COPPER MOUNTAIN, Colo. — Jonathan Cheever, a plumber from Saugus, is poised to make the US Olympic team and compete in snowboard cross at the upcoming Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea.
This is no pipe dream.
“I think he’s got an amazing chance,” said US Snowboarding head coach Peter Foley, acknowledging Cheever’s third-place finish in a World Cup and US Olympic qualifier in Argentina in September.
“We don’t have a lot of selection events left. He’s not a shoo-in, but right now he’s got the best chance of anyone.”
That’s a long way from the disgusting grease trap in the North End restaurant that gagged him years ago.
Cheever, 32, the 2011 US national snowboard cross champion, has been plumbing and snowboarding since he was 11. He is equally comfortable snaking down a mountain or a drain.
Recently, he was MVP — most valuable plumber — the day before he left for Argentina. He unclogged a sink disposal that was stuffed with coffee grinds and replaced 6 feet of brittle piping at the US Ski & Snowboard’s Center of Excellence in Park City, Utah.
“Always on a Friday,” said Cheever. “Always right before I leave town.”
His father, also a licensed plumber, taught him the trade, and also got him started in snowboarding by taking advantage of a local gas station promotion.
“My father used to drive a black Chevy Blazer Tahoe, and he would fill up at Exxon Mobil and for every eight gallons of gas there was a free snowboard lesson at Attitash,” said Cheever. “And so my parents would stop at eight gallons, pay for it, and then gas up again.”
It was 20 years ago, on Thanksgiving Day 1997 at Attitash, that he first stepped on a snowboard.
“Once I started sliding sideways on a snowboard, I never looked back,” he said.
Cheever would snowboard all day long, even after the lifts stopped running.
“I would hike until ski patrol kicked me off the hill,” he said.
He wasn’t interested in skiing.
“Everything that we do on a snowboard is more fun,” he said.
But there were dues to pay.
He face-planted at Waterville Valley, tearing up his lip and breaking his wrist (for the first of four times) and still played in a hockey game that night. He has had a broken humerus, two shoulder surgeries, numerous broken fingers, chipped teeth, and five foot surgeries.
Blazing his own trail
Since his US team debut in 2006, Cheever has had 17 World Cup top 10 finishes. He was briefly ranked No. 1 in the world in 2011, but he ruptured his Achilles’ tendon on March 1, 2012, and didn’t appear on a World Cup podium for more than five years.
But now, after posting the fastest time of the day at a recent US Snowboard camp at Copper Mountain in the Rockies, he is confident.
“Right now, I feel bigger, faster, stronger, and healthier than ever,’’ he said. “I don’t think the injuries are affecting my snowboarding anymore at all.’’
His path to the top of the mountain is unlikely. As a senior at Malden Catholic High School, he was student council president, but in his sophomore year, he started the snowboard and ski club.
That’s a lot different from his snowboard team peers, some of whom who attended the prestigious Stratton Mountain School in Vermont.
“They’d have five days of practice before I had two,” he said.
While attending UMass Lowell in 2004, he spent two nights a week at Northeast Metro Tech to get his plumber’s license.
Mark Cheever said his son is an excellent plumber who takes pride in his workmanship. But he moves very fast, sometimes too fast. Once he was stuck in traffic and took a shortcut through a parking garage.
“He didn’t realize the truck had racks on top, and he left the rack and half the cabin in the garage,” said his father.
Another time, his father dispatched him to the North End restaurant to replace a grease trap.
“He warned me that it’s going to be the worst smell of your life,” said Cheever, “but I was surprised because it smelled like prime rib or whatever the chef was cooking that day. But in order to clean it out, I needed to scoop it out.”
The chef handed him a ladle.
“As soon as I scooped off that first layer of fat prime rib, it was just like rotten fat flesh, and I threw up right away and then the chef almost lost it,’’ he said. “It was nasty. It was terrible. That was the worst day.”
Seeing the world
The difficult work allowed him to save enough money for a trip to New Zealand for a three-week snowboarding competition. He won every event and used the prize money to extend his trip to the length of his 90-day visa. He came home and wanted to move to Park City, home of the US Ski & Snowboard Association.
“I said, ‘Mom, what do you think about me moving out West?’ She said, ‘If you have a dream, chase it,’ ” he said.
He has since competed in 15 countries, including Russia, New Zealand, South Korea, Chile, and Austria. He lives in Park City, Vienna, and sometimes Saugus.
His father envies him.
“It’s kind of the life of a rock star, without the money,” said Mark Cheever. “He’s seeing the world’s exotic places, he has friends all over the world, and he does it on a dime instead of a dollar.
“The only pressure I put on him is that when you have four months off, come home and work. Make a couple bucks to get you through the season.”
That’s because snowboarding has not made Cheevers wealthy; he calls it an “expensive hobby.’’
He’s still $75,000 in debt because of the layoff caused by his Achilles’ injury and other snowboarding expenses.
“If money was my main motivator, I’d be doing something else,” he said.
He still takes courses twice a year to maintain his plumber’s license, and his tools are always in his truck. Still, he has no complaints.
“It’s better than having a sore back from lugging toilets up a five-story apartment in Charlestown,’’ he said.
He also won the heart of two-time Austrian Olympic snowboarder Maria Ramberger at a race in Chile in 2007. He proposed to her on one knee at the 2016 X Games in Aspen, Colo., by having “Marry me Maria” carved on the bottom of his snowboard.
Ramberger describes her husband as “a cool human to be around.”
“It is almost like someone decided to experiment by combining the most contradictory human characteristics,” she said in an email.
According to Ramberger, Cheever is crazy about Elvis, adrenaline sports, the Bruins, beer with his buddies, cars, leather jackets, gambling, and bulging biceps.
“He is fearless,” she said. “During course testing while the entire World Cup field is debating if a certain feature is too dangerous he’ll just shrug his shoulders, take off and go for it.”
Cheever would prefer not to be dealing with copper pipes this February. In fact he’s guaranteeing he’ll get a more precious metal: gold in South Korea.
“I’m very confident in that,’’ he said. “I think I’m the best in the world. I think I’m the fastest guy in the world every time I get in the gate.’’
If he does win, he’s going to give the gold medal to his mother.
“She let me pursue my dream,” he said.
Stan Grossfeld can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Matt Pepin of the Globe Staff contributed to this report