Words: Ed Blomfield
Photos: Bud Fawcett
“The world’s greatest athlete.”
So declared the cover of USA Today in May 1998, as a portrait of Shaun Palmer’s tattooed torso landed on breakfast tables across America. It was perhaps the defining moment of a rollercoaster career, and represented widespread recognition for a unique and controversial talent.
Shaun Palmer grew up with his grandmother and divorced mother in South Lake Tahoe. A rebel from an early age, he soon gravitated towards the edgy new sport of snowboarding which was rapidly taking off right on his doorstep. By his mid-teens his aggressive riding style, natural athleticism and outright cockiness had landed him a sponsorship with Sims Snowboards, one of the two biggest brands at the time. Then, in 1986 and 1987, he won back-to-back wins at the Mt Baker Banked Slalom competition, an event that was still in its infancy. “Shaun shows up wearing a Santa Claus hat with a ten-foot tail and a ball on the end with baggy clothes and casually wins the race,” recalls Sims in the book Way of the Snowboarder, “He couldn’t have been more casual or having more fun.” Such was his disdain for authority that in 1988 he famously rode straight down the centre of the World Championship halfpipe and promptly gave the organizers the finger because he didn’t think the event was good enough.
Indeed, The Palm became legendary for his outrageous behaviour and trash talking, though he always had the skills to back it up. As snowboarding exploded onto the mainstream in the early 1990s, Shaun was at the centre of the storm. He starred in many of the now-classic films like Critical Condition and Fear of a Flat Planet, and won numerous halfpipe events including two World Championship titles. A fierce competitor and patriot, he was pictured at the sport’s biggest events pulling method airs on a board with a stars and stripes base graphic. He also had an obsession with all-American Cadillacs (with the ink to prove it) and a penchant for haircuts that would make Keith from The Prodigy think twice. “Shaun Palmer, alone, embodied the heart and soul of snowboarding,” states Tom Hsieh, founding editor of the world’s first snowboard magazine Absolutely Radical. “You’ve got this performance-driven rider who has a complete disregard for how people think of and perceive him. And that’s what snowboarding started as many years ago. It was more than a sport; it was a lifestyle, it was an attitude, it was an irreverence for things that had come before us… And he was all that.” *
In 1995 Palmer’s career entered a new era with the launch of his own brand of snowboards. At around the same time he began specialising in the new discipline of Boardercross, racking up a string of titles and three consecutive X-games gold medals between ‘97 and ‘99. Simple the graphics might have been, but soon his boards became legendary in their own right as the fastest in the business. “I don’t know why they bother to show up,” he said after one straightforward victory, “They just humiliate themselves.”
As if rubbing in to his opponents the ease with which he was dominating boardercross, Palmer began seeking fresh challenges. Most famously, he tried out mountain biking with a friend in California, then immediately entered some serious downhill races and excelled. Within a year he was flying himself to MTB events around the world, landing 7th place at the World Cup in Italy and sparking a media frenzy. Specialized and Mountain Dew duly picked him up on a sponsorship deal rumoured to be worth around a million dollars, and for a couple of years he notched up various wins in the slalom and downhill disciplines. He missed being world downhill champion by 15-hundredths of a second, the equivalent of two fingers in a five-minute race. “All I had to do was wear spandex to win, but instead I wore a baggy motocross outfit, because I thought spandex was stupid,” Shaun later explained. It was around this time that USA Today ran that infamous headline, and in 2002 – by which point he had even dusted off the skis he once rode as a kid to win the skiercross at the X-games – Penthouse Magazine was in on the act. “This tattooed punk may be the world’s best athlete,” they declared on the cover.
One more challenge remained for snowboarding’s most unpredictable star: Motocross. Having been given his first 50 cc Honda by his mother at just six years old, it was a sport close to his heart. It also carried the necessary mix of difficulty, speed, danger and adrenaline. Though he quickly gained sponsorship with Honda however, The Palm’s adventure into the world of dirt bikes was less successful, and before long he was funding himself for the hell of it.
At the ripe old age of 37, Palmer attempted a final, remarkable snowboarding comeback in 2006 when he threw his hat into the ring for Olympic qualification. Unfortunately, having successfully gained the third spot on the US boardercross team, he tore an Achilles tendon during practice and was forced to withdraw. His Turin dream was over.
Now about to turn 40, Shaun lives in South Lake Tahoe with his girlfriend, in a cabin near the lake. He still snowboards and skis during the winter but his true passion is motocross, which he does every day he can. On July 10th this year it was reported in the Mercury News that Shaun Palmer had been arrested in Lake Tahoe on suspicion of public intoxication. The body may have aged, but the fire burns on.
* Quote from Way of the Snowboarder, published by Harry N. Abrams (2005)