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Feb 11 / King Kaufman

Jeff Passan separates himself from the snowboarding media pack

Jeff Passan, covering the Winter Olympics for Yahoo Sports, has access. But he didn’t need it to get one of the best stories of the first weekend at Sochi. He just needed some creativity and ingenuity. If you get a choice, take those over access every time.

American Sage Kotsenburg won the first gold medal of the Games, in slopestyle snowboarding, thanks to his signature move, the “Holy Crail.” At a press conference afterward, he mentioned Ally Berry, a 17-year-old Michigan snowboarder who had coined that term in response to Kotsenburg’s Facebook post asking fans for naming suggestions.

That could have been a nice little detail in Passan’s story: The name of the fan who’d come up with “Holy Crail.” As long as Kotsenburg mentioned it at the press conference, why not throw it in? It’s the kind of thing the Utah native does that means that, in Passan’s words, “In a snowboarding scene full of eminently likable riders, Kotsenburg might be the easiest to fancy.”

But Passan wanted more, so he found an Ally Berry on Twitter. One look at her feed tells you she’s a snowboarder, so Passan asked if he’d found the right one. Had he ever.

Passan and Berry traded Twitter direct messages, and she played a starring role in his story.

With a press conference full of writers working on the same story, Passan found a way to separate himself from the crowd. He still covered Kotsenburg’s gold-medal win. But he found a way to tell that tale through a unique point of view.

One more thing: If you read Passan’s story, you’ll notice he’s pretty comfortable with the sport’s jargon. For example:

On the strength of his Holy Crail and a backside 16 Japan air—a 4-1/2-spin trick Kotsenburg never had even tried, let alone stomped—the 20-year-old from Park City, Utah, stunned a deep field in slopestyle’s introduction to the Olympics and upset favorites Stale Sandbech (silver) and Mark McMorris (bronze).

Passan’s a baseball writer. But he doesn’t resort to distancing tricks writers sometimes use when writing about a subculture they’re not familiar with. He didn’t write, “let alone ‘stomped,’ as the snowboarders say.” It’s obvious from context that “stomped” is a snowboarding term and what it means.

By email, I asked Passan—a virtual friend and fantasy baseball competitor of mine—if he were a snowboarder. He answered that he’d been snowboarding once, that some 8-year-olds had laughed at him, and that while he’s a fan of the athleticism and fearlessness, he doesn’t really follow it outside of the Olympics. He went on:

I covered snowboarding in Vancouver and wasn’t as on with the jargon then. I wanted to make sure I had a better grasp of it this time around, so I watched a lot of videos and studied as much as I could. I spent a lot of time on this page, and if there was something I didn’t know, I ran it by one of the sources I’d cultivated in pre-Games reporting.

That, as old-school reporters say, is “preparation.”

Good thing too. It’s not an easy language to speak. Ask Ally Berry. You’ve heard of her, right? She’s a junior at Edwardsburg High School:

“When talking to my friends at school,” she tweeted Sunday, “they do not understand my lingo! #snowboarderprobs.”