Olympic halfpipe bronze medalist J.J. Thomas: ‘You could call it a comeback’

2002 Olympic halfpipe bronze medalist and Vancouver Olympic halfpipe hopeful J.J. Thomas has a lot going against him.

In 2006, Thomas blew his chances at qualifying for his second consecutive Olympics when he placed well outside the top-four ranking needed in qualifiers to earn his spot on the Torino team. For the majority of the last four years since then, Thomas has stayed out of halfpipes, instead focusing on filming backcountry riding movie parts for popular snowboard movies.

Lately, Thomas is getting recognized more for his moustache than his ‘2002 Olympic podium, and at 28 years old, he is the oldest U.S. contender for the U.S. halfpipe team.

When Thomas announced that he was going out for the 2010 Olympics, the news was met with concern and doubt. When he took it even further and quit filming movie parts so he could focus on his halfpipe training, he was immediately dropped by some of his sponsors.

Despite years of accolades and esteemed accomplishments in snowboarding, including a bronze medal at the Salt Lake City Olympics in ’02, no one thought Thomas had a chance. Things were looking rough for the veteran of halfpipe snowboarding.

How good it must feel to prove the critics wrong.

Currently, after three of the five qualifying events, Thomas is sitting in the No. 3 spot to qualify for the select four-man U.S. Olympic halfpipe team, a feat that caught even Thomas off guard.

“You could call it a comeback,” said Thomas. “I guess mainly because I haven’t been on the podium in a major halfpipe event since ’05 or so. That qualifies [as a comeback] in my book.”

Thomas broke his long “losing” streak during the first Olympic qualifier of the season at Copper Mountain in early December. He finished third to land on the podium after ’06 Olympic gold medalist Shaun White and fellow U.S. rider Louie Vito. Now, with consistent performances and solid riding in all three qualifiers, any suspicions that the first podium may have been a fluke have been thrown out the window. Thomas is back, and he’s as much of an Olympic threat then ever.

So how did Thomas get back on top so fast after a four-year contest hiatus from competition?

“Everyone keeps saying how it seems like my riding just clicked all of a sudden,” said Thomas. “But that’s not just it. I’ve been working so hard for it. I was back in the contest scene in ’09, but I kept placing just out of the top five. I was back, but since I wasn’t on the podium I was flying under the radar. I decided to go for it last season, and the difference this time around was the amount of dedication I put into it.”

Thomas notes how much more intense the competition has become since his first Olympic appearance, “The biggest difference in snowboarding now from ’02 is the amount of work people put in. You have to work hard these days to be at the top and you can see it pay off for guys like Shaun [White] and Louie [Vito].”

The American podium sweep at Salt Lake City that Thomas was a part of was a major catalyst in the general public’s acceptance of snowboarding as a viable sport. Practically overnight, snowboarding went from outcast to all-the-rage. As the sport grew in popularity, so did the sponsorships, endorsements and the pressure on the the professional’s to perform.

By the time Thomas arrived at the Olympic qualifiers in ‘2006, the game had completely changed. It wasn’t just a seasonal hobby anymore. Competitors had started traveling back and forth from the northern and southern hemispheres to stay in-season and train year-round. Thomas hadn’t been prepared for that kind of dedication from his competition and went into the qualifiers unprepared in comparison.

“In ’06 I was just going through the motions, you ‘know? My heart wasn’t in it,” he admits.

Thomas qualified ninth that year, missing the team by five spots. That was when he turned his back on contests and started exploring another side of professional snowboarding, filming.

Over the next few years, Thomas appeared in many highly acclaimed snowboarding videos, including Oakley and Red Bull’s “The Community Project,” Mongo Pro Productions “Who Cares” and most recently Standard Films “Aesthetica.” As expected, Thomas excelled in his segments and kept his fame and solid-gold reputation going strong within the respected snowboard community.

Thomas could have stayed in that comfortable backcountry zone, out of the limelight yet still involved. But after putting some serious thought into it he made up his mind. He entered the ’09 competition season with Vancouver 2010 as his goal.

“It was a scary decision, but I’m glad I did it,” he said. “I started to realize that filming is less rewarding to me then contests. I like the people on the circuit; I like the places we get to go. I’m really happy being a contest rider. And then I thought that if I was going to do this, then I had to do it now.

“The major difference for me this year from ’06 is that I actually committed 100 percent this time. I started this journey last year and worked hard straight through the year. It’s the first time I’ve ever done this in my career, so it’s nice to see it paying off.”

The final two qualifying events will take place in Park City, Utah, this Friday and Saturday. By Saturday night, the team will be announced, and Thomas will know whether or not his Olympic comeback attempt was a success.

“My plan is to keep doing what I’ve been doing this season. No drastic changes or anything out of the ordinary.”

Being the old hand that he is, Thomas is all too familiar with how quickly his No. 3 ranking can change over the course of the next two superpipe contests. A surplus of young, unapologetic and hungry riders are vying for the very same spot on the team.

“I want to go to Vancouver, I want it bad,” he says. “But I’m also so grateful already. I went to the Olympics, I got a medal. I’m lucky to have done that and had that experience.

“I’ve been working so hard for this. My body is feeling good and it’s nice competing with a wiser and more mature head on my shoulders. I can’t work this hard and just retire or go back to filming, even if I don’t make it to Vancouver. I’m not sure what the future holds, but either way I see myself competing in the halfpipe for another few years at least.”

Do with that information what you will, but it sounds like J.J. Thomas just threw down the gauntlet for another couple years.

If you want to follow J.J. Thomas’ Olympic comeback progress join his facebook page, “The Moustache Rides, Go JJ Thomas for 2010,” where he promises to post updates of his journey and “feature other great moustaches as well.”

PHOTO: Nate Abbott