Former pro snowboarder Ursula Smith looks back—and ahead—to the Winter Olympics in Sochi

Winter Olympics
Ursula Smith participated in the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, and has a lot of insight into how the sport has changed over the years. Photo of Ursula and her husband courtesy of Ursula Smith

Holed up in her humble Colorado cabin with her former pro snowboarder and Olympic Trials participant husband, Dan, and their two adorable kiddos, you’d never know Ursula Smith (formerly Fingerlos), 37, was a world-class athlete. Maybe that’s the beauty in perspective.

The former giant slalom snowboarder, who placed fifth for Austria in the event at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, gives us some wry insight—“I think fifth is better than fourth. This way I don’t have to be mad I missed the podium.”—into what it feels like to be an Olympic-caliber winter athlete, plus what’s changed in the time since Nagano and the upcoming Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

Winter Olympics
Smith with Seth Wescott, right, on a helicopter ride in Chile. Wescott is one athlete Smith will particularly be rooting for at the Winter Olympics in Sochi in February. Photo courtesy of Ursula Smith

Having been out of the Olympic scene for some time, what are some changes you’ve noticed from afar?
Snowboarding has gotten a lot more professional. I’m not saying we weren’t committed, but now you have to start training for the Olympics when you’re 10, not 20. Plus, the [first-ever] men’s gold-medal winner [Ross Rebagliati] got busted for pot in his blood back then. He said it was secondhand smoke. I don’t think you would find that with athletes now.

Who will you be watching in Sochi?
Among others, I will be rooting for Seth Wescott. We were friends when we were nobodies. Boardercross didn’t even exist yet and we were just a bunch of kids having fun riding all over the world. I really respect Seth as a rider. It’s extremely hard to stay on top of your game for such a long time. He is no spring chicken anymore.

What do you think are some of the most interesting disciplines in the Winter Olympics?
Right around the Olympics I really got into snowboard cross, and I know quite a few of the current riders from competing with them. I still dream about it. I find it extremely fun and exciting to watch. So much craziness can happen and you have to be a consistent, strong, and excellent rider to win. I feel the same way about ski cross. I really enjoy skiing now, and I still like jumps and competing directly against other athletes.

What was going through your head as you prepared to compete in front of the world?
I grew up watching all the Olympic Games. It was a big deal in my family. Most of all, I just wanted to make my family and country proud. It really wasn’t about me anymore. It was so hard to qualify for the Olympics and a lot of good people didn’t get the chance to go. So I wanted to prove that they picked the right person to compete in the Games.

What advice would you give to young Olympic competitors?
I would tell them to take in as much as possible. Of course you need to focus on your event, but it’s also about meeting athletes from other sports and countries. This really hit home for me when I was standing in line at the McDonald’s at the Olympic Village and found myself right next to a guy from the Jamaican bobsled team. I was like, “Holy cow! This is real. It is not a movie, and I am in it.”

Winter Olympics
Smith on a boardercross podium near the end of her career. She says she was better at boardercross than giant slalom, but boardercross was not a sport in the Winter Olympics in 1998.

What are some of the other challenges Olympic athletes deal with that most people aren’t aware of?
Let’s keep in mind that athletes are human. You might get a cold (and you can’t take any drugs because everything is on the anti-doping list). It’s scary to have one chance. You put a lot of pressure on yourself. Really weird things might influence your routine (like your new Olympic speed suit is really ugly and uncomfortable and you feel like a fool in it). The food at your hotel is quite nasty and you just have to eat it (and your bowels have to deal with it). A lot of the athletes are not rich and don’t have great contracts to rake in the money once they get back home. And I think it’s really sad that a lot of athletes don’t even get to participate in the opening ceremony because there is not enough room at the Olympic Village. They only get to come for their event and they don’t get to watch any other sports.

In some ways the Olympic tradition is timeless. What do you think the Olympics still have to teach the world?
I wish the Olympics were more about sportsmanship and less about politics. I feel that our society is all about winning, but I think we just need to give our best. If that’s good enough for gold, great. But I am extremely happy with my fifth, because on that day that was my best.

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