“There is a tide in the affairs of men. Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune…” says Brutus to Cassius in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. In other words, timing is everything. Nothing illustrates this more in snowboarding than the story of who actually invented the sport in the first place. Today, the generally accepted story is this: on Christmas Day 1965, engineer Sherman Poppen was inspired by his sledging daughter to create the Snurfer, the first proto-snowboard that in turn inspired Tom Sims, Dimitrije Milovich and Jake Burton Carpenter to create their own versions and, in turn, kickstart the snowboarding industry we know today.
Except that Poppen wasn’t the first at all. According to some, Toni Lenhardt actually had the idea in 1914 when he invented something called the mono-glider. Or hang on – wasn’t it MJ Burchett’s homemade snow-shredding jalopy of a few years later? Then there was Vern Wicklund, reportedly riding since 1917, who patented (and filmed himself riding) his own version of what was clearly a snowboard back in 1939. And what about those Turkish guys who’ve been happily ripping it up in their village for the last 150 years or so? Where do they fit into our cosy narrative?
The answer is this: each of these parties ‘invented’ snowboarding at one time or other. But only one incarnation actually took off and became the sport we know and love today: Poppen’s. Why? Right idea, right time. His version of the idea had the huge success of surfing and a new teenage audience hungry for alternative thrills as the platform from which to boost it into the cultural stratosphere. Our Turkish friends, on the other hand, only had their presumably stoked fellow villagers to impress.
White is snowboarding’s sole superstar, as comfortable moonwalking his way backwards into Elton John’s famed Oscar night party as he is dropping into an icy Aspen halfpipe
It’s the same for pro riders, who ultimately need the right platform upon which to showcase their wares if they’re going to exploit their full potential. It’s no coincidence that many of the guys considered ‘legends’ today (Jamie Lynn, Terje, JP Walker etc.) made their name in the 90s, just as snowboarding was exploding into the mainstream. There had been pioneering riders before them, and today there are countless young shreds with bigger tricks, but that second wave of pros were at the cutting edge of what we now recognise as a golden era.
Mike Michalchuk, on the other hand, is probably the supreme example of a rider born ten years too early. He had it all – the balls-out style, the primitive corked pipe spins, the Nike sponsorship. Unfortunately for ‘Michal-huck’ (as he was quickly nicknamed) none of that was remotely cool at the time and he was widely ridiculed as a glorified gymnast before injuries curtailed his career.
Contrast his fate with the best modern example of it all going right: Shaun White. The story goes that White began snowboarding when he was four, snagged sponsorship with Burton when he was six (his mum reputedly phoned up for a board; the company decided to give him free ones), was being mentored by Tony Hawk from the age of 9 and had a part in his first film (TB7) when he was 11.
In a term popularised by Malcolm Gladwell in his chin-stroking cultural tome of the same name, White is snowboarding’s premiere example of an ‘outlier’, somebody in whom a perfect set of opportunities and circumstances – talent, supportive parents, location (White was brought up in San Diego, learning to skate at Encinitas and snowboard at June Mountain) and coincidence (that chance meeting with Tony Hawk and early backing from Burton) – combined into one freakish package. Even the Olympics landed at the right time for Shaun. Sure, he wasn’t the first gold medallist, but he was the one reaching his peak just as extreme sports were being packaged for a mainstream audience and snowboarding had become THE TV event of Turin and Vancouver.
The result today is that White is snowboarding’s sole first-name-only superstar, a peer of Kelly and Tony, and as comfortable moonwalking his way backwards into Elton John’s famed Oscar night party – high-fiving Derek Zoolander as he goes – as he is dropping into an icy Aspen halfpipe when the chips are down.
Sometimes, timing really is everything.