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Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2002

Life on the slopes is not what it used to be

Snowboarding isn't just a winter sport, but a way of life. Such is the message of "Out Cold," directed by brothers Brendan and Emmet Malloy. Featuring rush-inducing feats by the world's top boarders, expertly shot on the snow-capped peaks of Whistler, Vancouver, "Out Cold" (titled "Cool Boarder" in Japan) packs in comedy, boarder lifestyles and the obligatory love story in a light, funny 90 minutes.

News photo
Rio Tahara

For Japanese boarding fans, there is the additional pleasure of seeing a local boarder among the world's elite (Todd Richards, Rob Stuggo Boyce, Sean Kearns, Devun Walsh). Rio Tahara, currently ranked ninth in the world, plays the part of Tetsuo, the Asian boarder. Though his speaking part is small, Tahara gets to strut his stuff, mainly in the opening race that shows him and a group of boarders whizzing down slopes and rooftops with beer steins in hand. Whoever has the most beer left in the end wins.

Tahara grew up in Nagano with a ski-instructor father who groomed him for winter sports as soon as he could toddle. And the minute he was old enough, Tahara was teaching his own group of tourist skiers. "I didn't enjoy it all that much," he recalls. "It was work ordered by my dad. I was good at it, but my heart wasn't really in it."

Soccer was where his heart was. Tahara was captain of his high school team, and by graduation, a dozen universities across the board were offering him scholarships. He turned them down. "During senior year, we made it to the national competition finals and there I witnessed real, first-class soccer. I was nowhere near that level and never would be. So I quit and looked around for something else."

In 1991, Tahara enrolled at Rio Grande University in Japan, an American school in Nagano (from which he took his cool-dude name), thinking that, if nothing else, "I could at least learn English." But before he could get serious about the language, he discovered snowboarding. "It was totally different from the world of skiing. There was just nothing in my past life that could match the exhilaration, the excitement . . ."

And for Tahara, who had all his life trained as an athlete in the Japanese style, the casualness and stress-on-fun aesthetics of snowboarding astounded him. "There was no age/class distinction, no grilling or drilling. In fact, there wasn't even a practice regime. You did what you wanted to do and that was it."

Tahara smokes, isn't on any special diet, and (get this) doesn't work out. "I mean, what's the point?" Accordingly, he fit right in on the set of "Out Cold" -- "Everyone was relaxed and cracking jokes. I was there for 10 days, but during that time, didn't see one stressful incident."

Still, he regrets that there weren't more boarding scenes. "The world's best professionals were there, so I think the directors could have taken more advantage of that."

Indeed, the story is about boarders protecting their mountain from invasion by a smooth-talking resort developer (hilariously played by Lee Majors), and they spend more time soaking in jacuzzis and worrying about love affairs than defying gravity on snow. Tahara says real boarders spend almost all their waking hours covered in snow. "You could always tell a boarder. He's dressed in L.A. casuals, but his nose is frostbitten."

As a former soccer captain and his father's son, Tahara honors certain codes of behavior: Extending politeness to one's elders, being careful of one's speech and attitude, that sort of thing. "But the younger generation, they couldn't care less," laughs Tahara. Back in Nagano, he is now in charge of grooming two 17-year-old boarders who don't know the first thing about politeness and insist on junk munchies in lieu of meals. "At 30, I feel like an old fogy. Those kids are aliens."

But Tahara knows that in snowboarding, the aliens tend to win, junk food or not, which is precisely what the world's boarder populace identifies with. "It's what you do on the board that counts. It's how good you look, how much speed you have, how outrageous you can be. Nothing else matters."

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