SNOWBOARDING: Evan Strong is gearing up for another run at gold | TheUnion.com

SNOWBOARDING: Evan Strong is gearing up for another run at gold

It's been four years since professional snowboarder Evan Strong won gold at the 2014 Winter Paralympics in Russia.

As expected, some things have changed for the Nevada City resident since then. Being a gold medalist has boosted his acclaim and opened doors to things and experiences that may not have been available had he not brought home the gold. But, the biggest change for the charismatic and thoughtful 31-year-old is that he is now a father, a role he said has been transformative and life changing.

"Since the last games, I had a little girl," Strong said. "It's been the most awesome journey of my life, becoming a father. She's just such a blast. We have so much fun. We go to the skate park, I have already taken her snowboarding with me, we go camping and she's been surfing with me in Maui. We just have a blast and play."

Many things have also remained the same for the elite athlete, including his drive and determination to win at his chosen sport. After a highly successful 2016-17 season in which Strong won the World Cup Crystal Globe Overall Championship in para snowboard-cross, he's currently looking to repeat that feat for the 2017-18 season as well as earn some more gold at the upcoming Winter Paralympics in PyeongChang, South Korea.

Strong, who lost his left leg a few inches below the knee at the age of 17 when he was struck by an SUV going 65 MPH while he was riding a motorcycle in Hawaii, has been a star on the para snowboarding circuit for more than half a decade, winning multiple World Cup titles and X-Games medals in addition to his Paralympic gold.

This year, the eternally optimistic Strong will be competing in two disciplines at the Paralympics — snowboard-cross and banked slalom.

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With a growing family, a career that takes him all over the world and it being his busy season, I caught up with Strong over the phone and, expectedly so, he was on a chair lift at Northstar preparing for what lies ahead. We talked about what he's been up to on the slopes, the intricacies of snowboard-cross and what he expects to find when he arrives at the 2018 Paralympics in March.

FORD: How have things been different for you since winning gold in Russia?

STRONG: How has life been different since a gold medal? It's so amazing that we give this idea that's in the form of a medal so much gravity and social value. It's awesome. And, it's such a surreal thing because it's an idea. Honestly, it's been awesome. I'm really enjoying the ride, it's opened a lot of doors and led to meeting a lot of really cool people, like Toyota and Bridgestone and a cool documentary series in Japan. I'm living the dream. Like this is my dream as a child: to be a professional athlete. And, it's so cool I get to be a professional athlete and a champion. How could I ask for more? It's such a blessing.

FORD: Have you ever been to South Korea before?

STRONG: I went there in March for the Paralympic test event.

FORD: What's unique about snowboarding there?

STRONG: Definitely another warm venue for the games. Super deep, punchy, slushy, warm snow. So definitely going to have to be on our A-game for not over pressuring in that soft snow. I'm appreciating riding Northstar right now because it's warm and slightly slushy, so I could be practicing that technique of riding what will most likely be in Korea and the kind of conditions that were in Sochi back in 2014. That's the main difference.

But, South Korea is awesome. Growing up in Hawaii, I definitely had a lot of Asian influence in my upbringing from friends and friend's families. The cuisine and things like that.

I'm loving the food over there, the pot stickers, Udon noodle soups and all that stuff. So I feel right at home. They are really friendly people that are really proud and stoked to be hosting the games. So yeah, just time to do it again.

FORD: When it comes to snowboard-cross, what is it about your skill set that allows you to excel in the sport?

STRONG: Snowboard-cross takes a lot of skills. Your techniques and tactics all need to be aces. You got to be able to stay calm under pressure. You need to feel comfortable and focused at high speeds. You have to feel resilient to go off big jumps and pinning it while you're right next to somebody. A big part of it is trying to become as injury proof as possible and if you do crash, have the shortest recovery as possible so you can keep showing up weekend after weekend at these really physically demanding courses where impacts happen. For me, I feel so resilient and like I have a very high threshold for being injury proof, and a lot of that comes from working with Eric Kenyon and doing a lot of the Form is Function kettle bell strength training. I've been working with him for 5-6 years now and been experiencing the benefits of working with him for so long that right now I'm so explosive and so strong. I can make my board accelerate so fast with the strength and power that I've gained with him.

I just feel resilient so I'm willing to push. Like when I'm right next to somebody I'll play chicken with them. Like who's willing to go one click faster? I'm willing to go off this jump one click faster. Do you have the nerve for it? So it has allowed me to be more aggressive.

FORD: The Americans swept the snowboard-cross podium in Russia. Are you close with your fellow American competitors?

STRONG: That's an interesting question. For one, to be a top-level athlete you are usually kind of an A-type. So, it's like everybody on the team are these alpha characters, and you have to be the best in the world. But, they are all snowboarders and we all believe in the lifestyle. That's what drew us to the sport in the first place. The camaraderie, the fellowship of going and shredding. We're definitely buddies and friends and we all love what we're doing, but when it comes time ­— we want to win. But, we're really good at putting on the gloves and taking them off when we need to.

FORD: Any superstitions or pre-race rituals?

STRONG: Getting into the right mental head space is one of the most important things that you have to do on race day to be able to win. Not necessarily sure about any superstitions, but I've been racing for 10 years so I kind of have a routine of things that help me get into that mind space of being really present, really focused and just feeling really confident to get into that high gear and have that next level performance. That really all starts the night before, so visualization, having all your gear right, knowing your board is all taken care of and tuned to be as fast as possible. And, in the morning doing your warm up exercises, your breathing exercises, your stretching and foam rolling, listening to your favorite songs. I guess my flavor of superstition is roots rock reggae or rockstready music. In the morning, really that very grounding four, four, four, four beats kind of thing helps me get into that focused, hypnotic state to get that high level of focus. So, I guess what helps me get into the right head space is reggae music. Coming from Hawaii, island music really puts me in that happy, present state.

FORD: What is your favorite moment as a competitor?

STRONG: The tension and anticipation right before the heat starts. When you're right next to the other racers and the gate is up and the official is yelling out the starting commands and everybody is just at full arousal for performance. It's like moments before go time. That's my favorite. Then just like blasting out of the gate, pinning it to the bottom as fast as you can. Then, in the finish crowd, when you've just executed that like perfect run that was blazing fast — at the end there is this euphoric feeling of 'oh my God' I can't believe I just did that. It's like a big crescendo of emotions and a massive sound wave at the end of … I don't even know. It's all about the feeling.

FORD: Do you still get butterflies in your belly before events?

STRONG: I try to find that feeling everyday. Maybe I take a couple days off in a week, maybe one of two. But for me, from a young age, I was always finding those things that gave me butterflies, then conquering it and learning to perform at a high level when you get those butterflies. If you're not getting butterflies, you're not challenging yourself.

FORD: What is your schedule like building up to the Paralympics in March?

STRONG: I just got back from 5 weeks in Europe, training and racing in Finland, Netherlands, Germany, Austria and I just had the Dew Tour in December which I won, so that feels really good to get a win under my belt heading to the Games. I'm heading to Tokyo with my wife on the 20th for a documentary made about myself for WOWOW TV in Japan. Then I have my World Cup finals in Big White, Canada in the beginning of February, bank slalom and boarder cross. Those will be the last qualifiers before the Games. Right now I'm tied with Matti Suur-Hamari from Finland for the points in boardercross, for the Crystal Globe. It would be nice to be able to bring home the crystal globe in Big White, Canada. Then right after that training and camps with the U.S. team, and then PyeongChang is right after that. So yeah, we're in the final countdown.

To contact Sports Editor Walter Ford, call 530-477-4232 or email wford@theunion.com.