Joe Mensch can see it. He can taste it. He can all but feel it. The 21-year-old from Mastic Beach is three competitions away from securing a spot on the Olympic snowboarding team.
But he faces an uphill climb in the up-and-down sport of half-pipe.
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The former Floyd High School football player currently sits in 14th place - 540 points from automatic qualifying position, entering the U.S. Grand Prix. The event opens Friday in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., site of the final three events.
"He's probably going to need at least two top-three finishes this weekend to qualify," said Mensch's coach, Elijah Teter. "There are a lot of strong riders."
Despite the odds, Mensch can still see himself donning the red, white and blue in Sochi, Russia, next month.
"I do that sometimes during my visualization, actually putting myself in that situation," he said. "I think that makes me hungrier for it. You know you're not there, but you know you can get there. It just makes me want to work harder and do everything I can to put myself in the right spot to get there."
A half-pipe is an open-angled tube made of snow. Snowboarders drop down it and shoot back up. Half-pipes are approximately 580 feet long and 22 feet high, Mensch said.
"On the average half-pipe, you get five to six hits [tricks]," Mensch said. "You design a run that fits you best and what you're most capable of doing."
Snowboarders are given numerical scores based on their final place in the event, with first being 1,000 points. Based on his place in the first two qualifiers, Mensch was awarded 160 and 200 points, respectively. The current leader, Greg Bretz was awarded a 1,000 and an 800.
"The first two were a bit difficult," said Mensch, the son of Floyd High School athletic director Mark Mensch. "The second one, I was able to put down a run. I'm definitely feeling some pressure, being an Olympic year. That got to me, but I've kind of loosened up and realized that this is what I do and I have to remember to enjoy it and have fun."
Slow starts are not uncommon for riders, Teter said.
"It takes a little bit to shake off the cobwebs," he said. "The first two contests are usually people's weakest because it's early in the season. Joe is finally riding back to where he was at the end of the year last season."
Mensch, who said he started skiing at age two, took up snowboarding four years later.
Mensch ented his first competition, a USASA regional event at Okemo Mountain in Vermont, when he was 11 and began spending his winters at Mount Snow Academy in Vermont. He played football for Floyd for his first three high school years before deciding to spend his entire senior year focusing on snowboarding at the Stratton Mountain School in Vermont.
As a senior in high school, Mensch was ranked in the top 30 nationally, granting him a qualifier invite for the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver, but he fell short of a selection.
After the initial qualifying experience, Mensch decided to explore the mental aspect of competition through visits to Dr. Paul Weinhold, an East Hampton sports psychologist.
"It's helped me understand how I can control my brain, my mind, and my thoughts to relax, visualize and not panic,' Mensch said. "I started going to some bigger contests after the last Olympic Games and, as I would come up to the start gate, my heart rate was going, I was so nervous that I wasn't really concentrating. [My psychologist] was able to calm me down and focus on what I needed to do. I knew what I was doing. It helped me relax. I began to see a much better outcome when I learned to control my mind."
And, with a life-long dream staring him in the face, Mensch has no reason to hold back. He said he intends to mix some new and old tricks into his repertoire this weekend, including a front-side 1260, a move that requires three and a half rotations.
"He's got to go big on all his tricks," Teter said. "A lot of these guys do the same tricks, so whoever does it bigger is going to take it home."
Mensch doesn't intend to do anything less.
"I'm hoping that the weather is going to be good," he said, "and I can pull everything out of my bag and leave it all on the line."