Holland questing for gold in third Winter Olympics

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Sandpoint native Nate Holland snaps a self-portrait during the opening ceremonies last week in Sochi. (Courtesy photo)

SANDPOINT — When snowboarding first burst upon the scene in the early 1980s, a young Nate Holland was shredding the slopes of Schweitzer Mountain, part of the first generation to start surfing the mountains.

When the 90 seconds of chaos that is snowboardcross debuted at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Holland represented his country for the first time, riding to a 14th-place finish.

When the Olympics were held due north of Sandpoint in Vancouver, British Columbia in 2010, Holland was once again among the best riders in the world striving to conquer their heats, this time just missing a medal with a fourth-place finish.

Come Monday, the 35-year-old Sandpoint native, now a salty and decorated veteran of the sport, will be gunning for the gold medal in Sochi, Russia.

“I’m hoping the third time’s the charm,” says Holland, one of the pre-race favorites. “It means a lot to make three Olympics. The first one was amazing, the second one was just as amazing and the third one is surreal. I take a lot of pride in representing the U.S.”

That Holland is even at Sochi is remarkable, after a most inauspicious start to the season, breaking his clavicle early into his first training run. Calling it merely a bump on his road to Sochi, Holland recovered from surgery and stayed mentally strong, qualifying for the U.S. team of four on his final attempt.

“It’s been a pretty crazy month, a crazy year,” admits Holland. “On my first training run I broke my clavicle and slid into the third turn unconscious. That was a rocky start.”

Holland’s name is slightly conspicuous in its absence from Sports Illustrated’s medal predictions for snowboardcross (SBX). Holland has won a record seven X Games gold medals in the sport, is no stranger to World Cup podiums, and despite a still-ailing shoulder, is riding in peak form. Predictions are one thing, and it’s a safe bet all of the top riders will know damn good and well where the dangerous Holland is on the course.

Holland admits he’s matured considerably in the last four years, and spends more time studying the course, his opponent’s tendencies and visualizing race scenarios. He’s made no secret of a desire to stamp his legacy as one of the greats of the sport with an Olympic medal.

“An Olympic medal has eluded me, but I’m going to stick to my guns and ride away, leave it all on the course,” predicts Holland. “That’s all I can ever ask of myself.”

One of the alluring charms of SBX is its thrill-a-minute, unpredictable nature, where surviving heat after heat until the finals is akin to navigating a minefield. Unlike a sport like tennis, where a top player has plenty of time and opportunity to win three sets, a top rider in SBX can have his board clipped on the first turn and lose, out of contention in the snap of a finger.

The Sochi course is similar in length and big features to the X Games course in Aspen, which bodes well for Holland, whose gliding and jumping ability are nearly unrivaled in the sport. He feels if he can go into turn one in the top three he’s got a great shot at winning every heat, as mid-course passes are what he does best.

To prepare for arguably the biggest race in his life, Holland has kept to a pretty simple, tried and true training regimen.

“There’s nothing to help your snowboarding out better than snowboarding,” says Holland. “Luckily I love the hell out of it.”

Nate’s dad Don Holland will join good friend Kenny Parker in Sochi to support Nate. Mom Rebecca Holland, who joined Don at the first two Olympics, opted to stay home, having just returned from supporting her son at the X Games in Aspen.

“Our decision is I’d go to the X, and Don will go to the O,” explains Rebecca, who will be watching her son race live on Monday on her computer. “This has been his dream since he was a little kid. I’d love to see him bring a medal back.”

Aside from younger brother Pat Holland, also a member of the U.S. Snowboarding team, perhaps no one knows Nate’s game as well as proud dad Don. A former football player at the University of Kentucky, Don is no stranger to the mental toughness it takes to compete at high levels. Suffice it to say, he has been wound up pretty tight lately with anticipation.

“I feel like a jack-in-the-box, keeping a lid on it,” describes Don, who is heading to Russia with plenty of love. “I’m there to support Nathan. Everything after that is secondary.”

Don calls SBX the most thrilling one and a half minutes in sports, where anything can, and often does, happen. To finish in the top three and advance in heats of six until the finals is physically rigorous, but that pales in comparison to the mental fortitude required.

Don believes preparation will carry the day on Monday, with his son possessing the patience and riding chops to make a serious run at a gold medal. Don feels Nate’s secret weapon is not being afraid to win, that and flying down a mountain while navigating the mayhem.

“He’s exceptional at taking a very aggressive line at high speed, which is risky. He has an ability to lock down mentally in the gate, to focus and execute that intention,” says Don, who feels his son might be flying slightly under the radar. “He’s locked in. He knows what his goal is and he’s on a mission to get that accomplished. It’s pretty impressive to watch.”

Rebecca, who owns All Star Photo in Sandpoint, and Don rave about Sandpoint as a place to raise a family, a place full of outdoor activities perfect for raising three rambunctious sons. They’re also grateful for the years of support from the community, and the multitude of coaches that helped along the way.

For Nate, he plans to stop and smell the roses more at this Olympics, looking forward to being a tourist and savoring the Olympic experience like everyone else.

As to the gold medal, there are no sure things in a wild sport like SBX, but Holland still likes his chances to bring home a gold medal.

“I like ‘em, I like ‘em a lot,” he says. “I can rely on my experience and skill. I’ve worked hard, I’m in great shape, and I seem to rise to the occasion in the big race.”

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