The Breckenridge interview with Olympic bronze medalist JJ Thomas
Jarret John “JJ” Thomas has a thing for Breckenridge.
And why not? It’s where the 34-year-old Colorado native has spent just about every winter since he was 12 years old, throwing lofty McTwists alongside veterans like Todd Richards and fellow groms like Steve Fisher.
Those early years in the Peak 8 pipe helped propel Thomas to the upper echelon of a sport on the rise. He made history with Ross Powers and Danny Kass in 2002, when he took Olympic bronze during the U.S. halfpipe podium sweep in Salt Lake City. Since then, he’s notched dozens of X Games appearances and won medals at the Dew Tour, Vans Triple Crown and Burton U.S. Open.
This year, for the first time since he was a pre-teen, Thomas didn’t log 100-plus days on the snow — “I was traveling maybe once a month instead of every single day of the month,” he says — and that’s fine by him. He’s busy with his California-based beanie company, Yea. Nice, and finally has time to simply relax with his girlfriend and two cats, no Skype sessions required.
With the end of Breck’s season already here, the Summit Daily News spoke with Thomas, who was at his home in Encinitas, California, to find out where snowboarding has taken him after two decades as a pro.
SDN: I got on my first Unity board this season, and when I was talking with company owner Pete Wurster before heading out he said you ride the Kapow powder board in the pipe. Why show love for the local guys?
JJ Thomas: Pete’s snowboards are awesome. I rode for Burton and Ride for a while, so when my sponsorship ended with them I could ride whatever I want. I just gave Pete’s board a try one day — I knew him, knew he was local — and at the time he put me on an Origin for pipe. That was honestly the best board I’ve ever ridden, just durable and powerful and fun. Then he started coming out with these fun-shaped boards, like the Kapow and the Whale. That’s honestly where the sport is going, with these boards that aren’t what you expect.
SDN: When Pete told me you rode the Kapow in the pipe I had to try it out, and I was shocked — it actually worked.
JJT: I have a normal one and one that’s custom made, one with those carbon-fiber rods in it, and when I started riding pipe on that thing, man, it was incredible. I love that I don’t have to change boards when it’s a powder day. That thing is the jam. I’ll ride it forever — it will be with me until I die.
SDN: How often do you get out in the pipe these days?
JJT: This year I think I rode pipe maybe five days, and that’s the least I’ve ridden pipe since I can’t even remember. But it honestly made it more fun — I kind of fell back in love with it. When you get away from being on the snow every single day and get the chance to go back, I eat it all up — the groomers, the park, the pipe, everything.
SDN: You spent the bulk of your pro career training and competing at Breck. What’s your fondest memory of the mountain?
JJT: I have so many good memories there, but my fondest is really in 2002 when I filled up my Olympic spot at the last Grand Prix on the last run. My family was there, my buddies were there, guys from middle school and high school — just everyone was there. That memory will stick with me until I die. But even beyond that I have countless memories that are similar, just from other contests and powder days. When I think about it I just have so many memories that are stuck in my head like glue, and then I have memories from recently, like last season when I was riding with Jake Black and Steve Fischer and taking powder turns. It’s just a blast there — I try to track down those guys.
SDN: On the flipside, what one experience at Breck would you like to un-glue from your memory?
JJT: You know, it’s funny — that’s why I like it there and stayed at Breck, because I didn’t really have any life-altering, career-ending days there. Maybe other people have had that, but the place always treated me well. I had a lot of options and offers to move around, but I didn’t. I felt like if you could excel at Breck, you could go anywhere in the world with snowboarding. That place always treated me well, even when I was having bad days on the East Coast or anywhere else. I just stayed there so long because my bad days there just weren’t bad — there was always tomorrow.
SDN: How has the snowboard scene in Breck changed over the years?
JJT: It has and it hasn’t. It’s changed in the sense that today, the pipe and the park jumps are about three times bigger than they used to be. There are also as many skiers as snowboarders in the park and pipe, and back in the day, they wouldn’t even go through there. When they started making these parks and pipes, it was because they wanted the snowboarders’ business but wanted to keep us off the hill. Now we share those humongous pipes with skiers and that’s cool. I love watching them ski and they love watching us snowboard.
SDN: The Olympic sweep was a milestone for snowboarding as a sport. Did you realize how important it was at the time, or were you caught up in the craziness of simply winning a medal?
JJT: When we did it, me and Danny and Ross were happy, just sitting there having a good time. It think that probably by the end of the night, or maybe the next day or two, we really started to get a grasp on how many people actually watched it and really how hard it impacted those people. We didn’t know until we were doing the media tour, with dinners and signings and medal ceremonies — it just became apparent that it was so impactful. We really thought everyone already knew about halfpipe snowboarding. We were like, “What do you mean you’ve never seen a McTwist?” We were sitting there laughing, thinking, “Man, no one would give us the time of day two weeks ago, and now everyone wants to shake our hands and know everything about a 20-foot method.”
SDN: It’s wild how fast the sport progressed after the 2002 Games.
JJT: Well, here’s the thing: I barely edged out Shaun White to get a spot on the team that year. He was sitting there at home, watching it at 15 years old, and when he saw that media frenzy he made up his mind to go out and put his stamp on the sport. After he did that, I mean, that was it. I just think that I barely edged him out that first year. If he would’ve made the team he probably would’ve made the podium, but instead he was sitting at home and made it his goal to just blow us away.
SDN: Snowboard and ski superpipe are nearly on par with Olympic-level gymnastics these days. Do you think it’s headed in the right direction, whatever that may be?
JJT: I really don’t know. It is what it is and there’s no stopping it. I mean, (Billy Morgan) just did the first quad ever this week — it’s just not going to end. And I think it’s good, it’s cool, because if it wasn’t progressing what would it be? But you have to think about the other side of the sport, that board like the Kapow that is fun and floaty and just a blast. I mean, you have guys like Alek O. (Oestreng) who did a Euro carve into a nollie front flip. I honestly think that creative progression — you can call it retro, I guess — but it’s really relatable for a lot of kids. I really think that side of the sport is moving in a great direction, and anyone who says it’s not is just mad they can’t do those tricks.
SDN: More to the point, do you think you could make the finals in X Games pipe these days?
JJT: No, I really don’t think so. I’d have to put my helmet on, I’d have to do a full summer of training to learn some new tricks. It’s kind of been hard for me the last few years — when I left, judges switched. They no longer want to see double cork after double cork. They like to see a bit more style, and it’s mixing in style with those technical tricks. I really do love to see it go there, but I’m happy I don’t have to follow these guys who are so good. I just have a great time watching these guys, kids like Taylor Gold. They’re freakishly good.
SDN: In your opinion, what makes for a good snowboarder, the type of person you’d want to ride with?
JJT: Honestly, just someone who has a really good attitude and appreciates being outside and having fun, no matter the conditions. To me, that’s a fun snowboarder. I love going out with people who are happy to be on the hill, people who understand what a blessing and opportunity it is to be outside, be at the mountain, be on the snow. We take it for granted, but it really is a gift. That’s what I realized this year after not snowboarding every day — there really are no bad days when you don’t have the chance to go all the time. Sure, the conditions may not be the greatest, but when you only get 20 days, you make it worthwhile.
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