Snow Job

Phoenix counselor finds a different kind of gold at the Winter Olympics

Fresh from the Winter Olympics, Dr. Bob Harmison has resumed teaching at Phoenix's Argosy University, where he is a professor of sports psychology. But he's still stoked, to borrow a word Harmison heard a thousand times in Salt Lake City during his two-week stint.

Harmison served as a mental-training counselor for the U.S. men's and women's snowboarding teams. As such, he was a behind-the-scenes player in one of the Games' most memorable, over-the-top stories -- observing, advising, cheering on, and practically living with the team.

Harmison watched at the bottom of the hill in Park City as the men's halfpipers -- the so-called "Dream Dudes" -- swept the medals, and women's halfpiper Kelly Clark took the gold.

So, doc, what could you possibly have said to young athletes such as silver-medalist halfpiper Danny Kass, who came across in appearance and demeanor as a direct descendant of Jeff Spicoli, Sean Penn's classic portrayal of a teen stoner in Fast Times at Ridgemont High?

"Sometimes, it's best to do and say little or nothing," says Harmison, sitting in his office at Argosy, an institution that trains aspiring psychologists and counselors.

"I mean, these people got to the Olympics without me doing a whole lot for them, so it was a lot more of encouragement, a lot of 'I'm here for ya,' and support than specific tips on this or that technique. Many of those guys are just going to ride the pipe, regardless. It honestly isn't so much about winning for some of them, just about going big [performing a great routine] and progressing the sport. But they also are mentally tough, my God!"

Harmison says he's helped athletes prepare mentally for performance in sports ranging from golf to tae kwon do. But working with snowboarders -- especially the freestyle halfpipers as compared with the more traditional Alpine athletes -- was a new, often enlightening experience.

"Look at it this way: More than one of the halfpipe guys are very clear about why they got into the sport -- for the beer and the babes. But you soon learn that they put out more image about being party animals than is reality sometimes. They are completely into what they do on the pipes, and they wouldn't be competing in all of these events if they weren't competitive."

Before and during the competition, Harmison lived in a rented home outside Park City with the other snowboard team staffers; the halfpipers and Alpiners resided across the street in two other houses. The contingent had its own chef -- "Now, that's cool," he says -- and its own sensibilities.

"Take Danny Kass, for example," Harmison says. "He'd rather be on a box of Count Chocula than a box of Wheaties, and that's no kidding. Snowboarding has been more of a culture than a sport in some ways until this point, definitely a party culture."

Harmison points out that an advertisement in the team's media guide shows a snowboarder facing the dilemma of going to a bar (which closes at 2 a.m.), or going to bed early because the ski lifts open at 8:30 a.m.

"That can be a real issue," he says, "partying hard or getting up early and riding the powder."

The snowboarders chose the latter during the Olympics, at least while they were competing, and the results surpassed almost everyone's pre-Games dreams. As the competition heated up, viewers who hadn't even known what a halfpipe was were now talking about gravity-defying maneuvers such as the "Classic Stalefish" and the "Switch McTwist."

Harmison takes a particular pride in the accomplishments of 18-year-old Kelly Clark, with whom he started to work a few years ago in the state of Washington. Clark, he says, is a fierce competitor who had become increasingly grumpy as her competition neared.

"You could see the intensity in Kelly's body language and in her disposition," Harmison says, "but I thought she would be very capable of dealing with it in her own way, so I basically just encouraged her and watched her go to work. And when she threw that first run down, she just stuck it."

Clark's competition consisted of two spine-tingling runs. With the Guns N' Roses song "Welcome to the Jungle" blaring in the packed stadium, the Vermont native improved enough on her final attempt to overtake a French woman for the gold. At the bottom of the hill, spectators took time from pummeling each other in the makeshift mosh pit to applaud her efforts.

"The whole thing was so wild, just indescribable, so exciting," Harmison says.

Clark was such a hit that David Letterman had her drop by the show a few nights after she won gold.

Next came the men, who dropped into the pipe listening on headphones to an array of music that included Slayer, Old Dirty Bastard, and AC/DC. Eventual gold medalist Ross Powers won going away, after an opening routine that Harmison says included "the highest straight air I ever have seen."

And 19-year-old Danny Kass? "About 10 minutes before his second run, the guy was signing autographs, hanging out with the spectators, loose as could be. Again, I was just observing and enjoying."

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