Palmer puts it all out there in Olympic quest
TELLURIDE, Colo. – The anger that used to be his constant companion comes and goes now, bubbling up in the starting gate when he needs something extra to push his 41-year-old body down the mountain.
Twenty years ago, that anger drove Shaun Palmer into a 24-7 obsession to be the best at everything – snowboard rider, mountain bike daredevil, businessman, punk rocker, partier.
A near-death experience, a bunch of bad breaks and plain old time have mellowed him. But he is still standing on the snowboard in that starting gate, trying to make the Olympics, ready to show that, yes, Shaun Palmer of South Lake Tahoe still is a factor in the sport he helped create.
“Young kids don’t even know who I am anymore, but I don’t care,” Palmer said. “I just really wanted to make the Olympics this year. That’s all I want to do.”
Palmer is one of the – if not THE – original snowboarding rebel – the guy they named the video game after and who showed that, yes, in that true, grungy, Extreme Sports fashion, you can win all the races, woo all the fans, make all the money and still come off like you really don’t care.
One of his contemporaries, eight-time U.S. team member Rob Kingwill, said Palmer once told him a story about meeting the guys from Motley Crue.
“He said, ‘Those guys didn’t do drugs. I did drugs,” Kingwill recalls. “It was the level of the party, how hard he pushed himself and how he got on the gnarly drug side. To go from there, to where he’s matured enough where he sees the Olympics as a capstone. He thinks being on an Olympic podium is where he belongs, that that should be part of his story.”
No one should mistake Palmer for those in his generation who thought their sport didn’t belong in the Olympics, would lose its edge by commingling with what’s widely perceived as the stodgiest, most buttoned-up sports institution on the planet.
Because all Palmer really wanted, since he was about 17, was to show he was the best. At everything. And he recognized early that nothing says that better than having an Olympic gold medal hanging around your neck.
“That’s how I felt about all the sports, and I took it to a level where I wanted to beat everyone in the world at everything,” Palmer said. “I was just on a mission. There was probably a lot of anger and frustration in there. I found an outlet.”
There was a USA Today story in the late ’90s that asked, below a picture of Palmer, “Is this man the World’s Greatest Athlete?” Often lost in the retelling is that it was Palmer himself who suggested he was.
Mountain bike champion. Five-time world champion in snowboarding. Six-time X-Games champion. The list goes on.
“They talked about what Tiger Woods would have to accomplish in different sports to be on par with him, and it was unreal,” said Seth Wescott, defending Olympic champion in snowboardcross, the discipline Palmer essentially created and wants to qualify for this winter. “To be a multiple champion in multiple sports the way he was, no one’s ever done that.”
He attacked the world of motocross, as well, but didn’t enjoy quite the same success. First place, Palmer said, is the only thing that’s ever counted to him.
The setbacks bothered him, but for the most part, he spent his early career feeling invincible. He also sang in a punk band. One of his biggest problems back then was having to fight multiple people each night at the bars back home, “because they think you’re talking about them when you say everyone else is stupid and you’re not.”
“For me, it wasn’t about them, it was just telling the world you’re the best,” Palmer said. “That all comes from it just being a rough life with a lot of blues in it.”
Abandoned by his father and estranged from his mother, Palmer grew up with his grandmother, who taught him that he controlled his destiny.
He won big at a junior world championships at 17 and knew he had talent. Then came a choice: “As a 17-year-old kid, do you want to stay in school and study, or fly to Europe and snowboard? In my case, and I’m not telling other kids what to do, but I got on the plane,” he said.
His grandma died in 1992, and suddenly, he was alone, and famous, at 24.
Known as “Mini-Shred” back in the day, Palmer was winning at everything – on the snow, on the dirt, on the balance sheet with Palmer Snowboards and in the eyes of that free-spending, young demographic of Extreme Sports fans.
But time passed. Being cool at 18 or 22 is different from being cool at 28 or 32. Slowly, inevitably, the fan base started moving to another Shaun – Shaun White, instead of Palmer.
Palmer says that never bothered him, that he thinks White is great and deserves every bit of attention he’s earned in the sport Palmer brought to the masses.
“It’s nice to have fans, but I don’t care about that,” Palmer said. “It’s cool when people look after you a little bit but I’m not expecting to open doors and have TMZ follow (me) around.”
By 2001, he saw a way to possibly validate his excellence and begin a second act on snow. At 33, he thought he’d make a run at the 2002 U.S. Olympic halfpipe team – the team that swept the medals on a sunsplashed day in Park City that solidified the sport’s place in the mainstream.
“But it was a halfhearted dream. I was too late in the game. I think of things at the last minute, so I pulled out,” he said.
That was the start of a downward spiral – business, personal and athletic – that resulted in an overdose of alcohol, cocaine and other drugs and a plunge into a near-fatal coma in 2005.
It’s a testament to his strength of will and his pure athleticism that, within days of getting out of the hospital – and with the support of his girlfriend, Nicole Cerasoli, and her family – Palmer was back in the sport again.
He claims his sports hero is no longer himself. It’s Bill Johnson, who in 1984 overcame his own troubled childhood and bouts with hubris to become the first American male to win an Alpine gold at the Olympics.
Johnson tried to revive his Olympic glory 17 years later, a quest that ended in a crash that left him in a coma for three weeks.
At age 37, Palmer took one step toward pulling off “the Bill Johnson dream,” as he calls it, and had all but qualified for the 2006 Olympic snowboardcross team. But he tore his Achilles tendon while training a month before the Games and couldn’t finish the deal.
“I made that team,” Palmer said. “I was definitely happy that I made that team. It was a hell of a ride and I hung on.”
He is still hanging on, though it’s not quite like it used to be.
He walks through airports almost unbothered, thinking it’s kind of nice now when someone recognizes him.
He mingles at team parties with kids half his age – kids who would love nothing more than to beat him, but willingly concede they took up snowboarding because they wanted to be like him.
He is making this run at the Olympics with less ego, showing there can be success without all the drugs, the parties, the fighting and the anger that used to fuel and define him.
“It’s like three times the work it used to be,” Palmer said. “Used to be I could wake up hung over, chug a 24 and go win a halfpipe contest. Ain’t like that anymore, and nor do I want it to be.”
Support Local Journalism
Support Local Journalism
Readers around the Lake Tahoe Basin and beyond make the Tahoe Tribune's work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.
Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.
Your donation will help us continue to cover COVID-19 and our other vital local news.
Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.
User Legend: Moderator Trusted User
INCLINE VILLAGE, Nev. — Instead of sitting at home doing nothing during the pandemic, one Incline Village man decided to get out and be active for a good cause.