Snowboardcross pioneer Watanabe waves goodbye | ParkRecord.com

Snowboardcross pioneer Watanabe waves goodbye

Christopher Kamrani, The Park Record

Following his fifth-place finish at Sunday’s Sprint U.S. Snowboarding Grand Prix, Graham Watanabe, a 5-foot-6 snowboardcross pioneer and two-time Olympian, walked around the ski beach at Canyons Resort with his arm around father, Scott.

A Park City resident, native of Sun Valley, Idaho, and snowboard star known as "Ninja," Watanabe had just competed in his last snowboardcross event on his home mountain in a picturesque February snowstorm.

Graham Watanabe said he is hanging up his competitive board. The 29-year-old wants to see what else life has in store for him beyond the racing circuit.

"The only reason nobody believes me is because I have to throw in the disclaimer that life is unpredictable," he said. "You never know. My plan as of now is to just go see what else the world has to offer."

Watanabe won the men’s consolation final in dramatic fashion, going into a tight tuck, zooming toward the finish line after the final jump. He crossed first, barely, before the two racers behind him got tangled up and tumbled over one another just across the finish line.

Watanabe looked back in shock, with both hands atop his head, hoping his fellow riders weren’t seriously injured.

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"It’s kind of the story of my career," he said. "I’m a fifth-place guy. I don’t know what it is, but if you look at my bio, there’s a whole string of them.

"It’s definitely better to end the day with a win than with a loss."

Emotions didn’t run high for the jovial Watanabe, but his sudden retirement from the sport has close friends talking. Nate Holland, a six-time Winter X Games gold medalist, said he isn’t buying what his friend is selling — not right now.

"It’s not Graham’s last race," he said. "I don’t believe him."

Why not believe him?

"I know Graham. He’s got the competitive spirit," Holland added. "I just don’t think it’s his last race."

Watanabe said he doesn’t know if or when the reality of being away from the sport will hit him. A student at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, Watanabe said he has some things he’d like to accomplish, but right now his bulletin board is clean.

"I love snowboarding, I know that part of my life is not done. I know I’m going to keep snowboarding no matter what," he said.

"I couldn’t tell you I have specific plans, honestly."

This March, Watanabe and fellow American snowboardcross athlete Jason Smith plan on making a winter pilgrimage in search of some of the best snow around.

"Beyond that, it’s really just leaving every door open, seeing what comes my way," he said.

Although Holland expects to see Watanabe in a start gate in the near future, he said he supports his good friend in whatever endeavors he embarks on.

"These are life decisions," he said. "We dedicated our lives to racing and put a lot of time and effort into it.

"If he wants to take a break and pursue other life goals, I support him in that."

As Watanabe waited to be interviewed after his fifth-place finish, he paced around the fresh snow, hugging everyone in sight. He hugged his father Scott, then found his way to American Faye Gulini and embraced her as she fielded questions from reporters.

Asked what he’ll remember most about his time competing, Watanabe dug deep.

"Just the good times," he said. "I know the whole time I’ve been on tour, it’s been a lot of laughs. I made a lot of good friends and I’ll just look back on that and hopefully maintain those relationships and hopefully let those be my reminder."

When the medals were being doled out to the athletes on the podium, Watanabe stood far away from the action, his arm around his father, possibly for the last time as a competitive snowboarder.

"It’ll be interesting to see if it actually hits me hard, or if I’m just like, ‘Oh, OK, I’m done,’" he said. "We’ll see."