It may be summer here, but it’s winter in New Zealand, a country to which Joe Mensch, whose father, Mark, is a former East Hampton High School assistant football coach and trainer, headed this week for a month of professional snowboarding competition.
The 19-year-old Mensch, who has his eye on the 2014 Olympics, said during a conversation at The Star the other day that American snowboarders were dominant in the sport, to which his father, now the athletic director at William Floyd High School, added, “but the Japanese are starting to catch up a little.”
The elder Mensch, who co-owns Sports Therapy physical rehabilitation centers in Amagansett and Moriches with East Hampton High’s present trainer, Randi Cherill, and Michele Cordova, said he began taking his son to Okemo Mountain in southern Vermont when Joe was 3 years old.
Starting on skis, he switched to snowboarding at the age of 6. Asked why he’d done so, Joe said, “It was so much cooler, I guess, and a lot more fun. I liked the flow of it. . . .”
“Every weekend, after I’d finish a basketball game or a wrestling match in East Hampton,” said Mark, “I’d pick him up, we’d catch a ferry, and drive up for the weekend. It’s like Joe said, the flow of it is a great feeling. It’s the same experience as in surfing [a sport the father also learned from the son]. In surfing, you’re working with the wave, and there’s creativity. Also the conditions, both on the water and on a mountain, can change at any time. . . . Snowboarding also is a lot easier on your legs too.”
It’s been nice for the son to have an experienced sports trainer as a father. Asked if he’d broken some bones, Joe said, “Oh yes — it’s dangerous, at least the way I do it. . . . The courses are very similar to skateboarding courses, with halfpipes and long trails with jumps and rails.”
He has trained in Vermont — at Okemo, Mount Snow, and Stratton — for more than a decade of winters, snowboarding in the morning and going to school in the afternoon and competing in freestyle events throughout New England. He still found time, though, in his sophomore year, to quarterback the William Floyd football team to a Long Island championship.
“He learned the game by coming for practices here in East Hampton when I was an assistant coach,” said the elder Mensch. “I coached with David MacGarva and Mike Burns and Eddie McGintee. Dick Cooney hired me. Joe was a ball boy. He played P.A.L. football at William Floyd. In the 11th grade he moved over from the Mount Snow school to the Stratton Mountain school. The staff recruited Joe to go there.”
Then, in his senior year, a decision between snowboarding and football had to be made, though apparently the young man, who had won a national snowboarding championship in his junior year, qualifying him for the Olympic trials, didn’t have much trouble deciding. He spent his entire senior high school year at Stratton, with about 30 others, some of whom are competing today and most of whom are doing other things.
Winning a national championship vaulted him to the next level, into competition versus professionals. Joe has been a pro for a year now, based in Colorado.
Recently, he won the Gatorade Free Flow Tour, a nationwide series, which, in turn, earned him a berth on the Mountain Dew Tour, “a big [televised] pro tour that’s going to be held in the U.S. this winter.”
The prospects of his being one of four to represent the United States in snowboarding at the 2014 Olympics in Russia apparently are good.
“In March,” said Joe’s father, “everybody here got to see him on television in the Mammoth Mountain Grand Prix. It was on NBC, Channel 4. Joe [who ultimately finished seventh] was in the finals. For a long time he was second on the leader board. People were going crazy!”
Yes, Joe said in reply to a question, the money was good in professional snowboarding. Flow Snowboards is his major sponsor, and, consequently, he doesn’t have to do anything else nowadays but train and compete.
His best trick thus far, the curly-haired, broad-chested interviewee said, was a frontside 1080 — three full rotations with a cork and an off-axis grab of the board.
“It’s like a whirlybird,” said his father, who added that freestyle snowboarding also had things in common with figure skating, too, inasmuch as “you’re traveling while rotating.”
“You go up in the air off the wall of a halfpipe,” said Joe, “and you’re spinning and flipping while you’re traveling down it . . . you want to create momentum that will carry you into the next wall.”
A slope style routine would last perhaps two minutes, he said, and, yes, it was a great concentrator of the mind.
“He’s like a fighter pilot, knowing how to push the envelope,” said his father.
“It’s an adrenaline rush — you live for it,” said Joe, whose coaches, all of them former top-ranked snowboarders themselves, have said his team sports background gives him an edge.
Though 5 feet 10 inches and 160 pounds, he can bench-press 250 pounds and presses 400 with his legs.
Pro snowboarders, Joe said, generally retire at around 30, “about the same as in football.”
“You take a pounding in snowboarding, the ice is hard,” said Mark Mensch. “You’re going 25 to 30 miles per hour up and down walls that are 15 to 20 feet high and landing on that hard surface. . . . One good thing for him is that the snowboarding industry is just beginning. It will continue to grow, and there will be opportunities for Joe to stay involved in the sport after his competitive career is over.”
The competition, though, was becoming tougher and tougher every year, said Joe, who’s always trying to add to his freestyle repertory.
Asked if he had ever skateboarded, the pro snowboarder said, “I’ve done a little, but I’m not that good.”
“He’s pretty good at golf,” said his father.
Apparently he is putting aside that obsession, though, for another day.