By  on February 13, 2002

PARK CITY, Utah -- Jake Burton was pitching snowboarding long before it became radical.

Now that the sport has reached the height of Olympic coolness, Burton is basking in its glory.

Two Burton-sponsored athletes, Kelly Clark and Ross Powers, have captured the gold in the half-pipe, and three Americans, including Powers, swept the men's event. The rowdy crowds have come out in droves, even yelling from nearby chairlifts.

Burton is credited with developing a generation of thrill seekers by giving them the tools to surf on the snow. His Burlington, Vt.-based company is known for its cutting-edge, technical products and deft marketing, promoting the sport without exploiting its individualistic nature.

"This time around people got to see what the sport is all about," Burton said in an interview Monday. "In Nagano, they held the event in a rainstorm. This went super well. It's the kind of thing that keeps the sport totally youth-driven. The sport is going totally mainstream and older people are riding, but what those guys were doing today is something else. They can do that without crashing the party."

A sign of the times, Burton missed the men's qualifying round Monday morning because he was teaching Katie Couric to ride a snowboard for a "Today" show segment.

"That was pretty stressful," he said. "I didn't have a lot of time and I'm not used to the whole network scene. I've taught a lot of people how to ride, but always in a super-relaxed atmosphere."

A friend of a friend hooked him up with credentials that placed him at the foot of the course within arm's reach of the judges' booth. But being the sport's shaggy-haired patriarch doesn't guarantee front-row seats. Like many of the laid-back riders he supplies with boards and apparel, Burton is driven by the sport, not the attention. More than anything, he was impressed with the respect the pro riders garnered with their dominance.

"These guys were 15 feet out of the pipe doing flips -- they're 30 feet above-the-ground," Burton said. "They take a lot of risks and are as sharp as any athletes out there. People are starting to see these riders as athletes and hopefully won't stereotype them as freaks."Just like the women and men he designs clothes for, Burton looked at ease in army green cargo pants, a hoodie with a metallic Burton logo and a brown wool hat. He also shares some of their views, such as the complaint that Olympic judges don't buy into a rider's style as much as they should, as is the case in figure skating. American riders should also "bust out" of the uniform rule and be allowed to wear what they choose, Burton said.

"Snowboarding is all about individuality," he said. "The girls have proven they can ride the same pipe as the guys. They don't need separate courses. Kelly's final run would have beaten a guy's run four years ago. I can't tell you where this sport will be four years from now."

But Burton isn't about to take all the credit.

"I've been at this for so long," he said. "It's not like we're a dot-com deal. I've been doing this for 25 years. It doesn't surprise me what's happening. The sport is inherently great. Surfing in the snow is a very good thing."

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