This article appears in the January/February 2006 edition of SchoolSports magazine.
Strapped in at the top of a halfpipe, Jake Black can hear everything. His coach offering last-second tips. The crowd cheering as other riders rise and fall. The snow crunching beneath his board.
As he drops into the course, he hears himself cutting through the powder. His coach's words are still in his head, but the crowd noise has vanished. After climbing the wall and entering orbit for the first time, re-entry brings complete silence. Black won't hear another noise, not even his own breathing, until he lands his final trick. Then, all he usually hears is the roar of the crowd.
Black, a 17-year-old professional snowboarder who just happens to also be a senior soccer player at Summit, has heard cheers from crowds coast to coast and overseas as one of the country's premier young riders. This winter, he has competed for the second consecutive year in the Chevrolet U.S. Snowboarding Grand Prix, the nation's most prestigious series of boarding events. He also represented the United States last March at the Trofeo Topolino Snowboard competition in Northern Italy.
Clearly, dropping in alongside Olympic medalists and personal heroes doesn't faze Black, even if he doesn't remember much about his run afterward.
"I'm so focused on making the right body movements that I get into a zone where everything else fades away," Black says. "I can feel my board and feet vibrating on the snow, but that's pretty much it."
Black is relatively young for his trade — even by extreme sports standards, where reaching voting age is hardly a requirement for winning an Olympic medal. But he is already establishing himself as a well-rounded rider who can get huge air on the halfpipe, burn in snowboard cross or get creative in slopestyle.
He has routinely cleaned up on the local junior circuit, but his best result in any discipline was a second-place finish in the snowboard cross at the Trofeo Topolino competition while going up against some of the world's best junior riders.
Still, success didn't come early or often for Black when he started in the sport. In the first halfpipe competition he entered as a fifth-grader, Black finished dead last. Things didn't get much better right away as he broke his arm later that year while attempting his first 360.
But successfully recovering and getting back on his board from that injury made him a more daring rider, and he won the first contest he entered after getting healthy. That's when everything changed.
"If you have the nerve, anything is possible," says Black, whose favorite trick is a frontside 1,080. "There are certain specific motions you have to master, but it's really all about having the confidence to push yourself to the limit."
National and international competitions aren't all Black has going for him. He was featured in Warren Miller's "Higher Ground," the 2005 installment of the world's premier winter sports movie series.
"Higher Ground" featured skiers and boarders tackling some of the world's most difficult terrain in breathtaking locations from Alaska to Switzerland. The movie, which has toured theaters nationwide this winter, also featured a stop at Vail to highlight some adventurous locals. Black has three solo shots in that three-minute segment of the movie, including the scene's opener. But it almost didn't happen.
"When I went to the first meeting to meet everyone, the director was sure I walked into the wrong condo," says Black, who was 16 during the filming of "Higher Ground." "They thought they were getting another twenty-something like all the others. I actually had to show them an ID before they believed me."
With his identity confirmed, the crew began trying to figure out how they'd unknowingly recruited a 16-year-old.
Rossignol, Black's snowboard sponsor, had suggested its young client to the production crew assembling the 10-person cast for the Vail shoot. The crew was impressed by Black's background and didn't even bother checking his age before extending an invitation.
Once Black got on the mountain, the crew realized he was a perfect fit despite his youth. The youngest member of the team, Black jumped at the opportunity to launch himself over cars and grind everything in sight. And even though his three shots in "Higher Ground" take up less than three seconds in all, Black was thrilled with the final product.
"When I saw the movie for the first time, people in the audience were going crazy," says Black, who has been sponsored by Rossignol since he was 13 and is also currently sponsored by Smith (eyewear), Boeri (helmets) and Bonfire (outerwear). "When my segment was being shown, I felt just like when I'm riding. My heart was pounding and I completely blocked out everyone else and focused on the screen. I didn't hear the people around me cheering."
With that kind of intense focus, it's no wonder why Black has legitimate Olympic aspirations.
He is shooting for the 2010 games in Vancouver, but by taking part in this season's Grand Prix series, Black had a shot at qualifying for the 2006 Winter Olympics in Italy. Four countries, including the United States, were using the Grand Prix's final results to determine their Olympic rosters, resulting in some of the deepest fields in the event's history.
The first two events in the series were held in Black's back yard, the Breckenridge Freeway Terrain Park. Every school day, Black and a few other Summit students are dismissed early to attend a class simply called "Snowboarding." The independent study class is often held at Breck, home to one of the country's most well-regarded pipes.
Black used his local knowledge to earn a pair of top-50 Grand Prix halfpipe finishes in December, giving him a shot — albeit a very outside shot — at making the 2006 Olympics by vaulting him into the top 30 among U.S. riders going into the final three events.
All this success makes Black quite pleased with his decision to trade in his skis and poles for a board in fifth grade. He was a successful ski racer on a local level at the time but couldn't picture himself making a career out of a sport that limited him to only left and right turns.
"I would always ski by guys on their boards doing tricks and be jealous," Black says. "I'd hear about them doing back flips and other crazy stuff. I wanted to be the guy doing back flips."
He is that guy now, even if he doesn't remember it afterwards.