Ben and James Hojnoski have built a series of jumps and rails in the back yard of their grandparents' home in Dover, Vt., where they spend hours in winter sliding over features and hurling themselves into the air.
Ben, 11, is a snowboarder; James, 13, skis on twin tips.
They hit their homemade terrain park early each morning before setting out to nearby Mount Snow, and again after returning each day, often until after dark, under various makeshift lights.
The spark that ignited within them at some point is evident in the joy with which they approach this endeavor.
"I like getting airborne," said Ben; "You have to be brave," said James. Both talk about the fun.
The same joy, ignited by a similar spark years ago, is evident in the older riders and freestylers who have climbed the competition ladder through events like Okemo's Light the Night Rail Jam, the Dew Tour, the Grand Prix, the U.S. Open Snowboarding Championships, World Cup, and the Olympics.
"What attracted me is the whole thing of floating, the feeling of weightlessness," said Greg Johnson, competition director for the Burton U.S. Open.
"The main, overall philosophical question is why people do any sport, climb mountains, snowboard, whatever it is. To me it's working on a few different levels. First there's the creative spark. There has to be some influence that ignites it. Second, it obviously has to be fun. The third is, there has to be creativity that makes something your own. How much energy and desire you put into that determines how far you go," Johnson said.
"Unless your mom puts you in gymnastics class, what sport you gravitate to says a lot about your character, what you want, how you perceive yourself," he said.
"All the great athletes are very creative - look at Michael Jordan, Bobby Orr, Tiger Woods. Their mind has let them accept different possibilities. But some sports offer that avenue more easily, and snowboarding is one of those," he said.
"The fun part overlays everything, and in snowboarding there are lots of ways to have fun: half pipe, slopestyle, rails, riding through trees, steep lines in Alaska. All those are expressions of who you are," he said.
Johnson came to snowboarding later than many. "I started snowboarding in 1984. I was already in my 20s when I picked it up. What happened was the first contest I went to I was already the old guy. They didn't have judges, so the other snowboarders asked me if I would judge. I asked, ‘What should I do?' They said, ‘Pick the winner'. There were no rules."
Johnson went back to the community college where he taught, and wrote down his thoughts on judging and rules. One thing led to another, and he served as head judge at the first Olympic snowboarding events in Nagano, Japan.
He's been working at the U.S. Open since 1989 in a series of roles that included judge, head judge, technical supervisor in charge of safety, and now competition director overseeing competitive venues and making sure the events run on time.
"Here's the thing. When you push yourself, you move from a comfort zone. There's always some pain, like growing up. Learning new tricks is fun, but you're also moving from a comfort zone. Blend that with creativity, and that's when you have people who excel," he said.
Seth Wescott, 33, gold medalist in snowboard cross at the 2006 Olympics in Torino and the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, said, "That spark, for whatever kids get involved in, is a universal thing. It doesn't matter what sport. For me, it was skateboarding in the 3rd Grade. My dad had an old ‘70s style skateboard, hidden away in the pantry. I found it, tucked away on the top shelf, and was bombing away down the hills.
"This was my first real taste of freedom and gravity, going with the thrill of it. For me that was the spark, ultimate freedom, surrendering to gravity and letting it pull you down a hill. A couple of years later skateboarding had completely taken over anything I did. From the first day snow melted out of the parking lot in Farmington (Maine) to when the snow returned in the fall I lived on the thing," he said.
Then one day he went to buy the latest issue of Thrasher magazine, and saw the premier issue of Transworld Snowboarding.
"I tracked down this high school kid I knew who had a snowboard, took my paper route money and bought it off him. I was about 10," Wescott said.
These were early days of snowboarding. He couldn't ride the board at his local hill: "Over my dead body," the operator said. Sugarloaf allowed boards, but required metal edges, which Wescott's wooden one didn't have, so he used a silver marker to paint a silver line along the edges, a subterfuge that would last a couple of runs, after which he'd get kicked off.
Times have changed, and now Sugarloaf claims Wescott as its own.
"I still feel that spark all the time, from the first time I get on snow in South America right through heli stuff in Alaska. That love for the sport hasn't changed. Days I wake up and it's snowing I'm like a kid in a candy store," Wescott said.
"Be brave? Definitely. I was a daredevil kid, never had an injury, would take my BMX bike and jump off train trestles. I was 18, young and dumb. As you get older, reality sets in. I've been through two deaths on the World Cup. If you make a major mistake, you can die, so I have a lot more sober attitude of going about it. At the World Cup level now, if it's super dangerous, I'm not going to launch into a hit. I'd rather finish 10th than be injured. I've become a lot more critical in decision-making, about when to lay things on the line and when not to," Wescott said.
Ross Powers, 31, gold medalist in half pipe at the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics, and Okemo Mountain Resort's snowboard ambassador, said the spark that leads from back yard to the world stage requires years of work, which isn't cheap.
"The guys and girls making it to the Olympics start young, dedicate time every weekend to training, going to events, local competitions, then the Nationals, then the Junior Worlds, World Cup, X-Games," Powers said.
He started the Ross Powers Foundation in 2000, to help young snowboarders with the expenses involved in top-level competition. "It's my way of giving back to the sport. This year, we've given about $55,000 in grants, and helped four athletes make it to the Olympics," he said.
Powers learned to ride at Bromley, where his mom worked, and recalls spending more time on his butt than on the board at first.
"What keeps kids coming is that you always want to do it well, whether you're at Bode's level or kids' level, to have a good run, to learn a new trick, to put yourself out there," he said. "You have to be brave, at whatever level, work up confidence whether it's on a box rail or you're doing an Olympic run, and put it out there. With Shaun White and his double McTwist 1260, I think he wanted to show the world how hard he's been working and what that trick was all about," Powers said.
"It was pretty amazing."