Pilots

Mike Jacoby

February 1, 1998

We're all sick of the celebrity/athlete/ pilot type by now. You know the guy: To celebrate logging that first hundred hours he went out and bought himself a Citation and a JetRanger, while his latest contract doubled the price of your stadium seat. Makes you want to switch to arena football.

Then there's 28-year-old Olympic athlete Mike Jacoby. Since he got his certificate he's been content to plow around in the skies above his native Hood River, Oregon, in his 1963 Piper Cherokee. A car that old would be considered an antique; Jacoby says that the Cherokee 180 is just getting broken in. But who is Mike Jacoby?

Only the finest practitioner, the most renowned athlete — a veritable Michael Jordan — of his sport, that's who. But when you think of Air Jacoby, you don't think of expensive, pretty shoes; you think of a down-to-earth guy flying real airplanes. Anyway, Jacoby just loves firewalling that old throttle lever and ….

Wait. You really don't know what he does? Well, for the last 11 years Jacoby has held world titles in all major events pertaining to, um, snowboarding. That's right, snowboarding. It's like skiing, only with no poles, but instead really baggy insulated pants and only one short, wide ski. And a hat that looks as if it came off a medieval jester.

There are those who believe that snowboarding is a bit too renegade, tantamount to those scrawny, scraped-kneed, skateboard-wielding pubescent urban terrorists being elevated to the status of Nancy Kerrigan. (OK, so there was that rather undignified Tonya Harding episode.) What's next? Maybe Patty Wagstaff posing before her Extra 260 with six or seven Olympic gold medals draped around her neck?

Well, hey, why not? Aerobatics is certainly more strenuous than a two-man luge.

At the XVIII Olympic Winter Games in Nagano, Japan, snowboarding will be recognized as a full-medal Olympic sport for the first time. Jacoby is the leader of the U.S. team. "I guess it's probably because I have the biggest name of the team, because I've gained a reputation," he says. "I have been at the top of the sport for a long time — I did my first world competition in 1986."

Jacoby is what you might call a jock of all trades, but mostly of the kind of been-there-done-that sports that they now refer to as extreme: surfing, wind surfing, kayaking, mountain biking, parachuting — and, yes, snowboarding, which has been around since the late 1960s, and with which Jacoby became infatuated 15 years ago, at the tender age of 13.

But even years before he stepped foot on his first snowboard, Jacoby discovered something just as fun — and demanding — as all those other sports. "When I was about six years old, a friend's father took me up flying and gave me the controls minus the rudder pedals," he says. "I started pulling the yoke back and forth; then somebody in the tower said something, which my friend's father translated into 'I'd better take you back.'" Growing up near a small airport, Jacoby would stop by and hang out in his spare time. Then about three summers ago he started taking flying lessons, and he received his pilot certificate in June 1996. Right away he bought that Cherokee and started racking up the hours in it. Today he has some 300 hours.

"I gained some benefits toward snowboarding by learning to fly," says Jacoby. "For instance, I gained more mental endurance. I recall a lesson where it was gusting, there was a stiff crosswind, and I wanted to just let go of the controls and let the instructor take over." But, alas, you can't hand over the airplane when there's no one else in the next seat, nor can you stop snowboard training when something like an Olympic gold medal is at stake. But still, as Jacoby says, you don't become a champion by setting out to become a champion. You become a champion by absolutely loving what it is you do.

"Snowboarding is like surfing the big wave. The sensation you get out if it keeps you going — like flying. It's one of those things I've never been able to put into words," he says. "It's really — free."

He loves snowboarding because it allows him to be up in the steep hills and because it gives him that sensation of cruising down those same hills. "I love challenging myself in the snow," Jacoby says. "Flying is similar; it's a stress-free environment. I fly everywhere.

"Up [in the air] everybody is working with you," he explains. "I also love checking out the terrain and the landscape; there's just so much more to see, and you can change your route every mile and see something different. It's relaxing and enjoyable; the more I do it, the more enjoyable it is."

Too, he enjoys aviation's more utilitarian aspects. With his Cherokee, Jacoby can train hard on the snowboard, then fly to the coast and surf or make personal appearances for his sponsors. "When you start adding up the time, I could fly somewhere in 15 minutes rather than drive there in an hour and a half." And, he says, "I don't have to deal with parking."

With the Olympics coming up, Jacoby doesn't want to deal with too many other activities. While he's wrapping up his five-day-a-week training regimen, he only wants to keep flying; after Nagano he plans to get his instrument rating.

"Sometime soon I'm going to move on to something with IFR capabilities — something bigger, faster, and more complicated," he says. "I was thinking the other day that maybe I'll try aerobatics. It looks fun if I don't get sick — but if I don't get into that, I'll just keep on improving."