Nelson: Sharing Christ one half-pipe at a time
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.
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.
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
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
“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.”
Olivarez is staff writer for Today’s Pentecostal Evangel.
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