In anticipation of the first major snowboard contest of the New Year, the O’Neill Evolution in Davos, here’s our interview with last year’s winner Spencer O’Brien from the mag last spring (who has also won the World Snowboarding Championships by the way…)
Interview by Sam Haddad, photography by Ryan Hughes
When did you first get into snowboarding?
I grew up on Vancouver Island, which has two mountains and my family all had season passes. I started skiing when I was two and then when I was 11 my dad gave us the choice of either starting to ski race or starting to snowboard. My older sister chose snowboarding, so I did too. I wanted to be like her.
I liked competing right away but was really bad, I got last at everything…
Did your dad want you to compete right off the bat?
No it was more like we’ll give you the kit for whatever you enjoy. He always wanted boys but he got three girls so we were all pretty athletic growing up. He actually taught us all how to snowboard while he skied and then he taught himself how to snowboard. I don’t know if it was his idea or Megan my older sister’s but she started competing around the time I started snowboarding, I just started going with them to events on the weekends and kind of started competing right away.
What disciplines did you do?
We did giant slalom, boarder x and pipe and later when slopestyle came in we did that as well. My dad thought it would be a waste if we didn’t do everything.
How do those events back then compare to events now?
They were a lot more basic. It was crazy because they were such AM events and there wasn’t much money. Whatever mountain you were at they’d just pick a couple of jumps in the park and that was it. It was still like 12ft pipes then, it was pretty funny.
Did you like competing right away?
Yeah but I was really bad I got last at everything. The first time I ever rode the half pipe the next day I competed in one, but I really didn’t care I was so so little and I just wanted to be like my sister. All my life I’ve been into competitive sports, at school I did everything and out of school I played league volleyball and softball. I had to quit for snowboarding but I still play softball actually, in a beer league.
Was your elder sister sponsored?
Yeah Megan was sponsored by Rossignol. She moved to Whistler when she finished high school to try and pursue snowboarding but she just got a bad taste in her mouth so quit for a few years. Then she ended up coming back and getting sponsored by Forum.
Did you copy her style on a snowboard?
Yeah totally she’s got super good style and I always wanted to look like her and be able to do the tricks that she could do. She was so much older than me and was like friends with everyone on the mountain. I was like the dorky little sister so I didn’t get to hang out with her really. She was always pretty good to me but it wasn’t like she was going to take me riding with her friends you know, I was like 12, but I rode with my dad a lot and she rode with us from time to time and that was always really good fun. I still ride with my dad all the time.
And your mum?
Yeah she still snowboards but only a couple of times a year.
Do you ever get bored of contests because you started doing them so early?
I think I’ve just got that bit of competitive streak in me that keeps me interested.
And I guess it helped that slopestyle became so big?
Yeah that’s the cool thing about slopestyle. It’s always evolving and it’s always a different course and you have a lot of freedom and creativity so that’s really kept me interested for sure. I used to compete in pipe but once I started doing slopestyle I just loved it much more than riding pipe.
What’s your dream slopestyle course?
I’m always a big fan of four jumps, you don’t see that that often anymore which is a shame, I think it’s really cool to be able to show someone spinning in every direction. Last year most of the courses were three, though some were two, which is definitely not enough. I think it’s really sick when you see a girl being able to throw down a run and spinning every way.
Did you spend a lot of time visualising moves?
Yeah I’ve been doing a lot of trampolining lately, so that’s been really good for visualising how you’ll feel in the air and watching a lot of snowboard movies too which is unusual for me, as for the last five years I haven’t watched that many.
Which have you enjoyed the most?
Forum’s Vacation, The Art of Flight and I really want to see the Lipstick movie 5 more minutes…please?!, I haven’t see that yet.
Did you think The Art of Flight was worth the hype?
Oh yeah I did. I think maybe some people were a bit disappointed because it was aimed at the mainstream but when you really break it down and look at the riding it was really out of this world. I actually wish they would just realise an edit of all of the riding footage.
And Cheryl [Maas], I’ve been really stoked on her stuff, her webisodes are some of the best I’ve ever seen. John Roderick [the filmer] did a really good job. And I’m excited to see Jess Kimura’s part for Defenders of Awesome, she’s been riding really good the last few years.
Have you done much filming?
I’ve concentrated on contests for the last four years, and with that schedule it’s hard to actually do any filming, but I miss it for sure. I filmed for Misschief back in the day one of my first year’s going pro and that was a really good experience with all the girls. I really wish Misschief would make a comeback.
Did you see Nike’s surf film Leave A Message?
Yeah I did, I hope a snowboard film like that will be a possibility down the road maybe after the Olympics. I would love to just film and not do any contests as that’s a part of snowboarding I really love. But early on I learnt that it’s really hard to juggle both, it’s such a bummer to do both half arsed and come up short on both ends.
I would love to just film and not do any contests as that’s a part of snowboarding I really love.
Are you stoked on slopestyle being in the Winter Olympics?
It’s a good thing, though there are pros and cons… From an athlete perspective I’m obviously really excited about it. From a snowboarding perspective I think it definitely has its cons but it’s good in that it’s opening up a lot of dialogue within the industry.
I think the biggest thing is that we need one world tour, the biggest step we can make to earning it back that qualification system is to have everything under that same umbrella and then it’s going to be easier for the IOC to say you run your sport and you can handle the Olympics qualification. At the moment the TTR can obviously handle a slopestyle and pipe event better than FIS but the IOC don’t see it that way. From a personal perspective it’s cool and it would be great to be a part of this thing that is so old and been around for so long, it would be a cool experience.
What do you think the Sochi games will be like?
It’s crazy. The Vancouver Games cost 6 billion US dollars and Russia has apparently already spent 18. It’s a shame that the IOC don’t take a bit more responsibility on trying to make each games as green as possible when so many of these sports are reliant on snowfall and the environment. I think Vancouver did a pretty good job of having a low environmental impact, they didn’t build new cities or anything, we definitely had a lot of upgrades but they used a lot of pre-existing structures and venues that we already had so that was cool.
Are you quite into eco issues?
Yeah I worked with a couple of organisations with kids in schools like ACE (Alliance for Climate Education). But from my perspective it’s hard to be a big advocate when I live the lifestyle that I live, I have a huge carbon footprint and while I do everything I can, I recycle, I do as much as I can to offset but its hard for me to preach to people.
Is it true you’re into baking?
The last four or five years I’ve gotten really into baking, it’s kinda like what I do when I come home.
What are your star dishes?
Leanne Pelosi is obsessed with my tiramisu, haha.
Who are your favourite people to ride with?
My dad, my boyfriend, my sister all time, and for right now, I’m stoked on riding with Aimee Fuller. She’s so cool and has such a good energy. She’s so stoked on snowboarding it’s been really refreshing to ride with her. We rode in NZ together and with a couple of Kiwi girls, Possum Tor and Stefi Luxton. They’re all super hungry and it’s super refreshing to see people so passionate and excited about snowboarding.
What sort of potential does Aimee have?
She’s got a lot. I think Aimee is going to be insane, one of the best, just from where’s come from in NZ this summer to when I last rode with her at Hintertux, I was like, “Well shit Aimee!”
Where are your favourite places to ride?
Whistler. When I’m home I ride there a lot, it’s the best overall place just to freeride and ride powder, as it has such good terrain. I also love to ride Mount Seymour. It was one of the first resorts that let in snowboarding on the west coast, they used to have the Vans Triple Crown, there it’s super ghetto and the chairs are like a hundred years old but it just has such a good vibe and everyone up there is so stoked. And they have an amazing rail park. Then there’s Breckenridge and Keystone for park, and Japan for powder, there is so much powder there you just drive around and hike off a highway, it’s really cool.
Jenny Jones once told us that she’s been getting more nervous in contests as she’s gotten older, are you the same?
No I’d say I’ve been pretty consistent with my nervousness. It depends where I am mentally, if I’m really riding really well I’m better. I think you learn to deal with it but I think it’s impossible to never be nervous. I still get butterflies in my stomach before a first run but that’s kind of what makes it fun.
I still get butterflies in my stomach before a first run but that’s kind of what makes it fun.
Spencer is sponsored by Nike