Grays on Trays clips: Competitor

(Note: The following article was published in Competitor, Florida Sports Magazine, and Texas City Sports, in the November 2006 edition. It was written by the publisher of

Grays On Trays

Snowboarding hardly needs an introduction; but if you look closely this season, you might see a surprising number of adult riders. Long thought of as a sport for teenaged boys, snowboard is attracting people 30, 40 and even 60 years old.

This broad demographic, which some observers call “grays on trays” — as in gray-haired riders on cafeteria trays, a predecessor of the snowboard — is helping to redefine not only snowboarding but what Americans do as they age.

Older Guys in the X-Games

According to Leisure Trends Group, a market research and consulting firm in Boulder, Colorado, 35 percent of active snowboarders over the age of 16 are 35 years of age or older. These figures come from the National Skier/Boarder Opinion Survey, which surveys skiers and riders on the slopes at resorts across the country and represents a 52 percent increase in the older snowboarder population since 1996. The older riders range from the rich and famous to the grandmother next door.

The over-30 crowd even invaded that bastion of youth, the Winter X-Games. At the February games, 10 riders in the snowboard events were 30-somethings. In the Winter Olympics event of men’s parallel grand slalom, three of the eight quarterfinalists were 30 or older.

Older folks also make their presence known within the United States of America Snowboard Association (USASA), which bills itself as “the first governing body exclusively for competitive grassroots snowboarding.” It offers events in halfpipe, slalom, giant slalom, slopestyle and snowboard cross, among others. The USASA had 2,300 members who are over 30. Since 2004, the growth in the 40-plus membership has outpaced overall membership growth 33 percent to 26 percent.

Mid-Life Riding

More interesting than statistics are the stories of older folks who ride. You may or may not have voted for John Kerry, but the would-be president of the United States raised the visibility of snowboarding as he took a break from the campaign schedule in Sun Valley. Also, TV talker Montel Williams says that he uses snowboarding as a way of dealing with his multiple sclerosis. And Julian Vogt, a retired diplomat, took up snowboarding at an age when most people put away the winter gear — 75. That was in 1989.

Far removed from the celebrities and the highly unusual, however, are ordinary people who want to try something new. Pat, who describes herself simply as a 60-year-old grandmother from Los Angeles, was an “advanced intermediate to low advanced” skier six years ago. While her daughter was away at college, she borrowed her snowboarding gear on a lark. Since then, she has developed a taste for riding at Mammoth, preferring the intermediate runs, though she has also tried out the beginner’s terrain park.

“It’s fun, but I stink!” she confesses.

Keith Willsey, a 43-year-old software architect from Seattle, skateboarded in high school and took up surfing in college, but he wasn’t particularly active after he reached the workforce. Last year, he finally relented when his brother suggested that he take up snowboarding. Riding gives him a chance to get a workout without engaging in high-impact activities such as running. No stranger to regular exercise, Luis Valentino, a 45-year-old school principal in Los Angeles, is moderately active and enjoys inline skating. Four years ago, one of the young teachers at his school invited Valentino and his wife to try snowboarding.

“We weren’t sure that we would be able to handle it,” he says, “but we fell in love with it immediately.”

Too Old for School?

So why don’t more adults take on shredding? The most obvious barrier is fear of injury and old-fashioned aches and pains. In the mid-1990s, humorist Dave Barry wrote that after he tried snowboarding, he had gravitated toward a breakfast of “black coffee and 250 Advil tablets.” Yet Pat, the grandmother from L.A., says that riding is easier on her knees than skiing.

Still, as with any sport, injuries do occur in snowboarding, and they are most likely to happen to novices. That’s one good reason to take lessons.

Lessons? That presents the other obstacle, and perhaps the most serious one: You’re too old (or too cool) for school. What adult wants to be treated like a child? Worse yet, many instructors are still teenagers — or at best, college students — which adds to the humiliation factor. It’s hard enough being a parent without having to learn snowboarding basics from someone the age of your own kids.

Falling is simply part of the journey. Unless you’ve had experience on a skateboard or a surfboard, the first day will be an awkward experience. Most people are quite used to gaining stability on the snow by sticking out a foot. Success on a board, however, requires shifting weight. Both feet are immobilized, leaving the student feeling helpless.

At some point in your first lesson, you’re bound to feel not only helpless but also a bit ridiculous. There are awkward moments of hopping around on two feet — hardly an act of elegance and control. And if you persevere and start sliding down the hill with both feet firmly attached to the snowboard, don’t be surprised if you hear your instructor yell, “Your butt’s sticking out!”

Yet, in the face of the risk of physical injury and the more certain guarantee of humiliation, there are numerous reasons why adults are jumping on the snowboard bandwagon — ranging from the spiritual to the practical. Spending time with their offspring sits at the top of the list.

Although it began with adolescents, young adults and an outlaw image, snowboarding is now family-friendly. Call it assimilation, but it is powerful. Observers of generational differences say that Gen-Xers are even more willing and able to spend time in play, including playing with their children, so expect the number of moms and dads on boards to increase.

New Yorker magazine caught the spirit of this phenomenon earlier this year when it ran an article on “grups,” grown-ups who have closed the generation gap by taking on activities and interests once reserved for youngsters. If daughter and mother listen to the same music, why not shred the gnar (translation: Tear up particularly difficult, i.e. “gnarly” terrain) together?

It’s not an entirely new concept. Winter sports have long had a strong family component. What’s different now is that it’s the kids who are introducing the parents to a sport — in this case, snowboarding — and not the other way around. Some riders don’t wait for their kids to get very old. Alison Brookings, 37, was invited to a snowboarding outing by some friends shortly after she gave birth to her first child.

“Trying anything new was completely out of character for me,” she says. “I swallowed my pride and went to Big Bear (in Southern California).” The trip went so well for her that she never looked back. In fact, Brookings has embraced riding so much that she moved to Mammoth and introduced both of her daughters to riding before they were each 4 years old.

Adult companionship and sharing in the enjoyment of the mountain is also part of the experience.

“I’ve met some amazing people,” says Brookings. “I enjoy a bluebird powder day with my girlfriends the most.”

And the physical dimension appeals to Valentino, who admits that he gets “a rush” from riding “at a fairly fast clip.”

But speed can be dangerous, and the need to pay attention is one element of the sport that appeals to Robert Phair, co-founder of the San Francisco Bay-area firm Integrative Bioformatics.

“If your mind wanders too far,” he warns, “you’re very likely to fall.” Being forced to focus on the present gives him a break from his long days as an entrepreneur.

With its emphasis on skills progression and the variations of snow and terrain, snowboarding continuously offers you an opportunity to advance the boundaries of what your body can do — and, more importantly, what your mind and spirit thought possible.

A final attraction of snowboarding is obvious: Once you get the hang of it, it’s a lot of fun. More than that, it’s satisfying. There is speed, grace, physical beauty, companionship and a sense of accomplishment. It gives grown-ups the opportunity to live through the wonders of discovery and splendor about themselves, others, and the natural world that are often lost as in adulthood.

For many riders, the first part of the journey can be rough. It may be hard to get back up, both physically and emotionally. But the poetry of well-made turns, and as Willsey puts it, the sight of “watching other riders swooping down the runs and appearing out of the trees” provide plenty of inspiration to keep the novice going and the expert coming back for more.

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