My Name is Terje Haakonsen. I’m from Norway, and I’ve been snowboarding since 1988…
What’s the story of you learning to snowboard?
Well, I started off riding powder. I got my neighbor’s board, and at that time the equipment was not properly made for a 13-year-old. The only way I could get it to work was in the powder. I couldn’t really figure it out on hardpack. So we hiked some local farm hills and it was insane – a Burton Elite 150, floating really well. I didn’t really know much, but there were a few guys from my town that were already riding the European and World Cups back then, so I wasn’t totally lost. I remember my local resort had a Super G competition before I started riding in the early season of ‘88, but later that year they had a mogul and halfpipe competition. I think I won both of them in the junior division.
Just riding one day with Craig was insane. I just wanted to copy him, his whole riding style and the way he did tricks.
So it came pretty easy?
I was always a fan of Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee movies, so I always liked to do acrobatic things. So maybe it came a little easy, but I just wanted to try new stuff all the time. Until then I was a pretty active alpine skier and my dad had spent a lot of money on skis and driving me around to competitions and stuff like that, so I think he was kind of pissed when I stopped skiing. I remember he came to one of those early snowboard competitions and was like, “Yeah, it’s pretty cool to come watch you lay around on the ground all the time!” (laughs)
After that it was a big learning process. I came from the country, so I didn’t even know what a sponsorship really was. The next year when I started doing the Norwegian Cups I started meeting more kids my age who actually knew the names of the tricks they were doing because they were from the city and more clued into skateboarding.
What about the legend of Craig Kelly discovering you?
I don’t know if I made a breakthrough, but Craig Kelly did the demos around the world at that time and he came out with his signature series and made the movie Board with the World, no, Smooth Groove it was called. So I got to ride with him and a guy from Norway called Einar Lofthus in October where we made a small quarterpipe on this glacier in Norway. I also think I got my first proper fitting boots then and I was riding the Micro Kelly. Just riding one day with Craig was insane. I just wanted to copy him, his whole riding style and the way he did tricks. Then, I think he mentioned to Burton that they should send me to one of the international camps they were having in Austria. I went there and that was the start… here’s the contract. I was pretty surprised because I hadn’t done any real competitions or anything to prove myself.
So the Burton thing happened right away then?
Yeah, the next year in the fall of ‘89.
The next five years were one of the turning points in the history of the sport. How do you look back on that time?
I don’t think anybody knew what was going to happen. I think in those years a lot of things happened with equipment and that helped. From there it was just a copy and paste of what had happened in the skateboarding and surfing worlds really. But obviously we had a different element. For me, I was done with school when I was fifteen and since I had that contract and an opportunity to be on the team and travel the world, I took that easily over going to college.
What did you learn those years?
It was cool because I was so young too and how involved I was. That was kind of like, free school. You’re hanging out with media guys taking pictures and filming and you would always pick stuff up from them. Then, Burton always included me in the roundtable meeting to learn about the process, both hardgoods and softgoods. So that was an education I didn’t even think about. I think I got a pretty good position (with Burton) early on because I did pretty well the first years. And when you do well you can have a bit more say in your schedule. It was always pretty easy with them. They were always supportive of what I wanted to do.
What was that vibe like in those early contests? I imagine it was a world apart from what we see these days.
I think it was just a way tighter gathering. All of the equipment was still developing and every contest was like a trade show where we all checked out the new gear. Also, there was no strict formats or any of that. We didn’t have a manual to follow. In the first years everyone did all the disciplines. Even Brushie did gates. That didn’t last too long though… for me either. I got into snowboarding to get away from the gates, not get back into them!
Was it along the road that you started to pick up your style?
For me, I would just learn stuff from other people. Especially like the American freestylers, because they had so much of the skateboarding history. So if I didn’t see Noah Salasnek do those tricks, or see Brushie or Craig or Palmer, then I don’t know. I would see someone do something, then I would just try and pick it up and try and do it a different way or add something to it. The progression of the tricks and what we rode was going in a good direction. From one month to another month there would be a lot of new tricks. It still happens now, but back then it was way more and with different twists on it. For me, I was lucky I got to ride with Brushie because he went really big and he had really good style. I got to ride with Craig. I would watch Palmer. Then Noah and Chris Roach had real skate influence so I was really like a… what do you call it? A Spongebob? I was just soaking up, taking everything in. I figured if I could be as technical as Craig and then go as big as Brushie and Palmer I could do pretty good.
The motivation was just to progress really. I never really had like one goal. It was never really super important to me to win certain contests or anything. Maybe you’d go to a World Cup and two of the top guys were missing, so it wouldn’t mean that much to win. Then you go to a contest in Sweden that was just put up by a store where there was more prize money and everyone was there… that was more fun to win than a shitty pipe with a World Cup name. A lot of the motivation was wanting to have good equipment to ride as well.
What is your motivation now, having been in snowboarding for 20-plus years?
Obviously, it’s just to have fun. When I am having fun and I feel healthy, I feel like I can progress. Not so much in what I ride or the craziest trick, but in how I ride, you know? My whole motivation, though I do like to have a little bit of progress in my riding, is to be healthy and have a lot of fun.
Was there a time when burnout did set in? Because there was a point where in your prime you didn’t really ride that much, right?
Well, I think those years when I didn’t ride that much it was some different factors. The traveling part definitely takes a toll. It was the frustration of how shitty the events were versus what we knew was possible. It was not even fun to go to contests because you didn’t know how the pipe was going to be, and they didn’t experiment enough with formats and certain things. And then, I had some wear and tear on my body. The equipment we had in the nineties… I used to have soccer shin guards behind my boot because I got inflammation in my calves. We didn’t have proper footbeds and stuff. So I was a little body sore, and maybe a little everything sore. I got a kid too. My first kid came kind of early. I also felt I didn’t need to have over a hundred days on the hill anymore. I think if I was on the hill 150 days… you can’t have Christmas everyday – that would be boring.
About this frustration you had with contests. You eventually took a stance against the federations and started to steer things in a more rider-focused direction, right? What were you trying to do there?
It was just really noticeable for us in the late ‘90s because when we made our own jumps or pipes, we knew how big we could actually go. Then we’d show up to a contest and the pipes would be smaller than a skateboard ramp! Then we looked like a bunch of little kids trying to learn something on TV, and it’s really bad for the sport. At times, I would just show up and say, “I’m not doing this.”
Nowadays riders just need to try and put themselves in a better place. It’s really easy for me to call contest riders sheep and stuff like that, but it’s also team managers, coaches and the core media. They are a big part of it too.
But everyone I speak to agrees, the other riders, I mean. They all agree things are bad, but nobody can get them to take control over their own sport. I think snowboarding is at such a high level and it’s so brutal right now with all the competitions. I think if they spaced them out and did maybe one big competition a month throughout the winter there would actually be time for the riders to learn new tricks. Maybe if the competitions had a different format too, like skateboarding and surfing have different parks and different waves. We have had one format for how long now? The golden run thing? I think that takes a lot of the fun and joy out of the sport.
About the Olympics then…
You see, action sports is commercial value. So the Olympics want action sports because it is way more commercial money for them. Everybody knows that. The thing is you have guys directing the sport who don’t actually do the sport – people who are just in it for the commercial interest. You don’t have the athletes involved who actually know about the sport that can make better progress in the sport, that can experiment with the sport, and make their snowboarding life a lot better. It’s all about sports politics and commercial interest. Also, at the top level, the thing is run by skiers.
I think some know this but a lot don’t, and that is, in the Olympics the skiers run the snowboarding events, right?
Yeah, the International Ski Federation (FIS). What happened was the Olympics looked at snowboarding and was like, “Oh this looks good on TV, we want in.” Snowboarding was one of the few sports that didn’t even have a tryout or trial. Normally sports need to file papers and get sanctioned and go through a big process to get into the Olympics. The thing is, the FIS have the same guys sitting on the same board as the IOC (the International Olympic Committee). They go to the same dinners and sleep in the same bed. So they’re like, “Yeah we’ll take that sport, there’s a lot of money there.” So the FIS has nordic ski, cross country skiing, alpine skiing and snowboarding? They also have the money to buy knowledge and buy people.
Here’s what happened back in the day. The ISF (International Snowboard Federation), something us riders were developing was blackmailed, you see. FIS told the big TV companies in Europe that if you show ISF snowboarding events you won’t get our big competitions like nordic or alpine skiing. So of course, the TV companies agreed because they didn’t want to lose the main events. That was the cut of a lot of TV exposure for ISF. So to try and run a big federation without TV exposure is just impossible. They just killed the ISF – done with that! Now with the TTR (Ticket To Ride), FIS is trying to do the same thing. In surfing there is one tour, one people, and no one is trying to steal anything.
Do you think the original premise of the Olympics as the deciding competition to see who is best in the world no longer stands true?
For me, I saw the whole process of Norway hosting it and how they sellout first hand. For the Olympics it’s more important that all the nations are involved.
Yeah, that’s more commercial value for them, but for us it’s more important that all the best guys are there. Just the one thing of having four people from one country (per sport) – why do they accept that? Like in Norway, we have more than four guys who have a chance to get a medal on a good day in slopestyle. Then four guys from Poland get to go who can’t even get top 50 in a normal event. So are you going to have the best guys there, or just an international gathering? It’s far from the best contest. I think everyone is proud of their countries in a certain way, but for me, I’m not there to see what country you’re from, I’m there to see the individual. I’m there to see sports skills. Like, these guys who are all, “I just want to do it for my country!” That’s just an excuse. These guys know the politics. They know the shit that’s going on. But what has their country done for their snowboarding? We are COMPANY riders. The companies are the ones who have supported and allowed us to snowboard the way we do. The only thing you do for your country is pay taxes! I once asked a young rider named Kim Rune Hansen why he wanted to come to the Arctic Challenge. He told me, “I don’t know? The money, the fame, to have a better career in snowboarding…” That I believe!
Here’s another thing. I remember looking at the Burton web page last Olympics and at all the riders, and Peetu Piiroinen wasn’t on there. So I called up and was like, “Does Peetu no longer ride for Burton?” I was told, “Oh yeah, we just have to take him off the website during the Olympics.” Because they kind of like, own him you know.
Who owns him?
The IOC! They will control everything. Like Twitter control and everything, and I don’t know what else, but they try and control everything so they can sell it. Burton and Nike built this kid and now the Olympics get to sell him. You will see riders off web pages from sponsors that have supported them from a young age. Now they aren’t allowed to promote them at the height of their exposure? I wonder how these companies feel having their riders hijacked once every four years for the financial gain of the Olympics. Then you have other commercial powers taking over and cashing in. The list is so long and it’s ridiculous. And everybody is scared, too. There was a guy, Chris Backman, who went to Vancouver during the Olympics to speak about snowboarding. He was told by a girl who worked at TTR to make sure not to say anything about TTR during a press conference or interview or something. But he did, “Yeah this rider, so and so in the TTR ranking…” He got fucking deported! I’m embarrassed about all that stuff… let’s just stick to freeriding. (laughs)
In simple terms what is the main problem with the Olympics?
It’s about selling sponsorships, not the sport. Athletes are getting fooled by the IOC, who are selling them before the Games even start. There are just so many things I don’t agree with.
What effect does that have on snowboarding?
So you have the good things that it’s getting shown around the world and people get a chance to see snowboarding, but the worst effect is that there are too many federations and big corporations involved. There are too many chefs in the kitchen and the soup is watered out. When I sit on the weekends and watch snowboarding on TV I want to see the good shit. I don’t want to see the same thing every time.
So ultimately what would you like to see improve?
You want to see snowboarding in a creative, fun way. Competition is competition, you either get that or you don’t. But when you just see it going backwards and not in the right direction it’s irritating. The creativity isn’t really developing. When riders come to the Arctic mid-season everyone is hurt because they are just training and competing non-stop. Also, I think I have been one of the many people that have helped develop the sport, so to see somebody that doesn’t even do the sport come over and take control because they have so much commercial or political power…
Is that really why you are upset? Because you have so much invested in snowboarding?
Probably. Because I see it going the wrong way and I see snowboarders not standing up for their values. Now if people don’t agree with me, I can sit down and we can go back and forth and I can put the facts on the table, because I’m not just waving my finger up in the air and talking a bunch of shit about it. These are just facts and anybody can see it.
You famously boycotted the ’98 Olympics in Nagano, Japan at a time when you were arguably the best pipe rider in the world. Was that because of these issues?
The first thing was like, okay, FIS is having the qualifications and if you want to go to the Olympics then you have to do FIS events. They were pretty new to snowboarding and set up this format that everybody did in order to get their points for the Olympics. Then, when that was done, everyone went back to the ISF competitions. So, because no good riders were showing up to the FIS events because they had already qualified, they changed the rule the next day and said, “Oh you need to do two more FIS events…” They are like dictators who change the rules if they make a mistake.
Personally, in your heart, why didn’t you do the Olympics?
There were a lot of factors, but the FIS was killing a federation that we were developing and standing for, the ISF, with their political power and commercial connections. It was like stealing candy away from a kid. That’s how easy it was for FIS. So it was super easy to decide not to be a part of that. My dad was disappointed I didn’t go, but that’s about it.
Has anything changed in the years since?
Every time the Olympics come up I get asked these same questions. Then I go, “Have things changed?” It’s almost like they have gotten worse.
Is it simply out of our control?
It’s just how it works. Seeing all the two-faces in the industry when the Olympics roll around. Now you see it this way all of a sudden? I mean, come on! Everyone has an agenda depending on who they work for or represent outside of the Olympics. No one has an agenda for SNOWBOARDING. I just really hope that the top guys get together and take control of the sport. I tell the guys when they come up to the Arctic Challenge, “If you guys don’t like the course, fucking strike!” Or if it’s dangerous, don’t do it. People actually get killed in our sport. So if these riders can’t stick together and direct their own sport and want to have shorter careers… God Bless ‘em.
I think Shaun White could have done a lot for snowboarding if he wanted to or if he had an interest to. But it seems that he doesn’t care anything about that really. He’s just kind of running his own business.
So who is going to take your place in voicing these problems? Who is going to help snowboarding now as far as this problem is concerned?
Well, I don’t know. It’s always easiest if whoever is number one steps up because people will listen to that person. I think Shaun White could have done a lot for snowboarding if he wanted to or if he had an interest to. But it seems that he doesn’t care anything about that really. He’s just kind of running his own business. He wouldn’t even need to come up with the shit himself, he could just say it and take all the credit for it and that probably would have made a good dent and got it going in the right direction, you know.
Is there anything even to say then about slopestyle’s inclusion at these Olympics?
That’s just more money for the IOC. There’s nothing more to it. Sell some Coca-Cola and McDonalds.
Moving on, talk about the contests that you do like to do and why.
Well with slopestyle and halfpipe, while I could do them, I probably wouldn’t do very well! It takes a lot of your body. On the quarterpipe, I can do those. I’ve always been able to do the Banked Slaloms – that’s just you against a watch. I probably would do boardercross if there were good courses. They kind of killed themselves because they weren’t making the courses any more interesting. But stuff like Travis’ freeriding event is something you can’t take the chairlift 20 times to get comfortable with, so that’s great. I think the Freeride World Tour is interesting. You are always going to have the top daredevil guys who are pretty hardcore and do insane shit, but I think we are seeing some more of the fun contests back with smaller obstacles that allow for creative riding mixed in. Not stuff you can actually train for, you know… that’s pure shredding.
I think it says a lot for the contest scene when the true ambassadors of the sport are supporting the grassroots events more than the mega ones.
Yeah, but at the same time you want to see the elite contests be amazing. You want to see variation so it’s not just a jock sport for those who can afford trampolines and foam pits. For guys to compete at the top level now they need to do a triple cork, and anyone will tell you that without a foam pit to practice on that is just too risky a trick to try all the time. This narrows the whole competition. It’s more like whoever has the money are the ones who will be the best.
And why does that pipe look the same for the past 20 years? It’s a nicer shape and it’s higher, but why aren’t there hips into it or channel gaps. Stuff so you don’t know who’s going to win!
Pipe riders are like, “Hey, if I stick this one run I might get second. If I add this trick, I might get first.” You almost know the results before you enter the contest because you know the format and you know what scores good, so stick with what you know. Instead of showing up and just jamming it… freestyle it. I think that’s snowboarding. Because you talk to a lot of the guys who do competition and they’re like, “This is just a cork contest!” The main guys need to take more control and give direction to their sport… with help from their team managers, coaches and snowboard media.
When I get on the board I forget about all of the other things. You ride and you have fun. I don’t think that ever changed. I think you get a little more picky. Like if you’re riding ice you probably go home earlier, but that’s a part of the experience too. You just get better at doing what you are doing so you have a better experience altogether.
We all want to do this for as long as we can, yet there is this taboo about age in snowboarding. What do you do to keep form and keep riding at a high level as you have gotten older?
Well, like a lot of other guys out there, I don’t drink those energy drinks. I don’t think they’re going to do anything for you. But I don’t know, I guess I had really good role models. I mean Craig Kelly was a really good role model. He was the guy who would always stretch. He would never tell you what to do, but Guch and I always looked at what he was doing. He always ate good. He was the first guy who brought me into a health food store. From what I have learned in my experience, is not doing (crazy) stuff too much and eating right. The stretching and the yoga has been a huge part of it too. Luckily, we are doing a sport where you don’t need to be super strong. There is a lot of technique and it’s not like you have to lift a ton of weights or spend hours in a gym. Snowboarders are tall and skinny, small and compact, we have all sizes in our sport and I think that’s really cool.
The last few years I got way more into snowskating and riding without bindings as well. That opened up so much new terrain. Instead of having to go to the gnarliest, sickest spot to have the kind of fun you are used to, if you take the bindings off and ride a snowskate you can have fun riding small banks again. If you fly five meters you get a stoke again because it’s technical and you don’t want to fall! Where I live in Norway, it’s not the biggest mountain in the world so it’s perfect for standing sideways without bindings – snowskating or pow surfing.
I remember thinking about going to the pipe and saying, “I want to have the most fun.” I think if you can have the most fun, that is a big faktor.
Through this entire journey of snowboarding, who do you want to thank?
There’s a bunch of people. I’ve had a couple different sparring partners! My sponsors: Burton, Oakley and Volcom. And then there’s certain people – Jake Burton, Richard Wolcott, Ari Marcopoulos, Craig Kelly, Dave Seoane, Adam Weaver. Riders I’ve been hanging out with like Guch and Jamie. Certain guys from Norway like Einar Lofthus and Harald Rishovd. I just tried to pick up the better things from everybody.
What ultimately do you hope your legacy is?
It’s kind of hard for me to answer that one. I really hope that the competition dudes take over their own thing. If I can help be an influence there, that would be kind of cool. But other than that, going back to an earlier question about my motivation. I remember thinking about going to the pipe and saying, “I want to have the most fun.” I think if you can have the most fun, that is a big faktor.