Pulling into my hotel in Wasau, Wisconsin, it was just around 11 pm and hovering at about 18 degrees. I was meeting up with Sam Klein and Emily O’Connor for a few weeks while they were filming for their new project, Wild Game. Little did I know I would be greeted by a sleeveless Sam in the parking lot, in the earlier mentioned 18-DEGREE WEATHER. Instead of heading into the hotel, he walked me over to the other end of the lot for a warm Midwest welcome, complete with fresh cooked elk and a spotted cow (a must-try beer in WI) served right out of their van. “It makes us look more pro in the streets,” said Klein, the door to their converted home wide open in the cold as their cast iron smoked out the living quarters for a bit. Even in a slight haze, the accommodations were still a lot homier than the Days Inn I eventually retired to.
Coming off a celebrated part in full-length video Quicksand that premiered last fall, Sam and company are in a pretty interesting place in snowboarding. They have found a perfect balance between filming and running events for their sponsors all over the US, racking up their reputation and respect in both areas year after year. I followed along this winter to see how the whole operation works and then caught up with Sam a few weeks ago, while he was camping somewhere in Oregon, to chat about the season. Sam is about as hard working as they come, but very calm and relaxed with his words. We covered his views on the modern-day pro, filming in the streets, and the importance of routine on the road. Enjoy. – Mark Clavin
Alright, super easy one to start. Where are you from?
I’m from Wauwatosa, Wisconsin.
I think everybody knows that already, too—you rep it pretty hard. Why do you wear that on your chest?
Probably 100% because I’m a Wisconsin Badger. And so is my dad, so is my grandma, and so are both of my siblings. I truly just love the entire Wisconsin mindset, but a lot of that probably is because of going to college football games as a kid. It was super fun to go to Saturday games where you get that whole, “hoorah, Wisconsin” thing. It still gets me fired up. It’s kind of built into me now.
Is there any Minnesota versus Wisconsin snowboard beef, even though both are supposedly Midwest nice?
A lot of people will go to Minnesota to film. Not a lot of people go to Wisconsin to film, so I guess it’s more untapped. There’s not really beef. If you want to come ride here, you should. You probably won’t get kicked out as much. I think Wisconsin’s way nicer.
Haha, is that basically saying “f*** Minnesota” in Wisconsin nice?
Yes, 100%. I’m too nice to say it, but there you go, haha. I want to settle down in Wisconsin. Minnesota is literally one of the best places on Earth to snowboard, but it also has a lot more competition, where when I go right across the river, it’s completely unpressured snowboarding. You’re a novelty, not a nuisance in Wisconsin. Everyone’s coming outside to check you out because it’s exciting. When you go to Minnesota or Salt Lake, they’ve dealt with so many snowboarders so they’re more like “Damn, more kids breaking our property again.”
But you have had a few run-ins with the cops, yeah?
Haha, yeah. They pulled up to us this winter and just recorded us on their phones for a bit and laughed. Had a few not as lucky dust-ups, though. We were leaving a wedding in wine country Wisconsin, driving through this little historical town and we pulled over at a rest stop to pee. There were only two bathrooms though, so all the guys went and started peeing on the side of this building. It was the Fourth of July and I had a torn ACL, pretty fresh off of surgery. So, the cops rolled by and shined their light on me and my uncles for peeing on the side of the building and got out to talk to us. I was pretty obliterated, and I ran because I thought I had a pocket full of weed. I like juked out this cop ran around the corner to go empty my pockets, and then realized I had given all my weed to a friend. Ha. Nothing’s in there! So I turn around the corner and give myself up, but these cops were reliving high school football and just tackled me. All of my aunts, uncles, my grandma, and the entire wedding party are watching this happen and I’m in like a tux getting my torn ACL yanked. I was freaking out because I thought they just retore my knee. Luckily, my dad ran over and calmed the situation down. I ended up having to do some community service as a janitor at a school, but the judge was pretty chill about the whole ordeal.
And now you have a full weed sponsor?
And now I have a full-fledged weed sponsor. Talk about living the dream, dude! I always thought I really wanted an energy drink sponsor. No, no. You want a weed sponsor—one that pays you cash every single month.
When did you start snowboarding?
I did the whole family vacation thing when I was young, and we would go ride for the weekends, but I started going every day when I turned 16. I got a car, quit wrestling because it took up so much time, and started treating going to the hill like wrestling practice.
Some talk about finesse, though I would say your approach to snowboarding is pretty intense.
Ha. Yeah, I love it. I would say…I can take a beating. Streets or mountains, I’m on the side of trying to manhandle stuff. My approach to snowboarding is not go medium. I’m not about that. I’m all about the fact that putting a snowboard on—this little weird piece of wood—and honing this craft has unlocked being able to do some things that make you feel like a superhero. That feeling is like the ultimate. Being able to do things that no one else even wants to do or thinks they can do, that’s what I live for. If you can do that gracefully, there’s just some type of essence in that—that’s where the whole style comes in. I think there are people that walk through life gracefully and do really, really hard things all with the ease of the feel-good turn. I want to do things that I can’t do forever and that are gnarly. It’s what gets me going on the inside.
Who was your first sponsor?
Les Moise, this boardshop in Wisconsin. I think they put me on after I won the Big Nut Open in 2013. It was like the Midwest open and the year I won, the prize was a spot at Superpark. That is where it all kind of started happening. I dropped out of college for a bit and was on some flow programs, but I kept breaking boards until Never Summer picked me up. They have basically been my rock in the snowboard world. They’re the first brand that believed in me and were willing to invest in me in long-term. I think of myself as a really loyal person, so I have invested in them long-term. That crew means so much to me.
When did you go pro with NS?
It just kind of came naturally. Never Summer’s been calling me a pro since I was their signature rider at all the kids’ camps for the past few years, but as you know, I didn’t consider myself pro until basically last year. I don’t have to work for my dad anymore and I make enough to live my dream. I had been telling myself in my brain that I was going to be a pro snowboarder ever since being a dig-to-ride kid up at Hood. I only ever wanted to be considered so I could snowboard as much as possible—which is exactly what it has become. My career hasn’t paid me to, you know, start some savings account or something, but it has paid me enough that I get to snowboard every single day, all year-round, no matter what.
What do you see as the role of a pro snowboarder currently?
A professional snowboarder’s job is to sell snowboards. And on top of that, you get to inspire people to take risks and to go outside, be active and use their body. I’m in this lucky position where I am a marketing tool. I spend my entire life outside, and I am incredibly grateful to be playing on this toy and selling this incredible tool to all these people. I really think it’s our job to show everyone that wants to seek a little bit of adrenaline, what is possible.
Do you think the role has changed over time?
Yes. I think that it has gone a lot more toward self-promotion to survive. And there’s a lot more longevity in what these sponsors are doing now when people brand themselves. Back in the day, it seemed like you got paid to be the coolest, gnarliest dude. Blow out your body, but you got paid—you were in and out the door, besides some of the legends. Now there is a route away from the “party rockstar” culture of Evel Knievel, where athletes can come into the game and brand themselves for a longer term. We get paid less, but it can probably last longer, so I think that’s changed. I think riders also went from superheroes, where you didn’t see much of their lives, to now being much more relatable. You see all the ups and downs of all the pro riders and people weigh in on stuff a lot more. But that builds your brand up. Before it seemed like you dropped a video part every other year and you were this crazy superhero that no one could relate to. I really liked that, the mysterious, get-after-it pro, but it doesn’t seem like that works anymore.
You have to be always on and always available. It’s a full-time job to make a living no matter the level. I’m definitely not in what I call the Olympians—like the legends. It’s either Olympians or like the me’s. Those are really the levels of pro snowboarding right now. Unless you really know your value, you’re going to get used in this world or you’re not going to make a lot of money, so you have to play the game to do that. It’s my dream job, but I know it’s not a dream, so I put in more work than is ever needed to maintain having this dream job. Being able to ride is the most important thing and it is where all my motivation comes from, so I am willing to put in the work anywhere and everywhere to continue to do it. I don’t care if it takes me four days to do what my peers could potentially do in one day, I will work until I get it done. It’s the vision in my head, so I’m happy.
Did you ever end up finishing college?
Yeah, I switched my major from business to com arts and it got really easy—but my parents didn’t know it got easy. I did some online while I was filming or would film in the streets around Wisconsin when I had to be there. I was getting good grades, so my parents didn’t care that I was also living in the woods and chasing this dream.
Would you say going to college helped you in snowboarding in any way?
Ha, I don’t know. Probably my minor in public speaking helped working at the SIA booth and talking business, and now actually beneficial because we host events for 250-plus young people on the Cheddar Tour.
Oh yeah, before we get into your most recent project, explain what the Cheddar Tour is.
It’s a rail jam series where we show up at contests in our Never Summer van and shower the kids in prizes. It’s a true contest where there’s a winner, but it’s also an all-ages, all-abilities deal where we are just trying to have fun. It’s not like trying to go and do a Rev Tour or something, it’s really grassroots. But it’s it has been blowing up a bit; it started in the Midwest, and now it’s a national tour going into our fourth year.
How did it all start?
Three years ago, COVID happened, and events were canceled all over, but a little less so in the Midwest. The Midwest is always a little looser, so we knew all these kids weren’t going to school and all their basketball teams and indoor winter sports were canceled. They had nothing to do and so I hit up NS, kind of knowing what a demo tour costs, and pitched it. And that’s where my van came from, as well. I needed a really professional-looking vehicle for all the stops—and a safe one since the one I had kept breaking down—so now we live in the van and look professional in the streets wherever we are filming.
Who’s all in the van?
My girlfriend Emily and me. We work, film, and ride together. We were long distance, and now we live in a van, ha. She had been working at Trollhaugen, cutting her teeth at park shaping while getting a couple clips in the streets here and there. She wanted to film a full part, so we worked out a plan and we got to film a full project together this year. I deal with marketing people for the tour, Emily does all the media side, and then she films me and I film her for the project. We made a full-length video with Iris Pham, Gibby, and Connor Carroll. They all killed it!
What’s it like getting to work on a project with your partner?
This was my favorite year of street snowboarding yet.
How about Emily?
[Sam asks Emily.] She said “yes,” ha. Yeah, it was really fun. Back when I was first coming back from my ACL and getting a little bit of publicity, I was a very selfish. I wanted to have the best trick at every spot. It took some growing up, but I learned how important the whole team is. I have ruined some relationships in the streets where you want to fight your homies in an alleyway in Flint because no one got a clip yet…
Good thing that didn’t happen.
Yeah, working with Em and Iris is amazing. To see how much they have progressed and how hard they shovel—that’s one of the most important things about street snowboarding. They shovel really hard and when it’s their turn, everybody shovels for them. They both step up to the plate and I know that both of their careers are going to blossom because they’re so good to work with.
What’s the percentage of footage filmed in Wisconsin?
90% in Wisconsin, just with how the year turned out. We went a bunch of times to Michigan, but it just kept raining. So it’s 90% Wisconsin, and then we filmed around the Cheddar Tour stops, so we got a few clips from all over.
Any big learnings from this year?
Haha, maybe hit stuff that looks hard instead of just hitting hard stuff that ends up looking mellow.
Want to tell the people what happened when we were all together in Milwaukee?
Haha, no. I picked up a hat that was halfway down the staircase while we were cleaning up a spot to hit, not thinking. It was a mad bomb fleece hat, pretty sick. But it was covered in some human shit. Somebody took a shit, wiped it with the hat, and left it on top of the stairs. The worst part was that I didn’t even realize before it was too late. I went back shoveling, and then like touched my face because we were sweating. I started to smell shit and asked everybody in the crew to check their boots thinking someone stepped in dog shit, meanwhile I had shit on my hands and had adjusted my hat and touched my nose. I had human shit on my hand, shovel, nose, and brim of my hat. I gave myself a face wash, and everybody wanted me to go home and disinfect, but I couldn’t stop shoveling, so I got a new shovel and we fixed the spot.
And you wanted to keep the gloves.
I loved those gloves. They were real leather. They are actually still outside, under my parents’ deck. Best part of the story: by the time we showed up the next day the spot was all rained/melted out.
It was disgusting. But enough shit talk. How about some benefits of van life?
You get to go and check in on old friends because you get to sleep in their driveway and never really impose. It’s really easy to rekindle relationships that way, ha, and we are always willing to go visit people. In the off season, inspired by my years of summers up on Mount Hood, I have fallen in love with being in nature and hunting. Living in a van provides me the ability to go to any state I want, live high up in the backcountry, and hunt like I live there, like the animals do. It has led to a ton of success hunting. We are also completely fitted out with a shower and a kitchen. It’s like a mobile hotel on wheels and it’s big enough to stand up in. We aren’t too cramped, and I have a really nice freezer full of wild game. We don’t eat gas station food.
What was the weight of the elk that is filling your freezer?
It was a 700-pound elk, but I brought back 340 pounds of meat. It was a massive elk. Kind of as big as it gets.
So you survived on that basically all winter?
Yes, I shot an elk and two deer with my bow, and we survived off that meat the entire year. I am in phenomenal shape and I constantly tell myself that I’m built by elk and that it is a superpower. When I’m waking up and don’t want to go shovel, I feel like, All right, you ate elk last night, you’re going to feel fine really soon. And it works.
Does Emily feel the same way of the superpowers of elk?
Yes, she’s ripped right now, ha.
How important is routine to you when it comes to snowboarding, even though you’re on the road and everything’s pretty wild?
Routine and discipline are the reasons that I make incremental steps every year. It is the reason that I get better. Without it, I would not get better. It is that important to me. My routine is why I feel confident rolling up to the spot. I put in as much work as I can to bulletproof my body. My biggest fear is that I’m bringing a filmer out there and I might waste their time. It’s never the fear that I’m going to get hurt, because I’m disciplined and know I can’t do really anything more. I leave no expense spared. I hunt wild game and I make sure that I never take a day off of my routine. We have been saunaing and cold dipping, living at high elevation, getting in elite shape. I even say affirmations.
The sauna is a nice touch.
Yeah, but the one we were traveling with ripped off on the highway a few weeks ago…going back to crazy stories. There is always something when you live in a van.