An interview with snowboard superstar and former Breck local Todd Richards

Todd Richards, former professional snowboarder and longtime Breckenridge local.
NBC Sports / Special to The Daily

For die-hard snowboarders from the 1990s, Todd Richards will always be a bigger name than Shaun White.

Like his younger counterpart, Richards was more or less the face of snowboarding in his prime, a halfpipe-slaying machine who won contest after contest with a crisp, skate-influenced style. The Massachusetts native was a skater long before strapping on a snowboard, so when it came time to move from concrete to the bulletproof pipe at Stratton Mountain in Vermont, he hardly blinked an eye — it only made him better.

It also made him thirst for something bigger, and after dominating the competition circuit in the late ’80s and early ’90s he left the icy East Coast for the Colorado Rockies.

At the time, back before snowboarding was a global industry, Breckenridge was the undisputed home base for just about every pro rider. And Richards was one of the best, winning more than a dozen medals at the Grand Prix, X Games and Burton U.S. Open. He earned a no-brainer spot on the first U.S. Olympic snowboarding team in 1998, although he’d rather keep the disappointing finish a distant memory.

“We were baby-stepping along with the progression of terrain park building. I think that’s half of what it is — if you’re comfortable, you’re going to land on your feet. But the size of the terrain these days and the pressure of what people are doing, it’s just insane. You had that guy throw a quad earlier this week, the first one ever, so is a quad cork the new standard for judges these days? I don’t know.”

Today, at 45, Richards lives full time in Encinitas, California, with his wife and two kids. He left Breck shortly after a devastating injury in 2003, but he never really left the town or sport behind: He had a local storage unit until a few weeks ago, and he tried his hand managing a snowboard company, O-Matic.

To close out the 30th anniversary of snowboarding at Breck, the Summit Daily News caught up with Richards to chat about his adopted hometown, his gig as an NBC Sports announcer and how snowboarding was a way to cheat on his first love, skateboarding.

Summit Daily News: Before we jump into serious questions, I have to get this out of the way: One of my favorite sequences of all time shows you throwing a switch 900, back when that trick separated the men from the supermen. It hung on my closet door for years. Who was on your wall as a kid?

Todd Richards: When I was young I was big into skateboarding, so there were skateboarders everywhere — any full-page bleed from Thrasher or Transworld (magazines) was on my wall. Then when snowboarding came into the scene it was the big names, Shaun Palmer and Craig Kelly and all those guys. But even when I started snowboarding there weren’t really magazines, per se. They came around a little while after I started, so I was just hanging pieces of the Burton catalog up on my wall.

SDN: When you first arrived in Breck as an up-and-comer, what was the snowboard scene like?

TR: You know, Breck has always been a place that’s really accepting of it. Even before I moved there it had the reputation as the place to be for snowboarding — it had the pipe, the Grand Prix, all those competitions. It was where snowboarders went. When I got there it was a year or two before that first big Midwest invasion, when all the kids from Michigan and those places came out. It was a lot of locals — you had Ken Block, Andy Hetzel, all these guys who have gone on to make big moves within the industry in different ways, but back then they were snow bums in Breckenridge. They were just these dudes, hanging out, but they were in the magazines already because they lived where they got exposure. It was cool to move where all my heroes were living anyway.

SDN: You haven’t lived in Breck for about a decade, but it was your home for most of the ’90s. What do you miss most about living here?

TR: Well, I was traveling so much at the time that I was never in Breckenridge anyway, and I started to get a little sick of living in perpetual winter. I just wanted to surf all the time — surf whenever I wanted to — and that’s what brought me to San Diego. At the time, the entire snowboard industry was based out of Southern California anyway. It made sense. I still come back to Breck every once in a while for events, but I miss being able to ride whenever I want to, whether that’s two hours on the mountain or spending the entire day out there. It’s kind of a production these days — I never had to fuss around when I lived there. I could ride the best terrain in the world at the drop of a hat.

SDN: Like most pro riders, you’re no stranger to career-altering injury. How many fake body parts do you have by now?

TR: You know, I’ve only broken my arm, but I kind of went for it hard when I did that — I broke my humorous into a million pieces. It looks like a jigsaw puzzle at this point (laughs). I just really haven’t been hurt, and I think one of the biggest reasons is that I was growing in ability level with the size of the jumps. We were baby-stepping along with the progression of terrain park building. I think that’s half of what it is — if you’re comfortable, you’re going to land on your feet. But the size of the terrain these days and the pressure of what people are doing, it’s just insane. You had that guy (Billy Morgan) throw a quad earlier this week, the first one ever, so is a quad cork the new standard for judges these days? I don’t know.

SDN: Even though you eventually branched out to slopestyle, halfpipe was always your competition event. Why stick to pipe?

TR: Well, the way I always approached it was like a skater. I just wanted to skateboard on the snow. There wasn’t much slopestyle back then — it was mostly halfpipe. I just wanted to do lines in the halfpipe that I couldn’t do when I was skating vert, and that was really it, that’s why I loved it. I was kind of cheating — snowboarding was a way of pretending I was able to do the things I wanted to do on a skateboard.

SDN: Did you ever expect to make a living at snowboarding?

TR: Oh, god no. For a long time, it was like, “Alright, I can make enough money to put gas in my car and feed myself.” I was waiting for the other shoe to drop, to get that contract, and even though my parents supported me at the time snowboarding was nothing to live off of. A few people were getting paid well — I don’t know what Craig Kelly was getting paid back in the day, but I’m sure even that wasn’t a lot — so I worked at BC Surf and Sport in the summertime to make sure I had the money I needed, just doing what I had to do.

And these days, it’s just as hard for kids coming up. You see a handful of these giant contracts, so you know it’s possible, but you have to win a gold medal at a huge contest just to make it as a pro. Coverage doesn’t matter — the money doesn’t come from within snowboarding. It comes from energy drinks or the other big-name sponsors who can pay for you to do this for a living.

SDN: Your Instagram account is a riot, especially photos of your kids playing around. Talk about being a dad: Is raising a family more nerve-wracking than, say, dropping into the X Games superpipe?

TR: There comes a point in your life that you go from expecting dad, who’s excited, to having a kid and wondering what the hell you should do. It’s so terrifying until you really relax into it. When I had my first child, I didn’t know what … to do. There is no manual, but there is literature, and my wife and I did a lot of reading. After a while, you realize that when they start to cry, it’s not the end of the world. But there really is no comparison. You can’t compare it to dropping into the halfpipe — having children is completely selfless, where snowboarding is completely selfish. It’s the “you” show, where having children is all about them.

SDN: You’ve been a TV announcer since leaving the pro circuit. How is sitting in the announcer’s booth different than being in the thick of competition?

TR: I honestly get the same rush. If we’re doing a live, live show — say, the Dew Tour or the Olympics — it gives me the same performance rush that I got from snowboarding. I know I need to be on, I need to nail this. When you walk out of the cramped trailer at the end of the event you might not have the same feeling as walking away with a trophy, but I have the same feeling of self-satisfaction, that I did something good.

I thrive on that pressure, being able to perform, but I was always really nervous in snowboarding. I would get stomach cramps and butterflies every time, way worse than anybody expected or would know. It just stuck with me all the way to the starting gate. And I get the same now with announcing. The Olympics is nerve-wracking — the entire world is watching and you just have to be on your game.

SDN: For a while there, you also had a snowboard company with two fellow pros. Are you happy with the path your career has followed, going from competitions to announcing to the industry itself?

TR: I love creating — I really love being part of the marketing machine. People have so many crazy ideas, and when I had a snowboard company where I had control over what was being made, I could do something crazy and weird and just put it out there. I spent a lot of my own money trying to cram a square peg into a round hole, but it was a learning experience, and I like that it introduced me to the ins and outs of the industry, of just running a business in general. O-Matic was the struggling failure, but my brewery in San Diego, Saint Archer Brewing, is the success story that is just thriving. You need to have the loss before you appreciate the wins.

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