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Montreal Gazette - Article on Ross

Blog by | February 12th, 2008

Run to gold medal began with a lie

Rebagliati, whose Olympic win 10 years ago almost went up in marijuana smoke, wouldn't have even been on the Canadian snowboard team had he not faked an injury

IAN WALKER, Canwest News Service

Ross Rebagliati has a confession to make: He wasn't telling the whole truth all those years ago.

No, no, no. Not about that. He still contends the marijuana found in his system hours after becoming the first man to win a gold medal in snowboarding at the 1998 Nagano Olympics was due to second-hand inhalation (other people had been smoking it at a party).

Rather, it's about how Rebagliati found his way onto Canada's snowboard team in the first place.

The 36-year-old Kelowna, B.C., resident strolls along the Kits Beach shoreline with his two dogs on an overcast afternoon. From a distance, he looks no different than anyone else out enjoying the mountain views and the hypnotizing sounds of the ocean. He's got a black skullcap pulled down over his forehead and sports a brilliant blue designer snowboard jacket over a bright orange hoodie that sticks out the back. Still, it doesn't take long for someone to notice him. Faint whispers of "that's Ross Rebagliati" can be heard as two young men walk past.

"The fact it's been 10 years and I'm still recognized ... it's pretty incredible," says Rebagliati, who had competed on the World Cup circuit for eight years, largely anonymous, before winning gold. "It really is amazing."

Last Friday marked the 10-year anniversary of Rebagliati's historic - and well-documented - feat. So what better way to celebrate than to come completely clean? If not for a little white lie, the then-Whistler, B.C., resident may never have had the chance to represent his country.

"The last two World Cup races before the Olympics were in

Europe and I was supposed to go to the Canadian qualifier in Alberta, but I chose not to go as the criteria for the Games were our past results," recalls Rebagliati, who thought he was a shoo-in as a result of his podium finish alongside fellow national team members Mark Fawcett and Jasey-Jay Anderson at a qualifying race in Whistler, just one week before the Alberta race.

"I was like, screw it, I'm going to race in Europe. Four guys make the team, so they have to pick me behind Mark and Jasey-Jay."

Or so he thought. Missing out on crucial points at the qualifier dropped Rebagliati into a tie for fourth in the standings and off Canada's Olympic team.

"My coach called me and told me they gave the spot to the other guy because I didn't show,"

Rebagliati adds.

"This is after I finished fourth and third in the races in Europe using borrowed equipment because the airlines lost my gear.

"So I wrote up a letter that I had a doctor sign saying that I incurred a hairline fracture and the extra couple of days it took to get to Europe, instead of racing the next day in Alberta, gave me enough time to heal. And that was why I made the decision to miss the final qualifier. I told them I was really sorry and didn't mean for this to happen and was hoping they'd change their mind."

They did. Then Rebagliati went on to win gold. And a bigger winner was snowboarding, as the circumstances surrounding his victory forever ingrained the sport into mainstream consciousness while at the same time retaining its bad-boy image.

"It really was an exclamation point and drew a lot of attention to the sport," says Fawcett, now the head alpine coach of Canada's national snowboard team. "Let's say it didn't happen - snowboarding would be just as successful, but there's no arguing it assisted in bringing the sport to the mainstream. It was inevitable the sport would hit the big time, but it definitely gave it a turbo shot."

It was the positive drug test for minute traces of marijuana that shot Rebagliati into international prominence. For days he was on the front pages of newspapers worldwide. The International Olympic Committee pulled his medal, then had it reinstated when he copped a second-hand smoke plea. Marijuana, while illegal, wasn't on the IOC's banned substance list.

Rebagliati speaks candidly about the experience. He always has. It's part of his charm.

"Yeah, I smoked weed before the Olympics and after, but I conformed to the rules during the lead-up and through the Games," he says. "The more you are honest about that ... the less of a farce it is."

Only now is Rebagliati completely comfortable with his fame. Or infamy, as he prefers to call it. The difference between the two? If you turn an infamous person upside down, no money falls out of his pockets.

Despite some media reports that had him making millions as a result of all the publicity he received, that just

wasn't so, he says.

"The term is 'rich and famous.' " says Rebagliati, who was inducted into the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame in 2005.

"Famous sucks unless it comes with money because being famous is a full-time job. As soon as you go out, you are on the job. A chunk of your life goes with being famous. To be compensated for that makes it a lot better, and to not be compensated for that - it can be a burden at times."

Rebagliati had planned to make a comeback for the 2010 Vancouver Games. That was until an opportunity to be the director of snowboarding and skiing for Kelowna Mountain was presented to him last year. He will design and manage the snowboard and ski operations at the youth-amenities-oriented residential resort. The Rebagliati Alpine Snowboard Training Academy - aptly named RASTA - will officially open next season.

"It afforded me the option to race or not race - regardless, the money was there for me for once," says Rebagliati, now married. "So we made a decision, based on my age mostly, and for the future."

As for the past, what got lost in the turn of events was that Rebagliati dedicated his winning race to his best friend, Geoff (Lumpy) Leidal, who died one month before the Nagano Games in an avalanche in Kootenay National Park in B.C.

"Obviously, it's the 10th anniversary of Lumpy's death, too, and I'll never forget that," he says.

It was at a party in Leidal's memory that Rebagliati was exposed to second-hand marijuana smoke.

"I was being a good boy and was with everybody else who wasn't," Rebagliati says. "But that was our relationship and the culture we were immersed in. It's truly amazing and quite ironic, really. The Olympics are secondary to why people know me. If I hadn't have failed the drug test, we wouldn't be speaking today nor would I have done half of the things it's allowed me to do. And if it wasn't for Lumpy's party, I wouldn't have failed my test."

Put that in your pipe and smoke it.