During a training session at Colorado's Snowmass Mountain, near Aspen last week, a group of élite snowboarders who call themselves the Collection swooshed, spun and flipped over a curved channel, or half-pipe, changing the way their sport is played.
It's more than rare talent alone that separates the Collection--whose members include teen phenoms Mason Aguirre, 18, and Luke Mitrani, 15; 2002 Olympic gold medalists Ross Powers, 26, and Kelly Clark, 22; 2005 X-Games silver medalist Andy Finch, 24; and Gretchen Bleiler, 24, who is expected to take the women's half-pipe gold in Torino--from the rest of the snowboarding world. The group, formed in 2004, is the first rider-controlled team in the sport, operating outside the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA), which oversees the U.S. national team.
The Collection picks its own coach, chooses where to compete and, most important, collects its own sponsorship dollars. Under USSA guidelines, team sponsorship money is shared with the skiers, a sore point for the boarders. "It seems like no matter how hard the snowboarders work, the money goes to the skiing side of things," says Powers, who conceived the collective concept. "The Collection gives us the freedom to pick and choose what we want to do, and the money keeps going back into the team."
The arrangement has worked, at least financially. Before the start of this season and last, Snickers, drawn to the young audience that snowboarding attracts, signed a handsome contract with the Collection. Nickelodeon and Yamaha have also inked deals with the maverick boarders.
Now the Collection is hoping to show that an independent team can shine in the Olympics. Powers is in solid position to defend his gold, and strong performances by Clark and Finch at the last Olympic qualifiers, Jan. 20-21, could earn them a Torino trip too. Aguirre is a near lock for the team.
But it is Bleiler, who tests limits both on and off the pipe, who appears most ready for breakout stardom. Clad in a painted-on bikini, she posed for a racy FHM cover before the 2004 X-Games. "It definitely crosses the line of my comfort zone," she says. "I pushed myself." She plans to push at the Olympics too. On her program is the Michaelchuck, a backflip trick that no woman has ever landed in competition. Bleiler credits her Collection teammates for some of her success. "We're definitely having to bushwhack our way through this whole thing, but it's exciting," she says. "It's kind of really coming together."