SALT LAKE CITY – He’d rather his face end up on a box of Count Chocula than a box of Wheaties.
He listens to punk rock on his minidisc player during competition “to block out the bad, let in the good.”
His sickest moves, including his trademark “Kasserole,” are on display in a new ESPN winter sports video game. “I’ve been playing with myself a lot lately,” he joked this week.
By all appearances, 19-year-old Danny Kass is a stereotypical snowboarder. With his shaggy brown hair and boasts about parties and “the ladies,” he’s the kind of kid found on a thousand chairlifts.
He’s also an Olympian. After a breakout 2001 season in which he coached himself, the New Jersey native living in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., is a medal favorite in Monday’s men’s half-pipe finals in Park City.
On the professional snowboard circuit, characters like Kass have become the exception. The laid-back “lifestyle” that riders like to talk about has become a mainstream sport, and many top competitors are technical wizards out to win points with judges. Kass is a throwback to snowboarding’s rebel roots.
A skateboarder at heart, Kass began snowboarding at 12. He took his cues from his older brother, Matt, who also rode competitively. Kass dropped out of high school in New Jersey at 18 and followed his brother to Mammoth, which beckoned with its three half-pipes and three snowboard parks.
Before the 2001 season, Kass consistently finished in the top tens but didn’t stand out. Then he said he started training harder and “going bigger.” The wins began to pile up: the X-Games, the U.S. Open and the overall men’s half pipe crown in the U.S. Snowboard Grand Prix, a sort of Winston Cup for snowboarders.
Suddenly, the funny, mellow kid who liked to draw grim reapers and sing lead vocals in a band called Bent Metal was a star – especially with teen-agers, the core snowboarding demographic.
“He’s all about the same things they are – music, friends, having a good time, not taking the sport or yourself too seriously,” said Kass’ agent, Bob Klein. “It’s not just about the riding.”
At an Olympic news conference this week, a bemused Kass fielded questions from a pack of U.S. journalists who have kids his age. He was asked about the perception that snowboarders are spaced-out stoners.
The question wasn’t unfair. At snowboarding’s Olympic debut four years ago in Nagano, Japan, Ross Rebagliati of Canada almost was stripped of his gold medal after testing positive for marijuana. It was later determined he’d inhaled second-hand smoke. The sport’s image took a hit even if Rebagliati didn’t.
“The stereotype is we’re all a bunch of punks who like partying, getting drunk, getting out of control,” Kass said. How many riders actually fit that description: 15 percent, says Kass. Is he one of them? Some nights.
But Kass is not strictly a party boy. He says he returned to high school in California, made the honor roll and got his diploma. He’s also an entrepreneur. He and his brother have their own glove company, Grenade Gloves, whose endorsement roster includes one of Kass’ Olympic teammates, Tommy Czeschin.
Then again, Kass and some friends have been known to spray-paint the Grenade logo on various unapproved surfaces, including the parka of an NBC cameraman. You get the sense Kass knows the rebel thing has its benefits, that if he crafts his public image right he might score a few more sponsors.
“He appears to be aloof, but he’s not,” Klein said. “He knows exactly what he’s doing.”
Kass said he doesn’t consider snowboarding an outlaw sport anymore. While snowboarding was a programming side note in Japan, Monday night NBC will show a tape-delayed half-pipe final in prime time.
“It’s what kids are doing right now,” Kass said. “It’s cool to see fun sports in the Olympics.”
Despite jokes about wanting to meet members of the Swedish women’s cross-country ski team, Kass said he and his teammates are dead-serious about competing.
An Olympic medal? That would be sick.
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