Perhaps no BC athlete in recent years has become more publicly recognized than Whistler’s Ross Rebagliati. In the course of a crazy week in February 1998, Rebagliati went from a relative unknown to being the topic of water cooler conversation worldwide. Although Rebabliati’s celebrity has died down considerably in the following years, he still remains one of Canada’s most recognizable athletes.
Like many in the sport’s infancy, Rebagliati came to discover snowboarding through skiing. In the 1980s, he had been a member of the Grouse Mountain Tyee Ski Club while attending Lord Byng Secondary. He took up snowboarding seriously in 1986 and turned pro after graduation in 1991.
In many ways Rebagliati was one of the pioneers of what was considered the fastest growing sport in the world through the 1990s. When Rebagliati first began boarding, it was difficult finding a mountain that allowed snowboarding. Within a decade, it was an Olympic medal sport and no longer on the fringes of Western culture.
Citing windsurfing and mountain biking as part of his training for the sport, Rebagliati has always been deep into the culture of extreme sport. He once made the trek to the extreme alpine mecca of Valdez, Alaska where he boarded down slopes as steep as 50 degrees. With any fall resulting in grisly death, Rebagliati landed an involuntary forward somersault, losing his goggles and hat in the process, which tumbled 2000 feet to the bottom of the mountain where they were recovered later.
Rebagliati credits his father in helping him become established on the lucrative European ISF tour. Without a major sponsor, Rebagliati’s father, Mark, footed the bill for equipment and accommodations his first year on tour. In 1993-94, Rebagliati finished second overall in giant slalom on the ISF circuit and followed that up with a third place finish overall the following season. He missed the entire 1995-96 season with a torn ACL. He returned to form in 1996-97, when Rebagliati finished third overall on the World Cup circuit in giant slalom and won the super G event at the 1996 Whistler World Cup.
It is often forgotten now, but Rebagliati almost didn’t make it to the 1998 Nagano Olympics as he was in jeopardy of being left off the Canadian snowboarding team because of a shin injury. Although, he did recover in time, he was only considered an outside threat at a medal behind fellow Canadians Mark Fawcett and Jasey-Jay Anderson.
After the first run in the giant slalom, Rebagliati stood a distant eighth, but the field’s times were so tight that the second run was considered to be there for the taking for whoever could nail the perfect run. Of the leaders it was Rebagliati who rose to the occasion with the second fastest final run in a time of 1:04.09 for a gold medal winning total time of 2:03.96. It was Canada’s first medal of the Games and made Ross the very first Olympic champion in the novel sport of snowboarding.
Shockingly, Rebagliati failed the mandatory drug test following his win, testing positive for trace amounts of marijuana. The IOC stripped Rebagliati of his gold medal, but in an equally shocking turn of events, the IOC returned Rebagliati’s medal a few days later because the substance was not on the IOC’s list of banned substances and the amount found in Rebagliati’s system was only slightly over the allowable limit.
Rebagliati became an instant celebrity and counter culture hero, appearing on covers of innumerable newspapers and magazines worldwide and on popular television programs such as Jay Leno’s Tonight Show. Even in retirement, Rebagliati remains one of the sport’s most prominent ambassadors.
Written and researched by Jason Beck, Curator of the BC Sports Hall of Fame.