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Chris Nelson: Sharing Christ one half-pipe at a time

By Isaac Olivarez

My first attempt to reach pro snowboarder Chris Nelson comes up short. He’ll be at a photo shoot in Vancouver, British Columbia, until the end of the week. My next few tries bring similar results. I finally track him down for an interview the following week. He’s at a condo at the Mountain Creek ski resort in Vernon, N.J., where he is preparing to compete in a Grand Prix contest as a member of the U.S. Snowboarding Team.

This coast-to-coast travel schedule is nothing new for 24-year-old Nelson. He has been snowboarding in various American Snowboard Tours, Grand Prix competitions and U.S. Olympic Team qualifying races since he was 16 — commitments that keep him on the slopes more than 200 days per year. And as a Mammoth Lakes, Calif., native, Nelson has logged thousands of hours at the ski resort on Mammoth Mountain, an 11,053-foot peak rising from the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Such snowboarding experience has allowed Nelson to perfect his frontside 1080, crippler 7 and cab 7 — tricks only a small number of snowboarders have mastered.

“A crippler 7 is like spinning a frontside 720, but you do it upside down,” Nelson explains casually, noting the half-pipe is his preferred terrain. “And the cab 7 is a 720 but you come into it backwards.” Still, his favorite is the frontside 1080, a jump where three 360-degree revolutions are completed before landing.

Sound crazy?

Sure. And many snowboarders have the lifestyle to match. As extreme as flying out of a half-pipe protruding from the side of a mountain can be, so can the industry’s scene of drugs, sex and alcohol.

Nelson’s lifestyle is extreme, too. But don’t count on seeing him at any ski resort parties. His passion is his faith in Jesus Christ, and he’s using it to influence a subculture that is looking for answers to spiritual questions.

His professional snowboarding career hasn’t come without its setbacks. The thrill of performing such mind-boggling tricks comes with a price. Twice Nelson suffered injuries that threatened his career, and both couldn’t have happened at more inopportune times. First came the accident at the 1999 U.S. Open in Vermont that tore nearly every ligament and muscle in his left knee. Nelson missed a year of competition and an opportunity to make the U.S. Olympic Snowboarding Team that competed in the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. As a result, sponsors began to drop him.

Then there was the crash in June 2002 that mangled Nelson’s left foot. Doctors said his foot was completely dislocated and there was a possibility he would never be able to run again, much less snowboard. Miraculously, six months later he was back on the slopes.

“Right when I was feeling strong and felt like I was where God wanted me to be, I got hurt,” says Nelson, who attends The Lighthouse church in Mammoth Lakes, pastored by his father, Dave. “I didn’t understand why God would let something like that happen.”

Why would God allow Nelson to get injured and miss nearly two years of doing what he loved? Through prayer and reading the Bible, Nelson discovered that the faith he depended on to cope with his injuries and the loss of several sponsors was the faith God wanted to stretch and test.

“Sometimes God allows us to go through things we wouldn’t necessarily pick for ourselves,” Nelson says of the spiritual lesson he learned. “But I ended up growing in my faith more than I ever had in my whole life.”

Nelson also sought advice from his sister, Natalie Nelson. Her relationship with Nelson as sibling and fellow snowboarder gives her insight to her brother’s injuries few can match. She traveled and competed in amateur and pro snowboarding competitions with her brother for nearly 10 years. Her list of mishaps reads like a glossary from the back of a medical textbook. Surgery on both knees left her with arthritis and bone spurs in her right knee and a torn left meniscus in her left knee. She’s endured two torn rotator cuffs, a sprained back, broken arm, broken fingers, ribs and toes, and a concussion.

“The biggest thing was being there and praying with Chris and letting him know everything was OK,” says Natalie, 27. “He has an amazing talent that God gave him. But God gave it to him for a reason. Chris couldn’t just give up because it hurt or because sponsors were dropping him. It was a test.”

Dave Nelson agrees. Watching his son persevere with prayer and Scripture through his setbacks, he says, strengthened his own relationship with Christ.

“Watching him continue to grow through his injuries was good for our own faith,” Dave says of himself and his wife, Stevie. “We realized that God is more interested in our character than our comfort, and we asked ourselves, ‘How committed are we to having our character built?’ ”

Today, Nelson has bounced back from his injuries and realizes his snowboarding ability is a gift from God. It has given him an inroad to reflect God’s love in an industry that has burst onto the national scene, thanks to televised coverage and extreme sports competitions like the X Games. Nelson remembers the days when close friend and fellow snowboarder Tommy Czeschin, also a Mammoth Lakes native, was the only other Christian he knew in the entire industry. It was Czeschin, Nelson says, who helped him live out his faith early in his career.

“I know without a doubt I would have gotten in trouble if I hadn’t had someone to say, ‘Let’s go to the arcade instead of the party,’ ” Nelson admits. “I was blessed to have someone to travel with who would stand with me.”

As they began to speak out, others began to respond. Nelson and his father even led one of his coaches to the Lord.

Now Nelson, Czeschin and other Christians on the pro snowboarding tour can be found praying before and after races, holding Bible studies and keeping each other accountable on trips. But that’s not to say it has been easy. Along with worldwide travel and the notoriety that comes with it come in-your-face temptations.

“In the beginning of my career it was a big deal for everybody to see if they could get us to drink or do different things like that,” he says. “But time after time of not doing it and keeping each other accountable, now I mostly get a lot of respect from everyone.”

That’s just one more way, Dave says, that God is using his son’s testimony.

“People appreciate the consistency of his faith, that he doesn’t deviate from what he believes,” Dave says. “That has floored a number of people because they’ve seen others call themselves Christians and yet when you look at their lifestyle it doesn’t match up.”

Today’s group of Christians on the pro snowboarding tour isn’t made up solely of first-time believers, either. As more snowboarders proclaim their newfound faith, those who were raised in church but had abandoned their faith in God are coming out of the shadows to reclaim their personal relationship with Christ.

It’s obvious the snowboarding industry as a mission field has come a long way, and Nelson realizes why God chose to give him the gift He did — so he could do something with it for the cause of Christ.

“There hadn’t been any strong Christian influences in this sport so far, but God is moving in it right now,” Nelson says. “Just this last year or two it’s been amazing to see how many people have accepted Christ in the industry.”

Nelson will be the first to tell you there is more work to be done.

“I’d really like to keep growing in snowboarding and try and get a bigger name and use that for God’s glory,” he says. “I don’t know if that’s exactly what He has in store.”

There’s one thing Nelson does know.

“I’m open to whatever God wants me to do, whether I get first or last place in an event,” he says. “His glory can be shown through anything.”

Isaac Olivarez is staff writer for Today’s Pentecostal Evangel.

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