Where are they now: Ross Rebagliati
Lawsuits, real-estate deals, a ban from the United States: The post-Olympics life of snowboarding's first-ever gold medalist Ross Rebagliati has been tumultuous, constantly.
He's stared it all down, unabashed, unafraid to fall, always living by his old maxim - that recording a no-time (DNF, or did not finish due to crash) is better than recording a slow time.
"I've gone up, down, top to bottom so many times," says Rebagliati, a long-time Whistler resident now ensconced in the lakeside city of Kelowna, B.C., married and father to a newborn boy.
"Because there's that lingering cloud, I guess you could call it, it's drawn out the whole being-comfortable-with-being-that-guy. If you're not comfortable with yourself, you're going to have some issues."
Rebagliati's greatest go-for-it moment and the "first-ever" notch achieved as a result have propelled everything in his life since.
It began shrouded in fog on Mount Yakebitai near Nagano, Japan, in February, 1998. Rebagliati hadn't had a top-three finish all season and stood in eighth place after the first heat, a half-second off the pace in the then (and still) obscure sport of giant slalom snowboard racing. Rebagliati invoked the spirits of the Crazy Canucks and delivered an aggressive gate-clipping run for golden victory by two one-hundredths of a second.
Three days later, the circus began, by the same sliver: 17.8 nanograms of marijuana per millilitre in Rebagaliti's urine, 2.8 nanograms over the line. Rebagliati, 26 at the time, had his gold yanked, though the medal itself never left his pocket. An absurdist play - Pot as performance-enhancing drug? Wow, a pot-smoking snowboarder! - unfolded on television and in newspapers around the world. In Japan, police interrogated him for a day as luminaries such as bobsledder Prince Albert of Monaco privately expressed support and at home Canadians rallied behind him.
"Clearly, he won the race. Clearly, he's a decent Canadian and British Columbian," Glen Clark, then-premier of B.C., said on the CTV national news.
Rebagliati memorably claimed he had been sullied by secondhand smoke at a pre-Olympics going-away party in Whistler and, in his appeal, the Court of Arbitration for Sport revealed the anticlimactic conclusion: Pot in fact was not banned in the deal between the International Olympic Committee and snowboard's governing body. (The omission was swiftly amended.)
His medal returned, Warhol's 15 minutes began ticking. Rebagliati appeared on The Tonight Show, where Jay Leno dubbed him "Nickel-bag-liati" and he managed to attract one main sponsor, the clothing chain Roots.
The storm left Rebagliati rattled. He never won another race.
The smoke, even with no fire, has never really abated, fame without fortune.
In 2001, after Sept. 11, he found himself barred from the U.S., on a list of undesirables because he had admitted to previous marijuana smoking (in his Olympics appeal, he said he had stopped about a year before the Games). The ban was eventually rescinded.
In 2004, after he had married wife Alexandra, an ex-girlfriend sued Rebagliati, alleging she had supported him for the 1-1/2 years they lived together, a time in which the woman said he was "intermittently employed and earned little in the way of income." The woman alleged she was co-owner of the $535,000 Whistler house where Rebagliati lived and had changed the locks, as well as saying he owed her for things she'd paid for, from motorbikes and a personal trainer to a $500 teeth-whitening kit. The dispute was settled out of court.
In 2006, Rebagliati was on the legal offensive. The main character in the short-lived CTV drama Whistler was a blond-haired, blue-eyed gold-medal-winning snowboarder - like Rebagliati - who on return from glory was found dead on the mountain, a cold case shrouded in a fog of blackmail - unlike Rebagliati. He sued for misappropriation of personality and defamation. The defendants countered the seeming likeness was "purely coincidental." A settlement, also out of court, was reached last year.
This year, the smoke still lingering more than a decade later, Rebagliati was a go-to commentator on TV for CBS and CBC after a picture published in a British tabloid allegedly showed swimmer Michael Phelps, the record gold medal winner, smoking pot.
Rebagliati courts the attention. His website www.rossrebagliati.com, run by Alexandra, details media appearances, even tiny tangential mentions, flattering or otherwise. He put out a press release when his son Ryan was born in May, which garnered a hit on Entertainment Television Canada - a follow-up to a short segment in January when Alexandra had an ultrasound.
Real estate has been the business thread before and after snowboarding gold. Early on at the age of 20, Rebagliati had some slope success and bought a condo.
"My buddies were buying car stereos and going to Alaska heli-skiing and I found myself with a big mortgage," he says.
A year and a half later, a sponsorship fell through and Rebagliati rushed to sell the place, and was surprised he had made a significant profit. He went on to play the buy-and-flip game in the surging years of Whistler real estate, which peaked early this decade.
Around that time, right after Sept. 11, the sale of a house to a U.S. buyer was about to close when the would-be purchaser's stock-market portfolio was torched. Rebagliati was on the "brink" financially and he, against the wall, closed the deal to his disadvantage.
"That's when I really knew what pressure was, stress," he says. "I think I was taken advantage of. I learned from that and I would do the same thing, if I was [the buyer]."
Another deal gone sour is Kelowna Mountain, a real-estate development combined with adventure sports. Rebagliati was on board for a couple of years, drawn by a "very generous" offer from the developer. The connection was made on the set of Shred, a movie from comedian Tom Green.
Rebagliati learned a lot but Kelowna Mountain stalled. "They experienced what everyone else in real estate experienced this winter," Rebagliati says. "I'm not officially involved at this point but there's no bad karma."
Now, he and is wife, a real-estate agent, are marketing the Westterra Point development in Kelowna. In a tweet on Twitter on his 38th birthday, Rebagliati, the project sales manager, announced: "is reducing all lots at Westterra Point by 25% below assessed value to blow them out. Killer deal for a lakeview lot in Kelowna."
For all the oscillation, Rebagliati says he is feeling good about where he's landed. He spends a lot of time mountain-bike riding, lots of time on the lake.
He's a guy with a quick and easy hearty laugh. And he's got what seems like endless projects on the go, including the occasional construction shift to pull some quick cash. He works with charities such as the Make-A-Wish Foundation and has helped on the City of Kelowna's work to stage the 2011 Children's International Winter Games, where he would oversee snowboarding. This September, Greystone Books is publishing Off The Chain, Rebagliati's history of snowboarding, seen through the lens of his career. Other activities include snowboard-racing camps held in Italy and at Big White near Kelowna. Private lessons are on offer, too.
Come Vancouver 2010, Rebagliati will be on the scene for "some celebrity parties" for Roots, as his wife put it in an e-mail itemizing her husband's numerous goings-on. Several years ago there was the idea to make a comeback for the hometown Olympics - he won World Cup races at Whistler Mountain in 1996 and 1997 - but the goal shattered on the shoals of an aging body.
Racing dreams are now pinned on wheels. (His son's middle name Enzo was picked for the Ferrari founder.) Rebagliati owns two old Porsches, a 1981 928 and a 1984 944, "excellent little racecars," and he wants to compete in the Targa Newfoundland rally and the Dakar rally (a legendary, demanding race formerly known as the Paris-Dakar).
It is all, from the gold medal to Kelowna real estate, pure Rebagliati, whose heart is full-on risk-taking racer.
The spark was one defining race on Feb. 8, 1998, when he stood in eighth place after the first of two final runs, staring through thick fog at a course of bullet-hard ice-snow. No one was betting on Ross Rebagliati. The run he put down to secure gold is without doubt an on-edge all-or-nothing. And, of course, it is the first video a visitor can watch on Rebagliati's website.
"I really did lay it on the line," he says. "My old motto: No time is better than a slow time."