Olympic Medalist Danny Kass Tried to Teach Me to Snowboard
I’m one of those pretend-athletes. I go to the gym four or five times a week, but I have zero coordination. I “race” on a stationary bike to the imaginary scenery that the spinning studio so thoughtfully plasters on the back of the wall. I actually caused what seems to be permanent damage to my left knee, while “running” a brisk 11-minute mile. I’ll even admit to sneaking the occasional cigarette post-yoga with my mat still in tow. (Some people spike their dopamine levels with inversions and meditation. I do it with good ol’ fashioned nicotine.)
So, when I was offered the chance to learn to snowboard for the first time in my life with the Olympic medalist Danny Kass, part of Oakley’s “Learn to Ride” in collaboration with New Era program at Sundance, I obviously couldn’t resist the chance to make a giant ass out of myself.
I flew out to Park City, Utah, with the fake confidence of my usual in-flight Valium, ready to bitch-slap the mountains. I needed it. The snow is not my friend. I am brown—born in the middle of the desert and all. I’ve only encountered the snow once before, where I skied in Vermont, sped out of control, tumbled down the mountain, and almost took out three children in my path. My friends still laugh about it.
All that confidence quickly evaporated, as I stood nervous, sweaty, and trembling on top of the SMALLEST mountain (OK, it was really a hill) at the Park City Mountain Resort. Danny commented on my unwarranted sissyness, “There is nothing to worry about.” He had, after all, basically carried supermodel, Alessandra Ambrosio, down the mountain earlier—a la bear hug because she couldn’t stand up on the board. An anecdote like that will only ease pain if you’re a wuss or lazy. I happen to be a strong both of dose when it comes to snow.
When we first started the lesson, I got all kinds of helpful pointers from Danny. We’re supposed to be snowdancing, which basically means I sway from side to side and if I need to, I could just tip back on my heels for brakes. He made it sound so easy, and the five year olds swooshing down the mountain made it look even easier, but no one really understood how uncoordinated I was. When I got my friend to push me down the slope, I started gliding and screaming as if it was the end of the world. As I was doing my best to dodge all the small children around me, I could hear Danny bluntly lying to me, “You’re doing great.” If I was doing so great, who was doing poorly?
I made myself fall to stop. It was a teensy fall compared to the second try when I completely flipped over, and fell flat on my boobs.
Danny came over, “Are you OK?”
“I think so.”
“Are you going to get up?”
“Not right this very second.”
He laughed and said, “I promise no more pain, OK? No more pain.”
I wanted to believe him, but I was lying flat with my legs completely restrained, which sounds sexual but it really wasn’t. I was dressed in 20 pounds worth of Oakley gear. But, then… I figured out that “no more pain” meant that I, too, had to be bear hugged down the mountain. Danny stood behind me, with his hands on my hip bones, clenched my waist, and maneuvered my entire body down the mountain. We zigzagged down together, me awkwardly breathing/screaming in panic and Danny asking, “Are you hyperventilating or having an orgasm?”
I honestly wasn’t sure. I just knew that we were about to reach the bottom of the mountain, and that was the climax of my experience.
When I was safely back in Brooklyn, behind my very unexciting desk, I wanted to thank Danny again, so I called him last week to catch up.
VICE: First, I wanted to say thanks again for the snowboarding lesson. Not that we can really call my screaming down the mountain a lesson.
Danny Kass: That was lesson number one: Get off the lift and survive.
We were on the same mountain you won an Olympic medal at, right?
Yeah, we were actually just like 200 yards from there. Park City in 2002.
And it was also the same resort where you got to hang out and teach a supermodel how to snowboard?
It’s true. It’s hard to compare the two, really.
Come on, which one was better?
That’s pretty tough, actually. Well this year, I would have to say teaching a Victoria’s Secret model was better. But at 19, nothing really beat getting to compete in the Olympics in Park City.
Yeah, definitely not the same thing. I just meant that Park City must hold a special place in your heart.
Yeah, it really does. Every time I get to go back, that’s one of the things about the Olympics that’s so cool, the Olympics really branded the resort for a long time—like 50 years. So to go back and see all of the same signage and everything still up about Salt Lake City, and all the memories I have with my family, and all the wild times with snowboarders after that fact, definitely are some of the greatest of my life.
I didn’t realize this until I got to Park City but Deer Valley, not too far from where we were, is exclusively for skiing, and there’s no snowboarding allowed. Does that piss you off as a snowboarder?
No, I think it’s kind of funny, because the sport of snowboarding has grown so much, and there are still these resorts that are kind of holdouts. So it kind of shows you who thinks they run the world, you know?
Did they ever give a specific reason behind the ban?
No. If there weren’t so many amazing resorts in the states, it would be a big deal. But snowboarding is kind of fun for me, because the 90s kind of invented all these new events like half-pipe and slope-style and stuff, and it’s kind of cool because going into even these next Olympics, you’re going to see some of the biggest ski stars in the world are going to be from our side of the world, not the old ski-style of the world. So I think if they ever have a training park with little rails or jibs or anything, they’re already influenced by snowboarding.
Kind of along the same lines of skiing versus snowboarding, there’s also Western snow versus Eastern snow. I hear a lot of people saying they prefer Colorado over Utah, but I feel like you would stand up for the East Coast, since you’re from Jersey.
Oh, yeah. I think the best half-pipes in the world were always in Vermont for me, and getting to go ride elsewhere— those reports like Loon Mountain, New Hampshire, and resorts all over, even my home mountain of Mount Creek, have been some of the best parks in the US. It’s not really where you’re at, it’s who you’re with.
How tough was it to get back on the snow after your knee surgery in 2011?
Yeah, it took a long time, especially with certain injuries. And that’s the thing with snowboarding that people don’t realize when it kind of becomes your job, is that you’re gonna ride with certain injuries. So, I actually tried out for the 2010 team after I’d fractured by tibia in my ankle, in about six weeks I was trying to compete on a fractured ankle. I wasn’t even going to heal for least eight weeks for the bone, and for the ligaments up to five months. So that can be pretty tough. And with the knee injury I had, I just kind of gave myself time and came back. And it was really fun, because I got to do film for this video Absinthe, and a little bit of Absinthe’s crew, and the name of the video is Resonance. And I spent the whole winter as I recovered from that mainly shooting photos in Europe and all over Austria and Switzerland to come out with a video part, which is something I hadn’t done in years, because competing kind of limits you to kind of the limelight of competition in snowboarding, and you don’t really get to focus on the other aspects of freeriding and shooting and stuff. So it was pretty cool to come back from that injury, because it is a little bit of a head case, you just kind of work your way through it and get mentally back as well.
Do you think that you’re going to continue competing in the future?
It’s kind of funny, because I’m not really required to compete anymore, and kind of my obligations are more to shoot snowboarding. My goal in life is to keep snowboarding fun a bit. But I’m still going to do some exhibitions. For me, I kind of grew up more in the East Coast and Jersey, so there’s something about liking to show off, and getting to ride in front of huge crowds is sort of a push and a rush for me. So, I may not be done yet.
My last question for you, since I was arguing with someone earlier around the office, and I feel like you can settle this for us, since you have a background in both. Which is harder: skateboarding or snowboarding?
They’re actually pretty similar, and they’re both pretty dangerous in the sense of doing tricks. Which one’s harder? For me, I would have to say snowboarding, because it’s more of my job, and skateboarding has always been my passion, and I’ve always gotten to enjoy just doing it and riding it and never had to make it more than that. But I don’t know—skateboarding seems like it’s one of those things if you’re 30 years old and you wanna learn it, it’s going to be pretty interesting. I would have to say skateboarding would be a little bit harder for older people for sure, but when you’re 12 years old, I mean, they’re pretty much the same from 12 to 20.
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