The seminal moment in The Wild One comes when a woman asks the outlaw biker played by Marlon Brando, "What are you rebelling against?" and he answers, "What have you got?"
Professional snowboarders tend to fancy themselves as cliff-jumping Wild Ones—young, extravagantly antiestablishment nomads. Clad in flannel shirts and oozing suburban angst, they rebel against what they see as the conformity and commercialism of the mainstream ski culture and of sports in general. "Snowboarding is about fresh tracks and carving powder and being yourself and not being judged by others," says Terje Haakonsen, the self-styled Brando of the Boards. "It's not about nationalism and politics and big money."
Worlds will collide in February when snowboarding makes its debut at the sporting nexus of nationalism, politics and Big Money: the Winter Olympics, in Nagano. Although those who market snowboarding are eager to turn it into the next NBA, the rah-rah ethic of the Games appalls much of the shredding crowd. "Snowboarding is everything the Olympics isn't," Haakonsen says. "I don't really want to be part of them."
Haakonsen, a 23-year-old Norwegian, and his ambivalence toward the Games might easily be dismissed were it not for one fact: He's the master blaster of the half-pipe, the freestyle event in snowboarding. (The giant slalom will also be contested in Nagano.) The half-pipe itself—a U-shaped tube of slick snow approximately 350 feet long and 20 feet wide, with walls about 12 feet high—allows riders to "catch air," to barnstorm back and forth like skateboarders on a lacquered ramp. Most pros are either stylists who "rip the pipe" (pulling off radical maneuvers with élan) or aggressive huckers (launching themselves off jumps or cliffs into space) who grab "big air," frequently soaring 10 or 12 feet above the pipe's coping. Haakonsen is both a technical wizard and the sport's biggest air-head. "Over the last five years Terje has single-handedly elevated the level of riding," says snowboard guru Jake Burton of Moscow, Vt. "He's a pioneer, continually doing newer and bigger stuff."
Haakonsen began ruling the pipe in 1992, when he won the event in both the U.S. Open and the World Cup championships. Since then he has won two more U.S. Opens, another World Cup title, two World Half-Pipe crowns and the heart of every teenager who has ever attempted a Frontside Ollie (a maneuver involving catching air off a ramp in skateboarding or out of a pipe in snowboarding). "He goes faster and bigger than any other rider, and his tricks are far more powerful," says veteran boarder Dave Downing, of Cardiff, Calif. "There's nobody even close to Terje."
His extraordinary athleticism was evident last year at the Mount Baker Legendary Banked Slalom, a more traditional gate-running race of the sort he usually disdains. In the qualifying heats Haakonsen nailed first place on his initial run down the course. On a lark he rode his second qualifier "fakey" (backward) and still turned in the fourth-best time. This is roughly the equivalent of Steve Young's throwing three touchdown passes lefty and then, out of boredom, heaving a fourth righthanded.
Haakonsen is an engagingly modest and diffident fellow with a sharp sense of humor. He has a loose, lanky build, a thatch of curly dark hair, wolfishly sad brown eyes and a wide mouth that turns up at the corners, giving him a puckish air. Afflicted with coolness unto death, Haakonsen registers emotion wordlessly, through subtle eyebrow calisthenics. He expresses amusement by arching a single brow, consternation by lifting both. "I'm into riding," he says, "not talking."
To the teens who revere him, his actions speak loudly. For snowboarders, a dicey trick is pointless if it isn't videotaped. There is a nearly inexhaustible market for snowboard videos set to thrash-metal songs, and many riders live off the cash and equipment that manufacturers give them to ride in promotional films wearing their gear. Footage of Haakonsen's best moves has been compiled in a slickly produced half-hour film by the clothing manufacturer Volcom called Subjekt: Haakonsen—Life and Times of a Sprocking Cat. What's sprocking? "Moving like a rocket," says Haakonsen. "A big, jumping rocket."
As the video documents, he sprocks so high over the pipe partly because he bends so low on the board. The flex in his knees and hips gives him tremendous torque when he snaps free to make a move. Squatting sideways, arms extended like outriggers, the Sprocking Cat torpedoes off Alpine peaks, backflipping and double backflipping and helicoptering in high 540-degree spins. He swerves and swivels, sending sprays of snow rooster-tailing past his head.
Haakonsen grew up in Amot, 30 miles west of Oslo, where his father was a chef at a hotel and his mother taught special education. Because neither parent was eager for him to snowboard, Terje bought himself a board when he was 13 with money he earned cutting grass and sorting mail at the hotel. A hard-core skateboarder and a soft-core ski jumper, he became hooked on shredding after borrowing a pal's swallow-tailed Burton Elite. "You could do so many more tricks on it than on skis," he recalls. "You had no sticks in your hand, and you used the terrain way better. It was more like surfing."