Fri, Mar 26, 2004 - Page 24 News List

Thirteen-year-old may raise the bar for next X Gamers

AP , STRATTON, VERMONT

He does homework on planes, shops for toys in Italy, and practices his flips in halfpipes from Jersey to Japan. Back at the family home in southern Vermont, the basement is packed with rails and the back yard is a maze of ramps and trampolines.

Welcome to the world of Luke Mitrani, age 13, snowboarding's newest boy wonder. He barely tips the scales at 31kg, isn't even 150cm tall, and just lost his last baby tooth.

But he can pull off a backside 900 -- that's 2 1/2 rotations vaulting off the wall of the halfpipe -- and moves like that have landed him sponsorships from Burton Snowboards, Mountain Dew, Oakley and Lego.

"Snowboarding's cool," said Mitrani, who had a gob of peanut butter on the collar of his camo-printed jacket. Asked how he learns his tricks, he shrugs and then replies: "Just do it. It's not that scary."

In a sport dominated by youngsters such as three-time X Games gold medalist Shaun White and halfpipe queen Hannah Teter, both just 17, Mitrani is part of a gang of pint-sized prodigies bearing down on the sport's young veterans.

They include Californian Elena Hight, Mikkel Bang and Fredrik Austbo of Norway, and 15-year-old Japanese phenom Kazuhiro Kakubo, who seized silver at last year's US Open and finished sixth this year, despite suffering a concussion in a fall during the competition.

These kids -- who barely even count as Generation Y _ are snowboarding's future. They may not be ready for Turin 2006, but agents, sponsors, filmmakers and scouts are keeping close tabs on their flips and McTwists.

Mitrani's passport glitters with stamps from Norway, Italy, Switzerland and Japan -- and that's just from the past few months. His favorite place? Italy. Not for the pasta or Michelangelos -- but the toys and the candy.

"The toy stores there have these mini bombs -- they're so loud and they're only 50 cents," he recalled with a grin as his father, Al, rolls his eyes.

"The first thing they did in Livigno was buy BB guns," Al Mitrani said.

During the winter, they do their schoolwork on the road -- Luke Mitrani does his on planes, sometimes with the help of fellow passengers. Hight takes one course at a time, squeezing in homework after snowboarding five hours a day.

It's heady stuff for kids who aren't old enough to drive. But as snowboarding, once the domain of daredevils and rebels, grows and gains mainstream acceptance, so does the machine that nurtures, trains and sponsors young athletes with promise.

"Nowadays there are so many young kids, and young kids that are so good already," said Ross Powers, the sport's first prodigy, now a veritable veteran at 26. "A lot of it has to do with better equipment, the mountains building parks and halfpipes, and having programs with instructors and coaches."

When Powers started at age 7, the sport was so new that snowboarding wasn't even allowed on most mountains. "They'd allow you on one run and you'd have to get certified so you could use the other runs," he recalled.

Powers, of Londonderry, Vermont, was one of the first snowboarders admitted to the local ski academy. He competed in the US Open at age 9 with his fourth-grade classmates cheering him on.

At 15, he joined the pro circuit. He was 20 when snowboarding made its debut at the Nagano Olympics; he won bronze in the halfpipe. Four years later he took gold at Salt Lake City.

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