The Ski Channel Exclusive: Conversation with U.S. Team Snowboarder Graham Watanabe

Posted By: The Ski Channel on November 4, 2009 12:24 am

We recently had the joyful opportunity to sit down with one of the greatest snowboarders ever. OK, not just that, but seriously one of the greatest guys, ever. If you don’t know who Graham Watanabe is, listen up: Graham is THE man. 

The boardercross (call it snowboardcross or SBX if you prefer) specialist and 2009 U.S. National Champion is ready to rock this season, and after an early World Cup podium this summer (in Chapelco, Argentina–Graham nabbed the bronze) along with a handful of World Cup career wins, Graham is looking ahead to the Vancouver Olympics.

Here, Graham discusses how he became the first American male to ever win a SBX World Cup, his love for costumes and creation of a subsequent national holiday (Cowboy Week to the Swiss folks), and nabbing Employee of the Month at Home Depot. Enjoy!


NEXT PAGE: Graham opens up


TSC: How did you start snowboarding?

GW: I had skied since I was four but I wasn’t that into it. When I was eight, my dad who works at Scott offered to get my brother and me some snowboards because Scott had just acquired Hooger Booger snowboards. He told us to give it at least a week because he didn’t want us sitting around playing video games all day.

TSC: Was it immediate love?

GW: No!!! I think I was supposed to be goofy footed (which means having the right foot in front), but I learned regular, so it took me about a week to get the hang of it. It took everyone else a couple days. I definitely took more falls but then on the last run one day it clicked and then I loved it.

TSC: When did you start to get competitive?

GW: The only people that boarded my age were on the local team (in Sun Valley). So I figured I should join the team to have people to ride with. The thing to do was to compete, so I followed suit.

TSC: You mentioned you were a wee little guy back then. Did that affect things?

GW: At the time, I just did alpine. I was so small, that none of the soft boot equipment fit me. So I learned to snowboard in (hard plastic) Dolomite ski boots and they had to put me into alpine program.

I lat

er tried halfpipe for fun once or twice at Nationals, but never trained it or expected anything.

TSC: So when did things start to get super serious?

GW: It seemed like I had a natural talent for

racing early on. And it was a fast progression. I started competing at 14 or 15 and it only took me three or four years to make the U.S. Development Team.

I also played soccer in high school. So that would have been my other option, to go to college for soccer. But with snowboarding, I had more passion. I didn’t do it to have a future. It wasn’t a stepping-stone for what’s next. I just loved to do it. You don’t get those opportunities to follow what you love your whole life, so I did it. And making the Team validated what I did and gave me more goals.

TSC: So you were you on World Cup for Alpine?

GW: I did a couple alpine World Cups. At the time, there wasn’t a boardercross team, and when I was 18 or 19, they asked me to try it. I said, hell yeah!

TSC: And in no time, you were the first American man to ever win a boardercross World Cup. But the road wasn’t easy. Tell us the story…


NEXT PAGE: Becoming a boardercross star


GW: I had put so much time and effort into alpine, it was hard to just drop it. So at first, I didn’t think of SBX as a serious discipline. I would do it just for fun in between alpine events. But because I didn’t do it very often, I wasn’t very safe about my approach to it. In 2001, I didn’t inspect the course well enough before the race and I came up short on a jump and blew my right knee.

So then I was out for the season and the following winter I was able to free-ride but not really compete. Finally, the next season, I was ready to race 100% but in the middle of the season there was a Grand Prix.  That was 2003 and I overshot a jump and fractured my pelvis. I did that Grand Prix just for fun.

So SBX had basically stalled my snowboarding career for three years. But for whatever reason I decided it was worth it and I enjoyed doing it. And at that point, I wanted to make sure I knew what I was doing. So I called Peter Foley, the head coach of the U.S. Team, because they had just decided to develop a SBX team, and were holding a camp at Mt. Hood.

I asked Peter if I could come and learn about the sport. When I got there he let me do a time trial, and I did well enough to earn a spot to travel with them to the opening World Cup in South America. But I couldn’t race in it without points.

So I left early and did a South American Cup and got enough puts. It was crazy, though. I had borrowed dad’s boots and used a sample board, and with that equipment ended up winning one of the South American Cups.

And then I went out and ended up winning the whole thing. I won that World Cup in 2004, and that win made me the first American male to win a snowboardcross World Cup. That was pretty surreal. I wasn’t sure if it was a fluke. No one else knew what to expect either. So that win put me on the A-Team for boardercross.

TSC: Wow. So, you’re known and very much loved for being a little wacky. And we’ve seen you dress up. Any costumes that stand out?

GW: I used to go deeper into costumes when I raced alpine. The slaloms-that’s when you wore costumes. Especially at Nationals–that was the time to dress up. Sometimes I’d wear pajamas, disco attire… Once I was Mario from Mario and Luigi…


NEXT PAGE: Graham talks dress up…



TSC: What about that one-piece you wore at 48-Straight? The TV guys couldn’t get enough of that…

GW: That one felt right because I hadn’t had a hometown (Sun Valley) event in a long time. It was the final event of the year, and we’d dress up at the end of the season. So I went to a thrift store to buy it.

TSC: I heard you got one in Chile, too…

GW: I did get one off the street in Chile, and I wore that for a race…

It wasn’t a one-piece, actually. It was a dynamic three-piece, as I like to call it. There was a bib, suspenders and a jacket that turned into a vest. It was tight fitting… Mostly in the pants zone.

TSC: It didn’t hamper your performance?

GW: No. That thing was fast.

TSC: Do you have any plans to dress up this year?

GW: It’s more of a spontaneity thing, but it depends on whether or not I find the right outfit.

TSC: It’s so great how you can be so serious about your sport, yet so free…

GW: You know a few years ago, I discovered that if I wanted to truly pursue my goals, I had to embrace my goofy side. Because that’s how I had the most fun and if I’m not having fun, it’s hard for me to reach certain goals. If I’m not having fun, I have no motivation.

TSC: Think fast: X Games or World Cups?

GW: Well, the X Games course is pretty different. It’s longer than average, has bigger jumps and things like that. So as far as courses go, X Games. But the World Cup is a tour, so you build your stats. It’s an ongoing thing to see how you’re performing on a regular basis. So that is really cool.


NEXT PAGE: Graham’s Olympic dream


TSC: Any favorite places to ride?

GW: Japan. They seem to always have good snow and the culture is amazing. The people are super nice. Having that combo is pretty unique. I’ve been to Furano and Gifu/Gujo. I’ve never been to Nagano, though.

TSC: What about in the States?

GW: Sun Valley-Home is always good.

I just went to Mt. Baker, actually (for the first time last season), and I cant wait to go back. They have the most epic terrain. The access to the backcountry is really close so you don’t need a helicopter or Cat. And there are so many natural features you could get creative with.

TSC: Isn’t that where they had the Banked Slalom? And you did pretty well there.

GW: Yeah, it’s a competition but everyone goes for the culture. You could stand next to a dozen people at any time, who you’ve only seen in mags and videos. But there are just as many locals, too. Just people who love snowboard culture and snowboarding.

TSC: Were you psyched about second?

GW: I expected to do well, but at the same time, there are a bunch of pros there who ride that terrain every year, so I didn’t know how fast they’d be. You have to do the banked slalom a few times to get good at it.

TSC: So, the loaded question. It’s an Olympic year. What do you think?

GW: It’s kind of weird because as much as I’ve tried to maintain my training theory that every race is just as important and always try to do my best at each event, it’s hard to think of the Olympics as just anther event.

Qualifying is the hardest part. You have to be consistent and consistently on top. We can bring a maximum of four guys, but we have eight who could podium at any time. So we’re leaving four guys who could win at home.

TSC: In 2006 you skied but weren’t planning on it…

GW: Yeah, that was crazy because I had to completely change my mentality and ignore any desires to be a competitor. I went to help out as a wax tech.

I showed up with no race equipment, was sleeping on a couch, staying up to midnight working on boards with Curtis Bacca… And then I was filming one day when Jason Hale came down and overshot a jump in training. He blew out his knee.

So I had one full day of training. We’d had to make some frantic phone calls to get my equipment. Foley knew someone who was flying out from Park City, and we arranged to get him into my apartment, to get my gear.

It’s funny because I’ve had two of my big milestones on borrowed equipment. That first win I had borrowed boots and bindings and then a borrowed helmet at the Olympics.



NEXT PAGE: Graham reveals his REAL dream job


TSC: So this year, you’re ready.

GW: Yeah, this year-I want to do it right.

The building blocks are in place. I’ve gotten more and more consistent and the time just feels right now. I’ve gone two years with a couple wins and a bunch of solid performances so it feels like it’s time.

TSC: We’ve heard from some of your teammates that you make the tour fun for them. Any particularly funny stories that stand out?

GW: One year when we were going to Saas Fee, for whatever reason Jason Hale and Jason Smith and I made an agreement to only wear cowboy attire while we were off the hill… For the whole week.

There are no cowboys in Europe, so all the locals got really excited. And we got the Euro competitors believing we had a national holiday called Cowboy Week, so that’s what we were celebrating.

TSC: What would you be if you weren’t snowboarding?

GW: I could see myself doing a lot of different things-I’ve thought of teacher, graphic designer-potentially still a student at this point-in foreign languages, graphic arts…

But my dream job? I’d be a stay-at-home dad. I’m hoping to be that when I’m not a snowboarder as a profession.

TSC: What’s your favorite word?

GW: Anything in Swedish is a lot of fun.

TSC: What’s a big feat you’ve accomplished, which a lot of people don’t know?

GW: I was Employee of the Month at Home Depot. It was the first month I worked there, too.




photos: Graham Watanabe, USSA, Doug Haney