Vermont writer delves into snowboard history

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SOUTHERN VERMONT — Snowboarding has a rich history here, where the first boards were built then allowed on the ski slopes, and home to the wild, inaugural years of the United States Open Championships.

"In time, the U.S. Open became an institution. It was a destination for the spectator as well as a place of familiarity for riders — ground zero for the sport's progress," author Brian L. Knight of Dorset writes in "Snowboarding in Southern Vermont: From Burton to the U.S. Open," which will be released Monday. "The U.S. Open was a homecoming for many pro riders returning to their home turf."

In Knight's telling, the U.S. Open was one big party when it had been held at Stratton Mountain Resort.

"It was sort of a dual competition of who could party all night and then win the competition the next day," he said.

Such antics are unheard of now, Knight said, as the sport transitioned from fringe to mainstream. He pointed at the Olympics for putting snowboarding on the map, getting big sponsors involved and holding fans accountable for their behavior.

His new book can be purchased at snowboardinginsouthernvermont.com and will be available at Amazon.com. A release party at Green Door Pub at Stratton will be held apres ski on Dec. 8.

Green Door is "a perfect place" as it hosted parties for many U.S. Opens, said Knight, who received about three pages of notes from the bar's manager Pete Christy when he set out to write the book.

"The snowboarders made this place what it is," Christy says in the book. "They came in and they embraced it ... I wouldn't say it was all snowboarders down here but it was like a let your hair down bar ... It was the clubhouse for snowboarders for sure ... Still is."

Knight grew up going to Stratton Mountain on weekends. His parents had a second home near the resort. Then the family moved there full time in the mid 1980s.

That gave Knight a front-row seat to the start of snowboarding.

"Everyone mistakenly called it Burton Boards," he said, "because they thought that was the name of the sport."

Knight described his own Backhill as "a simple board with a water ski binding in the front and a giant rubberband in the back" that he used in the backyard. His parents bought him a pair of skis the year snowboarding took off and he felt guilty asking for an exchange.

Knight said he stayed skiing but watched friends go from their backyards to the chairlifts on snowboards.

"I've been an objective observer," he said. "I'm not really a snowboarder per se. I've just been observing."

Knight worked at the customer service desk at Stratton in the mid 1990s. He said he would hang out with the U.S. Open organizers and competitors when they would come in the spring. He also wrote for a culture magazine that had been available at Mount Snow and Stratton.

Ultimately, Knight landed a job teaching history at Stratton Mountain School. He said he would eat lunch with snowboard coaches Scott Johnston, Dave Redden and Olympic gold medalist Ross Powers, who would talk about the "old days" and mutual friends.

"And talking with Ross, I kinda realized I've sort of witnessed this sport from soup to nuts," Knight said. "I just felt like I know the people who are involved."

During a spring break from SMS, he put ideas for the book down on paper then let it sit for a couple of years before he submitted it to a publisher. It took another couple of years before someone from Arcadia Publishing and The History Press contacted him, asking whether he still was interested.

"Then the book went into overdrive because most of what I wrote was based on existing interviews and articles I could find," Knight said. "It gave it a more personal touch. I took what I wrote as a framework but then I went out and got interviews."

His other job as a historic preservationist has him visiting archives and sifting through documents. So with this book, he said, "I wanted to try and focus on how the community contributed to the growth of this sport. I wanted to avoid a general history of this sport."

Knowing he had limited space to work with, Knight made a conscious decision to abandon some parts.

"I pretty much had to cut the book in half when I got the go ahead," he said. "Mount Snow definitely got the short shift. So did Okemo and Killington."

But, Knight admitted, he did not know as much about those resorts' storylines so it was "a good cut." He concentrated on the late 1970s, the 1980s and 1990s.

"But as I got into the early 2000s, I had to start writing less about it," he said. "I really wanted to focus on those early years because that was when the sport was at its raw stage."

Knight considers improvisation a common theme as the pioneers were "just making it up as they went along."

"There were no rules," he said. "They had the framework of skiing."

In the book, Knight writes that snowboarding owes much to the existence of skiing: "P-tex, metal edges, and most obviously, a mountain infrastructure with lifts, snowmaking, grooming and staff."

"The two sports had a symbiotic, albeit sometimes contentious, relationship," he writes. "Thanks to snowboarding, ski areas cut glades through the woods, built terrain parks and hosted big air competitions, and leaving the ground is now the norm."

Knight credits snowboarding with providing the ski industry with renewed vitality. He writes that as the U.S. got "more litigious, mountain executives perceived getting air as a potential lawsuit."

"So skiing was pretty boring," he said, noting that many of the boarders he interviewed were former skiers. "There was this excitement that came with snowboarding."

His book tracks the early days of Burton Boards, from the company's first factory in Londonderry to its subsequent moves to Manchester then Burlington. It tells the story behind the negotiations that led to Stratton allowing boarders to ride the lifts. It also goes into the early days of halfpipe competitions and how they eventually came to be included in the Olympics.

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.

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