Drew Neilson’s first Olympic rush lasted just 20 seconds. Taken out by a Polish rider who had lost his edge, Neilson left the 2006 Torino Games banged up and bummed, but determined to ride for glory again, at home, in 2010.
Now a married father of two living in North Vancouver, by way of Vernon, Neilson is one of the world’s best snowboard cross athletes.
Bumper cars on snow. Frozen roller derby. The sport is dangerous, thrilling and fan-friendly. Racers bolt out of the starting gate simultaneously and then face steep pitches, berms and jumps. Most races go 45 seconds. There is some bumping, and since turning pro 11 years ago, Neilson has rattled almost every part of his body.
The former VSS and Kalamalka Secondary student was turned on to snowboarding by a James Bond movie. He has used the footage in presentations to schools.
“There was a Siberian escape scene where he’s escaping the Russians and the snowmobile gets blown up and the ski just happens to land in the snow beside him and the next thing you know, he’s cruising down the mountain,” laughed Neilson, 35. “It was pretty inspirational.”
After years of downhill ski racing and freestyling at Silver Star Mountain Resort, Neilson and buddy Dave Laidlaw discovered snowboarding. Neilson was 13 and despite a few head-smashing falls, was quickly hooked on the sport.
In his late teens, Neilson began winning competitions. He worked nights in a kitchen at Silver Star and snowboarded by day.
“I’d wake up in the morning and press play, and start again,” he said.
Then came the prize money. A $15,000 cheque one season, $25,000 the next. By 2002-03, he was fourth in the FIS World Cup Championship. The next season, he was third and pulling in $250,000. He even had a character in American X Games legend Shaun Palmer’s video game.
Neilson, who used his eye-popping vertical to play high school volleyball, rugby and basketball, was stoked when snowboard cross was added to the Turin Olympics.
“I personally thought it was the best show at the Olympics. What’s not to love about a last-minute pass to the finish, country-to-country, head-to-head action. You really only get that in short-track speed skating. It’s not you against a number that the judge’s gonna give you. It’s not you going against the clock. It’s head-to-head and that’s what I love about it, and I think that’s why skier-cross got in so easily and I think it’s going to be a great show as well.”
Neilson was the gold-medal favourite going into the Turin Games.
“The Polish rider was a nice guy. We just came together and I thought I was home free, and then the next thing you know, I got clipped and couldn’t see it coming. I’m not saying he needed to apologize to me, and he never did. It’s just something that happens, and unfortunately, it happened on the biggest day of my life.
“I’ve had a pretty successful career. If you look at the percentages of how many times I’ve raced and how many times I’ve been on the podium, I’m pretty happy with that.”
The very next season, Neilson won three of four World Cup races in a season cut short by inclement weather.
Betrayed by a serious wrist injury the first half of last season, Neilson recorded two top-10 finishes before the year ended, including a seventh in the Olympic test race on his home Cypress Mountain course. He had off-season wrist surgery and despite a 33rd-place finish in a September race in Argentina, he feels ready for the rest of the World Cup season, starting this weekend in Colorado.
“I still think I’m good. I think I’ve just got a lot on my plate with family and stuff to deal with. It’s harder to stay on top of it as much in the physical aspect and get out and snowboard. I really only snowboard in competition now, unfortunately,” he said.
“I can’t say I’ve lost anything, I just don’t keep on the snow as much. I’ve got the skill, I’ve got the head. January will be a good January because we’re busy. We’re three weeks on the road. We’ve got three World Cups, two in Europe, and one in Stoneham (Quebec) with a little break and then we’re off.”
Teammates, like former Vernonite Tom Velisek, are pushing Neilson for an Olympic spot. Top-10 finishes at the four remaining events will decide the Canadian team, although coach’s discretion will likely come into play, and thus help Neilson, when selection time rolls around in Stoneham.
“It’s really tight and I’m pretty happy to be where I’m at considering the lack of races last year and the obstacles I’ve had to overcome in the last little while,” said Neilson, a huge Vancouver Canucks fan.
A self-described Mr. Mom since his wife, Amy, works full-time as a police pyschologist, Neilson cares for his sons, Caleb, five, and Elias, not quite two, in between races. He praises Amy (nee Powter) for making huge sacrifices along the snowboard journey.
They have been together for 15 years, married for seven.
“I love her to death, but she’s always said it will be great when snowboarding won’t be the priority, and with the Olympics coming here, it’s unfortunately become more of a priority,” he said.
“She transferred from UVic to SFU so I could be near the mountains and airport and not stuck on the ferry. She sacrificed a lot. It’s always, unfortunately, been all about me, but it’s been our primary income for a long time. Snowboarding was making lots of money and it was our lifestyle. She’s the best thing that has happened to me in my life, next to having two children with her.”
Life as a family man has changed Drew in many ways. He no longer paints his toenails purple before races, and he ditches post-race parties.
“It’s fun to go out and blow some steam off and do that kind of thing, but it comes to a point when you become a dad. It’s funny because a lot of the people I race with now, they have a pre-disposed kind of view of me from the way I used to be when I was out competing and winning and travelling and partying like a madman. So, people want me to go out, they wanna buy me a drink, they wanna get drunk with Drew Neilson. They wanna get out and have fun. They’re out on tour, and they’ve finally made it, and they wanna party with the big boys and have fun, and I think it surprises them when they don’t see me at the party.”
Neilson said one scotch used to lead to 10 and then he suffered with a wicked hangover.
The youngest of four siblings, Drew was only three when his father, Lew Neilson, was killed in a hang gliding accident as he trained for the world championships. Lew, also an auto race driver, is in the Okanagan Sports Hall of Fame. Drew pays honour to his dad with yearly visits to the Coldstream Cemetery.
“Like me, he was a pretty fiery, competitive person who has a bit of a temper,” said Drew, who when working as a greeter at White Spot, had one of his father’s friends recognize the family resemblance, much to his delight.
Drew, who hung out with older brother Wade growing up, also has a brother Craig, and a sister, Karen. He praises his mom, Judy, for making his upbringing a happy one despite his father’s death.
“Single mom, four kids, growing up and having to be the sole provider working at the Winman’s furniture store for a long time with my grandmother, and trying to juggle the kids. I was afforded a lot of freedom, but Karen’s another strong person in my life, and she had to step it up, and she did. My mom did everything she had to and did a great job as far as keeping a budget, keeping on top of things and keeping us good-natured kids.”
Neilson said his step-dad, Ben Hoy, brought some stability to the family, and Drew is excited about performing in front of his folks in February.
“It’s one of the last checklists on the checklists of a career I guess, is to win the biggest one. I haven’t won a world championship which I’d like to do as well, a single-race world championship which they have every two years. Unfortunately, I missed Korea due to my wrist. It’s (Olympics) the biggest show. I’m still not qualified officially. I’ve still got my work cut out for me for four more races. Lots of media, lots of people expecting good things out of me, and I definitely have to keep it all in perspective and not get carried away, but I’ll definitely try to keep it just as another race, but it’s not.”