Outside magazine, June 1997
Can the It Boy from the world of extreme sports ever escape his nasty-as-I-can-be image? Considering what it's gotten him, should he want to?
By Rob Buchanan
The walls of the halfpipe at Sierra-at-Tahoe are eight feet high, Masonite-smooth, and surrounded, on this bright late-winter afternoon, with a crowd of two or three hundred high-spirited spectators. It doesn't seem like much of a turnout for the World Championships, but then again, in the sport of snowboarding, where myriad sponsors and sanctioning bodies are locked in a proto-Darwinian struggle for dominance, "world championships" are contested somewhere or another several times a winter.
| Shaun Palmer, always in your face|
Clutching a Budweiser in one hand and a Red Bull — a caffeinated soda rumored to be spiked with "synthetic bull testosterone" — in the other, Shaun Palmer shoulders his way into the congregation, making for a prime vantage point along the fence. It's not his fire-hydrant physique or skinhead haircut that sets him apart; after all, that same description applies to half the guys on the hill. No, what's unique about Palmer is the expression on his face, a sort of feral snarl in which the upper lip peels back to expose a jagged picket of teeth, and it has the effect of getting people to step out of his way, quickly. It's as if they know instinctively what Palmer's boarding cohorts have known for a long time. "He's always been the guy who would say or do anything," one of them explains. "The guy who would, you know, just go off."
At 4 p.m., the speed-metal music kicks in and the contest gets under way. Palmer watches, unimpressed, as the first few riders go by. Then, as a slender redheaded kid sticks a series of one-arm handstands off the lip, Palmer suddenly loses it.
"Oh, that's so BEAUTIFUL!" he screams. "So CONSISTENT! Yeah, Jimmy, we LOVE you!"
The crowd titters nervously, not sure what to make of this outburst. Palmer keeps them guessing, banging the heels of his hands together in prissy, spastic applause.
"God, I hate that crap," he says, turning to a friend. "Dude has three runs, and he's still holding back."
The same could never be said of Palmer. In his day, he ruled the pipe with big air and raw aggression; his duels with Craig Kelly at Breckenridge in 1989 and '90 are the stuff of snowboarding legend. Kelly was the stylist, the technician, the judges' favorite. Palmer was the kid who just threw himself up there in space, who came out of the pipe ten or eleven feet, and the crowds always went for him.
Palmer, 28, doesn't enter many halfpipe competitions these days. Mostly he rides boardercross, a frenetic steeplechase-style event that seems destined to become snowboarding's Next Big Thing. He has also successfully crossed over to a second, summertime career as a top contender in the breakneck sport of downhill mountain biking. With two houses, a collection of Cadillacs, and a snowboard-manufacturing business to look after, Palmer probably should be feeling magnanimous — he's rich and famous, after all. But the pipe is sacred turf, the very calving ground of the sport, and it pains him to see it go the way of figure skating. "It's all twirlers now," Palmer says dismissively. "Ballerina dancers. Euros, mostly. Ain't hardly no Americans left in this shit no more."
The politic thing to do in situations like today's would be to bite one's tongue and not look back. But Palmer is rarely politic. His twin identities — one rooted in his bully-boy past and the other struggling to embrace a minimum of civility — battle each other daily for dominion within his five-foot-eight-inch frame. He's been telling everyone how mellow and calm he's become, how he no longer feels the need to get ripped and rowdy and turn into a raging one-man riot. Obnoxiousness, however, can be a difficult habit to break, particularly if it's taken you this far and is widely viewed as an inseparable component of your success. So sometimes mellow prevails, and sometimes, like today, the past wins out.
He shakes his head as the red-haired kid finishes his run with a slick little jib in front of the judges' stand. Palmer waits for the applause to die and launches another taunt down the pipe.
| Shaun hangs with motocross|
bud Mike Metzger
"JI-MEEEEEE," he yells, this time in a piercing falsetto. "You gotta go HIGH-ERRRRRR."
The crowd is with him now, laughing, and Palmer notches up the heckling as the kid starts up the hill for his second run. Passing by, he shoots this cruel tormentor a baffled, helpless look: Why are you picking on me, man?
Growing up is hard to do. Shaun Palmer — CEO of Palmer USA Ltd., gray eminence of snowboarding, and most recently one of the richest riders in mountain biking — shrugs and splurches a glob of Red Bull into the snow.
|He's helped define the delinquent ethos of alternative sports, mostly through his off-the-course style: flamingly rude and crude, with a devotion to the black arts of partying.|
From the day he burst onto the scene as the foulmouthed, mop-haired, 14-year-old snowboarder that everybody called Mini-Shred, Shaun Palmer, as much as any other athlete, has defined the aggressively delinquent ethos that dominated the early days of alternative sports. Partly, of course, it was his go-for-broke approach to boarding, BMX racing, and motocross. But much of it was related to his style off the course: a flamingly rude, crude flamboyance combined with a blatant devotion to the black arts of partying. Palmer was a true sports punk, hyperactive, substance-abusing, mocking toward what he perceived as the shiny, neon, one-piece-suit conformity of the ski world, and derisive toward the dignity of sports in general. Palmer was also the guy who, as soon as he got his driver's license, started showing up at contests in preposterous, tail-finned Cadillacs. The one who relished the rebel-jock iconography of dyed hair, shaved head, and tattooed skin (his name runs across his belly in three-inch high Old English script). The showboat who would don a red-white-and-blue satin suit before climbing up onto the victory podium and then take a Keith Moon approach to the festivities afterward.
Stories of epic binges have followed him on his rise to fame: Palmer picking fights in response to some real or imagined slight. Palmer and a couple of other boarders getting kicked out of a Japanese hotel after trashing the game room. Palmer defecating on a former girlfriend's wood-burning stove in a successful effort to break up her dance party.
For their part, his fans liked to think that there was a core of defiant integrity lurking beneath Palmer's loutishness. At the 1988 Worlds in Breckenridge, Palmer decided the construction of the halfpipe was especially half-assed and figured he'd throw a little attitude onto the mountain. The day of the finals he strapped on a pair of floppy Sorel boots, just to make sure he wouldn't be tempted to bust any tricks, and then ran the pipe straight in protest, flipping off the judges for good measure.
Palmer would have remained nothing more than a minor footnote in the annals of sports thuggery if not for one critical fact: Behind all the posturing and acting out, he was, and is, an extraordinary talent. And he has had at least enough sense not to throw that talent away. Witness the audacious project he undertook starting in the fall of 1995. While the rest of snowboarding's pioneers were bailing to make hotdog-footage movies, ride powder, or find a real job, Palmer borrowed a mountain bike and began hanging out with downhill racing pros in southern California, observing, asking questions, giving himself a crash course in the technical aspects of the sport, and competing in a few races. Instead of looking for a sponsor, he quietly hired his own mechanic, packed up a van, and paid his own way as a rookie pro on the 1996 racing circuit.
In May, word came back from the season's second World Cup race, held in Nevegal, Italy, that a newcomer — some snowboarder named Palmer — had finished among the cream of international mountain biking. When the tires stopped spinning Palmer had nabbed seventh place in the downhill, an amazing feat given his fledgling status in the sport. The result might have been dismissed as a fluke if, in mid-July, he had not gone on to take first place in the downhill at a NORBA National Championship Series race in Big Bear Lake, California.
"People were shocked," recalls Marti Stephen, the mountain biking editor of VeloNews, who was on hand that day. "Shaun himself could hardly speak. He pushed his body to the max, and at the finish line he was bent over, moaning, 'Oh shit, I gotta get in shape.'"
Palmer's appearance on the winner's stand at Big Bear produced one of the most memorable images in recent mountain biking history. Flanked by a gaggle of spindly-looking also-rans decked out in logo-strewn Lycra, Shaun Palmer, wearing wraparounds and a sneer and shaking a bottle of champagne, stood resplendent in a dazzlingly tacky gold lamé suit. In a sport often more interested in titanium than charisma, suddenly here was...Elvis!
"Everybody was asking the same question," says Dennis Kanegae, marketing chief for Answer Products, a bicycle component company. "Who is this guy?"
Palmer kept them talking all summer long. A month after his victory in California, he came in second at a World Cup race in France, narrowly losing to the reigning champion downhiller, 20-year-old French rider Nicolas Vouilloz. Then in September, at the World Championships in Australia, he won the dual slalom and once again finished a slender goatee hair — 0.15 second — behind Vouilloz in the downhill. He ended the season fifth in the World Cup rankings and seventh overall in the NORBA National Championship Series. It was an astonishing debut, and by late summer there was an intense bidding war among bike companies that wanted to dress Palmer in their colors. He bragged about holding out for $750,000, asked for $500,000, and ended up signing a long-term contract with Specialized for a reported $300,000.
Within the nation of mountain biking, Palmer had arrived. The resident population was not entirely pleased, however. The sport has had its share of "extreme" personalities — most notably female downhiller Missy Giove, she of the piranha necklace and the radical haircuts — but some feel that the image is tired or that Palmer represents the point at which a harmlessly eccentric style becomes a pathological lifestyle choice. On the other hand, with sales flat, now is no time to be quibbling. "He's somebody who can really draw in boarders, skaters, even BMX riders — people who see mountain biking as a sport for adults," says Specialized's marketing chief, Eric Edgecumbe. "There was a reaction against him from certain quarters, for sure, but now I think most people in the sport agree: We need him."
| Palmer rips a practice run|
Palmer, of course, is just the latest in a long line of bad-boy anti-endorsers, all of them the absolute last guys you'd want to pose your products with, and therefore, to his fans, the only one they can really trust. For a sponsor willing to take a few risks, that makes him an irresistible commodity. Take, for instance, the full-page ad that Fox Racing, which supplies Palmer's motocross-style racing garments and body armor, ran this spring. It shows Palmer standing in front of his poison-apple green '63 Fleetwood limo in T-shirt, shorts, and orange-rimmed shades, staring at the camera with a belligerent expression, his forearms covered with tattoos and another licking around the side of one of his calves. The headline: "JUST WAIT 'TIL I'M CLIPPED IN AND SOBER."
The ad does its job: It celebrates and leers at Palmer's reputation even as it promises he'll come around in time to do great things. But if he's really ready to clear his head, why isn't he too embarrassed to let Fox play with him this way?
Day two of the Worlds at Sierra-at-Tahoe has arrived, and Palmer definitely has yet to clip in. Last night he dropped by a friend's birthday party and wound up staying for four screwdrivers. He called it quits in time to avoid the old eight-screwdriver hangover he knows so well; still, slumped in a corner of the Sierra-at-Tahoe base lodge, he's not looking very frisky.
"Dude, I'm not feeling too well," he admits. "I haven't really been drinking for a while, plus I had a tooth pulled yesterday."
Perhaps not the ideal start to a big week. Today is boardercross qualifying; tomorrow, the finals. The minute that's over, he leaves for Las Vegas and the ski-and-snowboard industry's annual trade show. Palmer hates trade shows, but as titular head of his own snowboard manufacturing company, he's obliged to be at least physically present. Right after Vegas the mountain biking season opens with the Cactus Cup in Scottsdale, Arizona. It's one thing to ride a snowboard and party, Palmer observes, and quite another "to be on the Budweiser diet and ride bikes."
|Palmer would have remained a minor footnote in the annals of sports thuggery if not for one critical fact: Behind the posturing, he is an extraordinary talent.|
On the heels of his triumphant splash into mountain biking, Palmer has enjoyed a pretty good year on the slopes. He's won one of the three Swatch-sponsored boardercrosses held so far (there are six in all) and he finished second in another. Going into tomorrow's race, he holds a narrow lead in cumulative season points over a mild-mannered Swiss racer, Bertrand Denervaud. A new Harley-Davidson awaits the points champion at the end of the Swatch series, and while Harleys aren't Palmer's cup of tea — he's a dirt bike kind of a guy — he's let it be known that he'll be damned if some Euro is going to ride off on this one.
Boardercross, with its mix of jumps, turns, and shoulder-to-shoulder jostling, is almost perfectly suited to Palmer's talents. "Riding with a pack of people in fucked-up terrain" is the colorful way he describes the event. Four to six racers fling themselves out of the chute at once, and the winner is the first one to the bottom of the hill. Helmets are mandatory; contact is permitted as long as it's not too blatant. "We're trying to keep boardercross kinda gnarly," Rob Bernthal, Swatch's sports marketing manager, says.
Even with a hangover, Palmer proves to be one of the dominant riders on the hill, though his style is much more fluid and controlled than you'd expect. He rides forward and low to the board, avoiding big air — "it just slows you down" — and idiot aggression, even occasionally getting sideways to scrub off speed when he doesn't need it. He posts the third-best time of the 140 qualifiers, just a tick behind Denervaud and — horror of horrors — some unknown dude in hard boots.
Afterward, Palmer and two of his boardercross bros, Simon Flynn and Ian Beaudoux, climb into Palmer's pickup for the half-hour ride down to South Lake Tahoe. Flynn and Beaudoux are a lot younger than Palmer — 22 and 19, respectively — and Palmer calls them his "C Team." They're friends, basically, whom he sets up with boards and entry fees and who in turn provide a certain connection to his past and to the real world.
Today, for instance. As fate would have it, three blond young women happen to occupy the truck immediately ahead of them as they leave the parking lot. Palmer pulls out alongside them in the wrong lane for a good long stretch, the boys strike up a windblown conversation, and soon the girls are following them back to Palmer's for a cordial.Palmer grew up in South Lake Tahoe, on the California-Nevada line. These days he spends a lot of time at his number-two house in the desert outside Los Angeles, hanging with his dirt-bike buddies, but Tahoe is still his main base. His place is in a tract down near the lake, a modest three-bedroom, but with all the amenities. The girls' eyes widen at the sight of the Fleetwood limo parked in the garage, and again at the leather wraparound couch and plush carpet in the living room.
"This house is phat," one of them says. "How much do you pay?"
"You mean, how much did I pay?" Palmer replies.
"You own this house? Wow!" She doesn't seem to know who Palmer is. "How old are you?"
The conversation lurches on lazily, noncommittally. When Beaudoux says, "Hey, you girls wanna go tubbing?" everyone just laughs, and the decadent possibilities evaporate. Soon, with a vague promise to meet up later, the girls leave, and the boys return to the topic of the boardercross. Flynn and Beaudoux are a little down. Only the top 48 will advance to tomorrow's final, and they're currently sitting 51st and 54th.
"Maybe there'll be a few no-shows," Beaudoux says, hopefully.
"You guys are pathetic," Palmer says. "If you can't make the fuckin' final, I'm taking your boards back."
The boys laugh at him. Despite Palmer's nasty reputation, he's turning into a soft touch — or, as Flynn calls him, "a big pussy."
"You came into town when all my younger buddies were hanging out," Palmer tells me later, a little defensively. "My friends in this town are a lot of younger guys, 'cause I like to take care of them and help 'em out, try and set them in the right way as far as not being total fuck-ups."
It's an improbable but touching notion. But then I remember the cruel way that Palmer mocked the redheaded kid at the halfpipe, and things no longer seem so simple. "You helping these guys," I say. "Did someone do that for you?
"No one did it for me," Palmer says.
Shaun Palmer was born in San Diego in 1968. His father, a construction worker, left home a few months later, and from childhood on Shaun had trouble getting along with his mother, Jana. "She'd always have boyfriends that I wouldn't accept," he says. "I was hardheaded towards her."
In 1976, Jana, her seven-year-old son, and her mother moved to South Lake Tahoe. Perky Neely, Shaun's grandmother, was by all accounts a tough old bird who worked as a waitress at a Harrah's casino, and from Shaun's point of view he was raised less by his mother than by Perky. "She was funny and had her spunk," he recalls, "but she could definitely be negative. Somebody honked their horn at her, she'd flip 'em right off."
Growing up, Shaun was always short, usually the class clown, and twice a Little League All-Star at second base. Then he got into skateboarding. "As soon as I did that," he says, "I got into drugs. I sold weed and shit like that. I kind of sold mushrooms, did 'shrooms and coke and all that crap. I ain't scared to print it, cause that's my real life. I think kids should know, if they're looking up to me. That's what I did, but I did grow out of it. I kind of crawled out of that realm of people."
Palmer did a lot of motorcycle riding, BMXing, and skiing as a kid, but among the skateboard set, the brand-new contraption known as the snowboard had a special cachet. The local ski area, Heavenly Valley, didn't permit them, so Palmer and his friends had to hitchhike up to Slide Mountain, on the north shore, to ride. Tom Hsieh, a San Franciscan who founded a magazine called International Snowboard in the early eighties, remembers meeting Palmer at one of the early halfpipe competitions. "He was this man-child," Hsieh says. "He was like, 'Hey dude, my second run's coming up. You got a joint?'"
In video footage from that era, Palmer displays a keen understanding of how to play to the camera. Or rather, how to attack it. He'll bomb a cameraman with a malicious rooster tail of snow or, when jumping, expertly position himself and his board for optimal logo exposure. Off the board, he's just as belligerent, promiscuously guzzling a fifth of Crown Royal or rudely shoving a popsicle into the lens.
Mini-Shred, as he was known then, made it into the fall of his junior year in high school, then hit the road with the Sims team and became the junior champion several years running. In 1989, at the age of 20, he won his first world championship, defeating Craig Kelly at Breckenridge. The two went head-to-head again in the finals the following year.
"It was the greatest contest I ever saw," says Bud Fawcett, a photographer who now works for Palmer Snowboards. "One guy would come down the pipe, rip all of his tricks, and then put his finger up in the air: I'm number one. Then the other would do the exact same thing. They went back and forth; it was really a tough decision for the judges to make." Palmer won.
Not long afterward, at the trade show in Las Vegas, an unfamiliar figure came up and introduced himself to Palmer. He was in his midforties and wore a jacket embroidered with the words "World Snowboarding Champ." It took Palmer a moment to realize who it was: Tim Palmer, his father.
According to Palmer's business manager, Bob Klein, who was there, Palmer wasn't too happy about the reunion. "He spoke to the guy," Klein says, "but barely."
Sitting on his couch under an airbrushed portrait of Sid Vicious, with a nice woodstove and CDs stacked like cordwood on the floor, Palmer scowls darkly at the memory of that encounter. "You know, he sees me on TV and thinks he's got something," he says.
"Maybe he felt guilty," I venture. "Wanted to make it up to you."
"It's a little late, 21 fucking years later," he replies. "No child support, nothing, for 21 years, and he tries to come into my life now when I am somebody and have proved to the world that I am somebody." Palmer shakes his head. "He tries to hang out now, but I don't even deal with him."
Two years later, in 1992, his grandmother developed cancer and quickly died. "I didn't take it very good," Palmer says. "I just started drinking heavy right then, and everything got more out of control than it already was before. I didn't lose any races or anything. It was more just hitting the bottle and being an alcoholic drunk party freak, fighting everybody, just pissed at the world.
"I still have to work on it, because I grew up with negativity in my family," he continues. "I always had like a punk-rock shitty attitude towards things. If someone cuts you off, you flip 'em off. If someone confronts you and wants to fight, you beat their ass. That's just the way I grew up."
Jana Palmer lives nearby, in Reno, and though she doesn't see her son often ("I travel too much," he says), they at least talk on the phone. To hear Shaun tell it, in fact, the mother has a lot of her son in her. She used to sew his wild suits for him, and a while back, Palmer says, she painted her house purple "just to fuck with the neighbors."
Palmer laughs, then frowns. "She doesn't have a great life," he says quietly. "She's got a weight problem, and I try to help her with that. But she works her ass off and gets depressed living with a little amount of money."
I ask Palmer where his mother works.
"Montgomery Ward," he says. "She sits in there in that room with the surveillance cameras, busting people. Then she goes out and tackles 'em." He grins. "But she's a sweetheart.
"So you're getting along now?"
"We've got to get along now," Palmer says. "There's nobody else left."
Two years ago, in what might have been his first real foray into adult responsibility, Palmer hooked up with a Swiss investor named Jurg Kunz and formed a snowboard manufacturing company. With sales of some 10,000 units worldwide last year, Palmer Snowboards didn't come close to breaking even, and it's too early to say whether the business will take off or hit the wall. Even though his partners tolerate Palmer's hostility toward the meet-and-greet hoopla of sports marketing, you can sometimes catch them looking at their chief executive officer with just the slightest exasperation: If only the guy would get up and shake a few hands ...
"The thing you have to realize about Shaun," Bob Klein says with resignation, "is that he's going to be who he's going to be. I remember last year, when we were in negotiations with one bike manufacturer, they were really concerned that he was, like, going to go out and shit on somebody's car. They really seemed to be worried, so I said, 'Well, hey, isn't that why you want him, for that exact image?'" Klein shrugs. "That was the end of that deal."
At Specialized, the team icon had long been the ageless cross-country rider Ned Overend, mountain biking's first world champion and a pleasant family man who is now 41 and retired from racing. With more skeletons in his closet than the entire starting lineup of the Dallas Cowboys, Palmer must have caused a few executives at Specialized to swallow hard before signing him. But the company's willingness to ultimately overlook Palmer's difficulties may derive from a shrewd actuarial calculation about the difference between a crazy kid and a young man pushing 30. Try as he might, the Shaun Palmer everyone expects the worst of is running out of steam, and he often seems weary of the taxing obligation to be rotten, and wistful about the mysteries of adult emotion. And if the will to outrage is indeed receding, what will likely grow more exposed is Palmer's athletic potential.
Sunday at Sierra-at-Tahoe is cold and blustery, and only a few people turn out to watch the boardercross finals. Palmer advances easily through the early heats, but in the semifinals he takes a bad line through the triple jump whoop-de-doo section and winds up third, which means he'll be in an unfavorable chute for the final. Terje Haakonsen, the Norwegian phenom who's already won the halfpipe, secures the preferred starting spot in the finals.
Palmer is hard on Haakonsen's tail as the two head into the whoops. The only place to pass is the last big roller, but Haakonsen takes the perfect line and minimal air, while Palmer, scrambling to maneuver around him, gets too high and loses ten yards before he even hits the ground. Resigned to second place, he coasts to a stop and pulls off his helmet, thoroughly disgusted.
But the trademark snarl is absent. Today, at least, the new Palmer is on display, and he deploys only mild sarcasm. "If I have to lose," he says, "I guess I don't mind losing to Superboy."
After the press conference, Palmer grabs a quick beer at the bar, then points his truck down the hill and steps on it. He's only got an hour, he figures, to pack and get ready for the next couple of weeks: Vegas, a BMX weekend in Arizona, the last stateside boardercross in Solitude, and the Cactus Cup. There'll just be time to fill a few Ziploc bags with his homemade gorp — vitamin supplements and Advil — jam a little Taco Bell, and grab a few 40s (as in 40 ounces) for the road.
"I can't even sit down to eat my dinner," he says, laughing at himself. "I really need somebody to organize my life. I mean, Deion Sanders doesn't answer his own phone for every interview, that's for damn fuckin' sure."
Like a number of people who excel on the fringes of mainstream sport, Palmer has a slightly deluded sense of the scale of the arena in which he operates. "I can't believe how famous I am," he'll say in unguarded moments. Or, "Snowboarding and riding a bike are not as big as team sports right now, but once everybody cheers individual sports, I'll be right there with 'em."
In the next breath, Palmer will acknowledge that in professional sports "there's five different levels above where I'm at." Even if he resumes his career in the halfpipe and makes the first U.S. Olympic snowboarding team, and wins in Nagano next year — even if he tops that by riding a cross-country mountain bike at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 — he'll still be playing in the minor leagues. But that's all right. If life works out the way Palmer wants, he'll "graduate" from mountain biking to his true passion, Supercross motorcycle racing, and then spend his dotage on road bikes — Grand Prix motorcycles, that is. "If I can be at the top level in four sports," he says, "l'll be able to relax and retire." Such forward thinking gets fleshed out only as it concerns his athletic life, however. Though he'll issue occasional rumblings about making the transition to fully formed adult, Palmer still has some sketching-in to do. Lately, what he's been abstractly musing about is finding Ms. Right and raising a family.
In the weeks that follow, Palmer will advance toward his athletic goals, at least. After losing in the dual slalom semi-finals at the Cactus Cup, he will come back two weeks later at the Sea Otter Invitational in Monterey, another preseason mountain biking tune-up, and pass perennial contender Dave Cullinan near the finish of the dual slalom course. A week later, on Oahu, Palmer will win the prologue stage of the Hawaiian Mountain Tour. After that, he will fly off to Laax, beat Denervaud in the boardercross finale, and ride off on the hog. Then, in May, the mountain biking season will begin in earnest with World Cup races in South Africa, Italy, and Spain.
"Look, I'm naturally talented in all these sports," Palmer says, pulling into his driveway after the trip back from Sierra-at-Tahoe. "And I think I'm naturally smart, too, to have changed the way my life was going. There's still those vibes inside of you that want to rage all the time. I mean, you're born with that, that's the way you grew up, but as far as being successful, I've changed from being a negative fighting drunk and an asshole."
Palmer leans forward, gripping the steering wheel tight. He's groping to express himself, but I can see he's frustrated by the impossibility of getting to the heart of the matter. "I have such a winning determination in all my sports, it's weird," he continues. "I still don't understand it. I wanna win so bad it's like I gotta prove to the world. I don't know, my grandma's gone..." His voice trails off.
"When I wanna win something, I can win it," he says finally. "I'm mentally stronger than any athlete out there in any sport I do."
But he knows that's not good enough either. He's got a motto, he says, he wants to impart to his kids: "Keep heading straight in life and look for your tunnel, and you can crawl to it and you can get there."
"What's this tunnel thing all about?" I ask. It's not the first time he's mentioned it.
"That's what it is, man," he says, looking straight ahead. "Some people just don't see the light at the end of it." He pauses. "I've seen that light, and I'm fuckin' goin' for it."
Rob Buchanan profiled Olympic swimmer Brooke Bennett in the August 1996 issue of Outside.
Photographs by Michael Llewellyn