Initially dubbed the United States Amateur Snowboard Association, the organization was formed to unify competition rules, create an annual championship and take the alternative sport to the next level.
Today, USASA features 32 regional series in the U.S., 500-plus events and more than 6,000 members. The main-feeder program to the U.S. Olympics, all of the current members of the U.S. Olympic snowboarding team and 75 percent of the U.S. Freeskiing team came up through USASA.
“We are trying to give local kids a chance to go out and compete and go to nationals in Colorado and see how they shake out and see if they have a future [professionally],” Hefner said, noting that Blowing Rock-native Luke Winklemann, who at 15 is ranked as one of the top younger riders in the world, got his start in USASA.
This past Thursday, McDaniel and Hefner visited the Watauga High School ski and snowboard club to promote the new USASA series, which features divisions for all ages from kids 7 and younger to folks 60 and older.
“On the outside, it’s definitely a stepping stone to the next level, [but just like the NFL for football] only a small percentage get to the Olympic level,” said McDaniel. “Your shot is small, but it is a shot. But what you get out of it really is an appreciation for the sport itself, camaraderie and self-confidence. I would see that as the biggest thing.”
The challenge of USASA, McDaniel said, will provide a setting for personal growth, both in sport and life: “Even if you don’t do it like you want to or don’t stick it perfect, you went for it and you’ll come back hungry and maybe do it next time.”
Click here to USASA website.
See a few pics from Thursday’s presentation at the WHS Ski and Snowboard Club below: