The number of superlatives I could throw at Terje Haakonsen are limitless. The 48 year old Norwegian has always been considered the world’s number one snowboarder. Others call him one of the most influential snowboarders in the history of the sport, recognising his impact in addition to his medals. He dominated freestyle snowboarding throughout the 1990s, inspiring a generation of new riders, just like myself. He won the World Championships in the half pipe three times, the European Cup five times and the US Open three times. He still holds the record for highest air, rising a staggering 9.8 metres above a 10 metre quarterpipe. I could go on, but I won’t because he’s calling me from a beach in Hawaii.
In our pre-interview messages, I’d referred to these mountain resorts that we all know and love as ‘ski resorts’, which triggered a typical Terje response. “I don’t ski much these days,” he told me and we picked this subject up to launch our conversation. “Ski resorts, I guess it’s an old tradition, we all got used to saying it. But at the same time, when everyone is trying to be so correct all of the time, why can’t they be correct on this? For those people who don’t have a ski background – they always snowboarded, or did one of the other many mountain activities – it’s like saying they’re not included. I just think it’s funny. I normally call them shred resorts to make them inclusive. The other funny thing is that border-cross started way before skier-cross came along, but when you go to resorts they’ll have signs for their ‘ski-cross’. People who work in the industry are dominated by ski influences. It’s also funny that the professional, hardcore snowboarders go heli-sking. Though I did see that Justin Timberlake went heli-riding, and he called it heli-boarding, so good on him.”
The thing about Terje is that he’s quite outspoken, and we’ll get to his most outspoken moments later in this interview. He doesn’t shy away from any question, whether it’s controversial or not.
“I’m known to dis skiing a fair bit, but my good friends know that I’m actually a skier turned snowboarder. I’ll say that snowboarding is better in powder, but skiing is better on ice. I can do both, I think it’s funny to see any conflict between skiers and snowboarders, but there’s not so much of it around anymore. Judging people according to what they’ve got on their feet, or what clothing they’re wearing. Personality is way more important.”
“Judging people according to what they’ve got on their feet, or what clothing they’re wearing. Personality is way more important.”
Opinion pieces on the influence of Terje Haakonsen are abundant on the internet. Is he so influential because of his level of skill? Or because of his approach to being at the top of his game? If he’s had the greatest impact on the sport, bar none, how does that sit with him?
“I don’t think so much about those titles and I don’t feel like I’m alone in this situation. There’s a lot of other people who’ve had a big impact on snowboarding but it’s fun to be recognised for stuff you’ve done and are doing. But honestly, it’s not in my head. I want my constitution to be with snowboarding, that I helped the sport progress and I think I did my fair share in competitions to inspire those who came after.”
The 1990s for Terje were spent competing in and winning every major title in global snowboarding and although he never official retired as a professional athlete, towards the end of the decade he began to feel there was too much emphasis on competition and too little on the freeride aspect of snowboarding. In 2000, The Arctic Challenge was born with Terje and his co-founder Daniel Franck promising a snowboarding contest for riders, by riders. It was designed to be the antithesis of formal competitions and became the highlight of the Ticket To Ride world tour. I’m keen to know what else has changed in the world of snowboarding for Terje.
“As I see it, snowboarding has different types and elements. You’ve got big mountain snowboarding, urban styles, racing, freestyle, competitions, there are a lot of different scenes within snowboarding. The biggest changes I’ve seen relate to the equipment – what we ride. Technology has given us access to more mountain and makes the previously unachievable achievable. Riders having agents and coaches and a whole team around them these days, yeah that’s changed too. But when you get down to the fundamentals of snowboarding, if you’re having a good time riding with your friends, I don’t think that’s changed.”
“When you get down to the fundamentals of snowboarding, if you’re having a good time riding with your friends, I don’t think that’s changed.”
OK, let’s get to the more controversial stuff. Snowboard halfpipe was introduced as an Olympic event for the 1998 games in Nagano, Japan. At the time Terje was the best half pipe snowboarder the world had ever seen. But rather than entrust the International Snowboard Foundation (ISF) to organise qualification for the games, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) selected the International Ski Federation (FIS). Terje considered this to be a theft of the sport and boycotted the games entirely.
“Listen, I may be bald, but I’m not ‘thin haired’ if you know what I mean. I’m not afraid to discuss anything. I decided not to compete at the Olympics because of the corruption of the IOC, they sanctioned a ski federation rather than a snowboard federation to manage the competition, so I didn’t go. The principle of bringing countries together for sport is a really good idea I think, but the system, it’s for dictators. There’s all these human rights violations too, crimes against nature, it’s all branded and overpriced and that’s why there’s 29 books written on the shameful practices of the IOC. Yes, you can ignore that if you want, all the best guys will be at the next Winter Games, I’m sure.”
In 2015, US freestyle skier Gus Kenworthy (now a Team GB athlete) announced that he was gay. In a resulting Twitter conversation, Terje made what many people felt to be a tonedeaf reaction, tweeting “no, @btoddrichards did this 20 years ago & isn’t all skiiers (sic) gay ; i’m hetrosextual #sospecial” tagging US snowboarder Todd Richards (who isn’t gay) along the way. The reaction was instant and furious. How’s Terje feeling about the situation now?
“In Norway, we don’t think of being gay as being an abnormal thing, or a new thing as we’re so used to it, gay marriage has been allowed there for years, like whatever. We don’t look at it as a big thing to come out of the closet and here’s where we can link Gus Kenworthy back to the Olympics. At the Sochi games in 2014, with Russia and their rules against the gay community, it was horrible. I saw that just one gay athlete from Holland actually put her rainbow flags up to the camera; she did something, said something to the world, compared to all of these other guys who were debating about whether or not they should go at all. Why didn’t they speak up? If you’re going to protest against these human rights violations, go there and protest. The next year they’re saying on Twitter about Gus, ’he’s so brave’ and that’s why I made a joke. But it doesn’t have anything to do with homosexuality. Right or wrong, we used to use the word ‘gay’ to mean ‘lame’. I don’t know Gus personally and he just happened to be the person I dragged into the joke and I shouldn’t have and I’d give him a hug if I see him. People are always saying we’ve got to be politically correct, but think about this. Athletes, famous people, they promote unhealthy products for money and they get away with it, that’s cool. Someone once said ‘Pablo Escobar did great things for soccer’ and these days so do the energy drinks companies. Maybe his product was a little more unhealthy, but it’s still in the same category.”
Terje hasn’t finished talking about the Olympics however, and neither have I. He’s mentioned human rights violations, crimes against nature and corruption at the IOC many times, why isn’t this global organisation doing more to promote global issues?
“The IOC has all this power and everyone thinks the Olympics are like the biggest thing, or a lot of people do, and then you have all these popular sports around the world that the IOC wants to have as part of the Games; action sports are a great example. Snowboarding came in and there wasn’t even a trial run, like there would be for other sports, it just went straight in and that’s because it’s a sport that the IOC can make a lot of money from. Snowboarding was the third most watched sport at the last Winter Olympics, after ice hockey and figure skating, and it was the most popular of all the FIS sports, way ahead of skiing. Snowboarding doesn’t see the rewards of that, especially when compared to funding for alpine skiing, cross country, etc. Snowboarding isn’t prioritised. So the money and the income for the IOC is coming from snowboarding, snowboarding gets nothing from this. All these snowboarders are supposed to be strong but they let the FIS rule and dictate to them. Another good example is the prize pot. In the 90s it was bigger than what FIS is giving out now for snowboarding. At the end of the season you can see how much the alpine skiing men and women make through the winter, it’s a great number, but when you see the results for snowboarding, it’s so horrible. Ståle Sandbech has to do double the number of contests as I did in a year to get the same price money. That’s embarrassing and its hard for the sport because now it’s more dangerous than ever. If you fail, there’s big consequences, the training, you’re beating up your body because everyone is trying to do more and more spectacular things. To see all this shit with the corruption at the IOC and seeing snowboarding falling into the FIS, it’s sad that no one stands on their own feet to share their own opinions. Everyone who supports IOC – whether you watch the Olympics on TV or you go there and be a part of it, all those people are nature crimes violators and human rights violation supporters. No matter how you look at it, everyone is. So if you do that, just fu**ing shut up.”
We’re not quite done with the controversy however. Terje had been snowboarding for just two years when, at the age of 15, he joined the Burton Snowboards team. The partnership lasted a whopping 32 years, making it likely the longest rider – brand relationship in snowboarding. Then one day in October 2021, someone noticed that his profile had been removed from the Burton Snowboards website. Had Burton Snowboards cancelled Terje Haakonsen in 2021 because of his Gus Kenworthy tweet in 2015?
“I really wish I could tell you why this happened, people ask me this a lot. You’ll have to ask Burton. I haven’t gotten a really straight answer from them. I would have expected something after 30 years, maybe some flowers, an email or a phone call. I know a lot of spineless people, but some people are more spineless than others. I’m definitely over it now, but I won’t lie, it bothered me in the beginning. No one was answering and I felt frozen out. I have a friend from Switzerland that has a small board company called Zen Snowboards, and he actually knew that Burton weren’t renewing me before I knew. He reached out and told me, and he was like ‘I really wanna make a board for you.’ Despite all that, I had one of my best snowboard years last winter and I have a lot of good winters to come. Probably the good thing about parting from a company that you’ve been with for so long is that you can see other options and get introduced more, and there’s a lot of innovative people out there so it’s good for me to meet more of those people and see what’s out there. Because when you really look into the snowboard scene, there’s a lot of board builders, small ones and they have their different styles and perspectives so I think it’s been good for me.”
Terje and I both agree that we’ve spent enough time in the past at this point and I’m wondering what this current winter in the northern hemisphere looks like for him?
“I’m an equipment nerd so I’ve been riding a load of new boards lately. I did a collaboration with Zen Snowboards, they’re hand made and they’re expensive but they have a fast style and there’s two models I worked on. My friends from Yes Snowboards, some small Japanese board makers, there are so many good boards out there. I’m probably going to sign with a new snowboard company in the coming months, and I’m excited to work with them and develop their technology. I also love pow surfers. Burton flooded the market with these old-shaped things and they were so popular, but I suggest anyone looking to buy one should do their own research. Pow surfing is so much fun, you can do a lot of fun things without bindings! I’ll probably spend some time in Japan this winter, Switzerland and of course Norway. I might do some banked slalom competitions, I had the option to go to Travis Rice’s Natural Selection but he’s changed the format, so if it works for me I’ll go, but I’m not going to hustle for it like I once did.”
And so we come full circle, back to those superlatives, and I get the impression that at the ripe age of 48, the world isn’t done with Terje Haakonsen just yet, and vice versa. What’s left to achieve?
“I was thinking about this the other day. I kind of fail my kids a little, being too much on the travel. I think my next chapter needs to include the kids more, so when I do these trips I share more of the mountains with them. There’s four of them aged between 25 years and 21 months, and although it’s great to have grown up kids, I feel the younger ones definitely get more of my attention. I also want to ride as long as possible, so being healthy is important, sharing my knowledge as a snowboarder and hopefully contribute technologically to produce products that work better. What I learned from COVID is that I travelled way too fuc**ing much, it’s not good for anyone. It’s really good to stay in places for a longer time and have a routine, especially with the kids and family. It’s really important for me to go at a slower pace and enjoy more closer family time.”
Wrapping things up, I ask Terje for the best advice he’s ever been given, and does snowboarding still mean the same after decades at the top?
“While you’re riding, jumping, always look at your landing! When you look at your landing, your body will be prepared for the impact and landing, so when it’s flat light or bad weather and you can’t see a landing, most people will crash! If you can’t look at your landing, you can’t prepare your body. I got that advice a long long time ago from Craig Kelly, he had one of the biggest influences on my riding, he was an equipment nerd too, he was like the big brother to us young team riders. When you are in the mountains, or in a back yard with friends, snowboarding will always be fun, or at least for me. It’s one of the best activities. I also like to play football and I like to be active, but when it comes to riding and having a good time with friends, that’s never changed. Not at all. I still have a big grin on my face, even when I learn new shit at an older age, it gives you that feeling. That’s what it means to me, having a good time with yourself and with friends.”
“I still have a big grin on my face, even when I learn new shit at an older age”