Bend teen Watts powers way onto U.S. snowboard team

His long fingers executing every chord just right, Ben Watts launches into a rendition of Led Zeppelin's The Rain Song.

The song, while soothing and melancholy, has a complex harmony that would seem impossible to imitate. But Watts plays it with ease on his acoustic guitar.

In much the same way, Watts makes the impossible seem possible on the snow -- and sometimes far above it.

Just 15, Watts was named earlier this year to the U.S. Snowboarding Freestyle Rookie Team. The lifelong Bend, Ore., resident is the youngest male in the United States Ski and Snowboard Association.

Somehow, Watts seems much older than his 15 years. Perhaps it's the way he plays that guitar in his bedroom, or the way he twists and contorts his body on his snowboard, high above the halfpipe.

Watts' potential as a snowboarder has been hyped since he earned sponsorship from Burton, a leading snowboarding gear company, when he was 10.

Now, Watts is focusing on his snowboarding career. But that "career" is more of a lifestyle than a job. Watts attended public school this fall, as a freshman at Bend's Summit High, for the first time in three years.

He took a double load of classes and plans to return to Summit in the spring for another busy class schedule after taking the winter off to compete.

During those formative middle-school years, Watts was spending nearly every winter day at Mount Bachelor and being home-schooled.

"I don't really pay much attention to it, I guess," Watts said when asked how he was able to reach such a high level as a competitive snowboarder at his young age.

He recently returned home from a U.S. Snowboarding training camp at Copper Mountain, Colo. And he left again for Copper Mountain for the first U.S. Grand Prix of the season.

Watts also plans to ride against the world's best in snowboarding, including 2006 Olympic gold medalist Shaun White, in the Winter Dew Tour in Breckenridge, Colo., that started Thursday.

His highest finish at the Grand Prix -- three annual events that make up one of the most prestigious freestyle snowboarding competition series in the country -- was sixth place in halfpipe last season.

Watts competes in both halfpipe, in which riders are judged on aerial tricks performed while riding in and out of the pipe, and slopestyle, in which riders are judged on aerial tricks performed while riding off a series of jumps.

Currently, halfpipe is the only freestyle snowboarding event in the Olympics.

"I'll be doing lots of pipe, but I really enjoy slopestyle more," Watts said. "It's a little bit more free, I think. Even though the U.S. team isn't as involved with that ... I think it will become an Olympic sport eventually, but until then, it's not much of a priority for them."

Though perhaps a long shot, Watts plans to make a run at qualifying for the Winter Olympics in halfpipe for the 2010 Games in Vancouver, British Columbia.

"I'm going to see what I can do," Watts said. "I'm going to progress a lot this year, and hopefully get some good results -- and go into next year, and just go for it."