Most of the $50 billion Russian President Vladimir Putin poured into the recent Olympic preparations was not noticed by 18-year-old Bend snowboarder Kent Callister, who was in Sochi representing Australia.
The halfpipe—Callister's home for the three weeks he spent at the subtropical Russian resort—was bad. The food was worse. And his sparse Mountain Village accommodations were so distant from the other Olympic villages (there were three total) that he rarely ventured further than the bottom of the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park where he competed.
But it was the competition that Callister had traveled for, and it was the competing that Callister said he'll remember most, long after the memories of Russian Big Macs have faded. And he should. Lining up next to luminaries like Shaun White and rubbing elbows with his childhood heroes was no doubt a thrill. But it all must have paled in comparison to Callister's last run in the men's halfpipe final in which he beat back the pressure and cooly finished ninth overall on the world's biggest sporting stage. In doing so, Callister, who sports shoulder-length brown hair and an easy smile, notched Australia's highest finish in the halfpipe event.
"Yeah I'm pretty happy with that," said Callister (whose dad is Australian) of his Olympic result during a recent interview with the Source. Callister's Twitter page proved more enthusiastic.
"Had such an epic time last night finished in 9th!!! Thank you everyone!," read a post on Feb. 12, the day after his event. "Had such a great time the other night! Can't believe I got 9th," read another. Swiss rider louri Podladtchikov took gold, and American Shaun White was fourth.
After netting gold in both Turin and Vancouver, White's performance in Sochi was a disappointment (even though many Americans participated in a bit of schadenfreude as White fell in the finals), particularly after he pulled out of the slopestyle competition to solely focus on halfpipe. The tide seems to have shifted for White, who once a media darling, has now become a punching bag. The Flying Tomato was vilified as a stingy, win-at-all-costs type in the recent documentary Crash Reel, an exceptional film about White's longtime rival, Kevin Pearce. The red-headed ripper was similarly slammed in a recent New York Times feature. But Callister said most people have White all wrong.
"I've met him a couple times," Callister offered. "He's actually a really cool guy. The media likes to hate on him for whatever reason. He's said nothing but nice things to me."
Callister suspects the general disdain for the snowboarder-turned-businessman stems from intermediate-level riders who are jealous of White's long-running dominance and lucrative contracts.
Success in the halfpipe certainly takes a bigger and more focused effort than the casual attitude portrayed by many boarders would belie.
To hear Callister tell it, the one-day qualifying procedure is itself an effort of Olympic proportions. After only three days of practice, competitors like Callister worked through the halfpipe opening qualifying round, semi-final and final—all in a single day.
"It was big day," Callister said. "No other contest goes like that. I was extremely sore the next day. But it was all worth it."
Callister also confirmed what anyone who followed the Olympics already knew: Sochi, with its mild temperatures and limited, pre-Olympic infrastructure, was probably not the best venue choice. It was too warm, Callister said, for the halfpipe to be any good; it just didn't hold together.
"The flat bottom was slushy and it was really hard to hold an edge," Callister said good naturedly. "They had nobody test it before hand." Grooming efforts and watering (to create ice which, in theory, would firm up the pipe's slushy flat bottom) did little to affect the feature's overall nature.
"It was still awful," Callister said of the halfpipe.
Like the sub-par pipe, the Olympic snowboard judges also received flack from the athletes and media alike. The main critique leveled at the International Ski Federation judges—who award subjective points based on perceived difficulty and style—was that they were not snowboarders and thus not as familiar with the tricks, culture and general style (steeze) showcased by the competitors. As such, scoring was a bit of a mystery and many of the athletes were left wondering what it was the judges were looking for. At World Snowboard Tour (TTR) events, riders consult with the judges beforehand to understand how they will be scored.
"I don't like the overall impression that the IFS uses," American Chas Guldemond said in a recent USA Today article. "I think the World Snowboard Tour has a much better system and much more trained judges...We educate our judges three times a year."
Callister—certainly no whiner—was quoted similarly during an interview with an Australian sports network.
"It (halfpipe) should definitely be judged by snowboarders," Callister said before adding that he hoped his final run would have received a few more points than it did.
It's not as if Sochi, which was perhaps unfairly ridiculed by the Twitter account @SochiProblems, was all bad: Far from, Callister said. Paling around with his snowboarding mates, watching other events (ski jumping and boarder cross, a chaotic event that simultaneously pits six competitors against one another on a twisty downhill course, were his favorites) and generally basking in the Olympic light for three weeks was a swell time. And the closing ceremony, Callister said, was outrageous.
"I stayed the entire time," Callister said. "It was very surreal."