Australian snowboarder Torah Bright has a whole lot of accolades to prove her on-the-slopes prowess in snowboarding and snowboarding tricks, and she’s happy to say she trained at the Big-O Park at the Northern Michigan ski resort, Otstego Club in Gaylord. Bright was the 2010 Olympic gold medal winner for Women’s Halfpipe; winner of X-Games gold (she’s won three); first place finisher at the World Superpipe Championship. And where did she train in the run-up to the 2010 Olympics? Gaylord’s Big-O Snowboard Park, part of Northern Michigan ski resort Otsego Club.

Wait, what?

Yep. The 24-year-old superstar—along with fellow Australian snowboarders and members of 10 other nations’ Olympic snowboard teams—came to train at Gaylord’s Otsego Club in Northern Michigan, which became the (very) unlikely hot spot for athletes gearing up for last year’s Vancouver games.

The stories surrounding the Olympians’ time in Gaylord have already become the stuff of local lore, like how many freaked out first impressions the athletes had when driving through the Northern Michigan town’s center. Olympians from team Switzerland were amused and wondering where the mountains were when they spied a downtown decked in alpine architecture (an homage to Gaylord’s sister city of Pontresina, Switzerland). Other competitors saw the flat landscape as puzzling at best, or perhaps downright alarming, especially knowing a 22-foot halfpipe had never existed east of the Mississippi. And Otsego Club general manager Kris Klay laughs when he recounts his first interaction with New Zealand’s coach Tim Willmott, which went something like, “So … where’s the hill?”

But those are just insider jokes now.

Because when the snowboard teams walked through the main lodge and looked out the wall of windows at the O-Park’s behemoth 450-foot-long, 22-foot-high halfpipe, whoops and hollers of excitement exploded like Bright’s winning switch backside 720 move in Vancouver. It was exactly the punch line Klay expected.

“The park feels like it comes out of nowhere, because you can’t see any vertical rise from the parking lot,” he says, gazing out at sweeping views of the Sturgeon River Valley behind the lodge. “The O-Park at the Otsego Club has been open for three years. We were Michigan’s best-kept secret. I think, however, it’s safe to say the secret is out.”

Of course, even with the publicity, the O-Park won’t get run down, beat up, and worn out like the busy terrain parks that draw huge crowds in the country’s mountainous regions. Since its inception in 1939, Otsego has been a private ski club. While the slopes are open to the public midweek, only members can ride during most of the peak periods, like weekends and holidays. No crowds is one of the reasons the Olympians were so thrilled to be training there, and the feature, Klay says, sets Otsego apart.

When fewer riders use the park, the pipe stays in better shape, and the runs go faster. Training on a 22-foot pipe out West can mean a 20-minute loop for one run. Here, with a chairlift right next to the pipe and minimal crowds, a snowboarder can do that same loop in four minutes. Plus, with lodging on-site, additional travel time doesn’t eat into training schedules.Perhaps even more exciting than the realization that the Olympians’ visit was not a one-off (loads of events are already being scheduled for this season and the years to come) is understanding just how audacious it was for this little-known resort in a quiet Northern Michigan town to break with tradition and run headlong into the world of mctwists, stale fish, and method fakies.

“Well, for 70 years, we focused only on skiers,” says Klay, as he motions toward a hillside now filled with more than 50 rails and jumps. “This was definitely a case of ‘If you build it, they will come.’? ”

But still, not everybody has faith in the formula. According to park and pipe architect Ryan Neptune, Northern Michigan could easily become the next “it” place for boarders from around the world. Neptune, a retired professional snowboarder who owns Planet Snow Design, says he was surprised at how little folks from the mitten state believed he could deliver such a big park (let alone such big name athletes) in “the middle of nowhere.”

Neptune still recalls the culture shock, even within the town of Gaylord in Northern Michigan, when the Olympians showed up to train at the O-Park. “No one believed—even after the pipe was constructed—that they had a product worthy of national attention,” he says.

Understandable, perhaps, because most folks in Michigan don’t know enough about the world of snowboarding and park skiing to understand that Neptune designs some of the world’s premier competition pipes. Of the 11 events Shaun White (U.S. Olympic gold medalist and one of the biggest names in the sport) attended last year, Planet Snow designed 10 of the pipes.

“What people miss is that I don’t look at the overall area. I see things in snapshots—in the footprint of a park—and when I went to Gaylord, I saw a premier space. Unlike out West, where you have to go half-mile down a run to get to a terrain park, and another half-mile to get to a lift, this was a space where everything could be instant.”In Neptune’s mind, Northern Michigan was ripe for something like the O-Park, and its success only proves how perfect the area is for such outdoor-inspired economic boosts.

Resorts here don’t face many of the halfpipe challenges that big resorts around the country face. Outrageous electrical rates don’t limit when groomers can turn on a snow gun. Water rights here don’t cost a ton and limit the amount of snow you can make. On the East and West Coasts, water is scarce, and for the most part it isn’t recycled, because it runs 11,000 feet down a mountainside and often into the ocean. Keystone (in Colorado) can’t even make a pipe this year because their water rights won’t allow it.

“In addition, the mountains we work on are often full of bedrock or granite, and building a park requires blasting and tons of heavy machinery,” Neptune says. “The O-Park’s pipe was created by moving dirt. We were able to create the perfect pitch and base, so that with natural and manmade snow, we had a product that was spectacular and able to be open sooner and stay open longer.”

While folks at the Otsego Club may not have realized the magnitude of returns on their investment, Klay says one thing was clear: as the club’s general membership aged, attracting and retaining young families had to become a top priority.“We knew snowboarding and park skiing were the areas of winter sports showing the most growth, and we were looking for a way to put Otsego on the map, the same way the PGA Tour put Oakland Hills Country Club on the map,” Klay says.The club turned to Neptune and Planet Snow Design to help bridge a steep learning curve in terrain park creation and management. Klay and his crew had to totally school themselves; when they first looked at terrain park jumps, they all seemed to be exactly the same. “I had no idea how much work went into creating a cohesive park that meets the needs of all ability levels and is made to be as safe as possible,” Klay says.

As for Neptune, he too got over the shock of the where’s-the-hill topography (he thought he was in the wrong place). “I knew Otsego would be a place with a unique feel to it. My biggest challenge at first was convincing people how successful the park could be, and how we could provide the same product in Michigan that people fly to someplace like France to ride,” Neptune says.

His 28 years of snowboard competition experience helped him confidently predict the pipes’ allure. Neptune knows that athletes are used to having to fly overnight, or dealing with practice in places like Lake Placid (where Snowboard World Cup competitions are held), where they have to drive hours to get to the pipe. “People aren’t going there to see the mountains. They are going to ride the pipe,” Neptune says. “There are entire communities of people out West who live near a resort simply to ride the pipe. That could happen in Michigan just as easily.”

In the first three years of Neptune’s contract, the O-Park was created and gained worldwide recognition. Planet Snow recently signed another four-year contract, and Klay says because of Neptune’s expertise and industry connections, he is sure the O-Park’s fame is only going to grow.

“We believe the O-Park will have a hand in bringing some serious credibility to the Michigan snowboard and park skiing scene,” Klay says. “That’s part of the reason we decided to have the terrain park not be caged into a certain area of the ski resort. A park like this, and the opportunities it affords, lends itself to greater exposure for the sport. We already have some incredible riders from Michigan use us as their home training base, and more are coming every season.”The work the Otsego Club has done is paying off for Gaylord as well. Folks in Michigan’s Alpine Village received the Olympians with open arms. The feeling was mutual, as athletes dove into local culture—visits at the high school, an afternoon of skeet shooting, kids and Olympians riding together and coaches offering up free pointers. A year later, a hopeful connection remains.

For an outsider like Neptune, the park also exposes another opportunity for growth: taking off the community’s blinders about its own possibilities. “People in Michigan seem to love where they live; a lot of folks I’ve talked to say they wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. And yet, that sentiment isn’t reflected in overall pride for the state. I think that’s interesting. In my mind, this is a place with so much potential, but it was a huge leap for people to believe we could bring world-class athletes here.”

Maybe that’s the point. In a state that is learning the value of looking to the future and reinventing itself for the next generation, the O-Park is like a beacon of light. A shining promise in gold medal hues of what can happen when we dream big while staying true to the character that defines us.

More Snowboard Parks in Northern Michigan

Boyne Highlands near Petoskey boasts four parks— ranging from the perfect beginners’ spot to a section of hill packed with rails and jumps—as well as a 13-foot halfpipe, boarder/skier cross course, eight-foot wall ride, and 25 jibs.RIDEBOYNE.COM.

Boyne Mountain’s park scene continues to grow, with an 18-foot-high, 550-foot-long superpipe as the centerpiece of board and ski action. Terrain parks at the Mountain are just as big, with the wildest jumps and rails in the North Boyne Park. Innovative lines and great flow can be found on the jumps and jibs on Ramshead Trail, and beginners can practice tricks in Progression Park. There’s also a mini-pipe and skier/boarder cross course. RIDEBOYNE.COM

Nub’s Nob welcomes boarders and park skiers to check out a terrain park full of massive jumps, rails, boxes, bumps. New this year: some urban jibs and a bigger half-pipe. Major jump action can now be found outside the terrain park as well, with the steepest portion of the run Smooth Sailing dedicated to catching major air. Beginners can practice plenty of tricks in the mini-terrain park, with its smaller jumps, rails and boxes, and you can ride the beginner chair for free all day, every day. New this year, more urban jibs. NUBSNOB.COM.

Crystal Mountain has a ton of fun, freestyle action scattered throughout its terrain. Riders can test their skills in the halfpipe, Super Park or Giggles run. The jumps—think 25-footers—hits, ramps, banks, fun boxes, jibs, rails, quarterpipes, bumps, and snow-cross make for a fun—and jamming—day. RIDECRYSTALMOUNTAIN.COM.
Shanty Creek rocks a halfpipe and four terrain parks with ever-changing features like rails, boxes, and tabletops. A beginners area with smaller jumps and rails lets even the newest riders and park skiers feel the success of landing that first big trick. SHANTYCREEK.COM.

Caberfae Peaks offers action in two parks. Cammy’s Park, located on the upper mountain, has plenty of rails and boxes (including two new box features for the 2010-2011 season) and a 25-foot roller. The Little Jibber’s park has plenty of terrain for beginners and intermediate riders. CABERFAEPEAKS.COM.

Get snow conditions and slope info updated daily in the MyNorth Michigan Ski Directory