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Soaring

Mitch Nelson remembers his legs feeling "a little funny and rubbery" when he slipped his boots into snowboard bindings over a year ago.

Nothing odd about that. Beginning snowboarders can get the shakes just thinking about dropping down a mountain strapped to an overgrown, wheel-free skateboard. But Mitch was no novice. In fact, he was too talented to buy his own equipment. Board companies picked up the cost of gear. Magazines had published full-page, full-color shots of him shooting and twisting off jumps — his stunts wet with altitude and attitude.

Mitch's legs simply felt uneasy — they had not been on a snowboard in over 24 months. When Mitch turned 19 he had stuffed his snowboards and photo clippings in a closet, bought some suits and ties and left on a full-time mission.

His decision baffled many in the snowboarding community. He had been snowboarding since the seventh grade, honing his skills with his buddies on a backyard jump. Snowboarding has quickly evolved into one of winter's most popular activities and is now an Olympic event. Some wondered why Mitch would walk away from the sport just as he was building his reputation, reaching his prime.

"But I always wanted to go on a mission, I had been so blessed," said Mitch, who grew up in Farmington, Utah.

The mission decision wasn't difficult. Sure, he had doubts about his snowboarding future — but to serve or not to serve the Lord wasn't a question. He had grown up in an active LDS family and had been taught that God blessed His servants.

For two years Mitch, now 23, answered to "Elder Nelson", serving in the Santa Rosa California Mission. His mission president says he was an enthusiastic, tireless worker — the kind of elder who made every area he served better.

Snowboarding reminders were always present. The nearest snow-covered mountains were hours away, but Mitch simply had to pass a magazine rack to see the same the sort of publications that once captured his stunts. Instead of entertaining nostalgia, Mitch stayed focused on mastering the discussions, increasing his teaching pool and being a good companion.

"I wouldn't allow myself to think about things like snowboarding; I lost myself in the work," he said.

He returned home in October of 1998. The lessons learned in Santa Rosa remain. Not a day goes by when he does not think about his mission and how it continues to shape his life.

"I can't go to bed without first opening my scriptures," said Mitch of a habit formed in the field.

While Mitch essentially forgot about snowboarding for two years, snowboarding never forgot him. People in the industry knew when he was returning. The week he stepped off the plane, snowboard companies began calling with cash offers to use their products.

Mitch admits it took some time to return to boarding at a professional level. But he has found his way back onto the magazine pages and snowboarding videos. He offers trick tips on the Internet. He belongs to company "elite teams." Still, he is confident his peak years are still a few years away.

While Mitch is earning a living off endorsements and media appearances, he is passing up some of the money he could be making at various snowboarding competitions. Many of the events are held on Sunday, so he quietly opts to pass. He talks about not competing on Sunday without a hint of sanctimony, he simply feels more comfortable staying away from snowboarding on the Sabbath.

His Sundays are already plenty busy. Besides serving as the ward mission leader in the Kenwood 2nd Ward, Salt Lake Wilford Stake, he helps his wife, Katie Ellen, teach a Sunday School class filled with young teenagers. Mitch and Katie were married in the Salt Lake Temple recently. He is also a student at Salt Lake Community College.

Young people seem to gravitate to snowboarding so, naturally, Mitch is a magnet. He enjoys working with young men and women, spending part of each summer coaching promising snowboarders in Canada. Occasionally he participates in firesides. There are several first-rate snowboarders who are also active Church members.

Snowboarding has become his catalyst for discussions about full-time missions and the gospel.

"I think that's what keeps me in snowboarding, the fact that I'm helping other kids," Mitch said.

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