Having been a pro snowboarder for ten years, Finland’s Eero Ettala has seen every aspect of the business – both good and bad. His ability to turn his hand to park, powder and rails with equal degrees of success has seen this jack of all trades establish himself as a master of every sort of snowboarding; he regularly finds himself playing at the top table both in contests and on film. Eero has also become the lynchpin his two main sponsors’ teams, a fact helped by his impressive loyalty to the brands that back him. But while he is now an international superstar, Eero still maintains a strong connection to his home country. And although he has enjoyed success on the biggest stages, he has close friends from home who have not been so lucky. When we caught up with Eero – two days after his 25th birthday – we found him in a typically candid mood as he reflected on the many facets of his career, his friends, and the future of snowboarding.
Hey Eero, how you doing?
I’m pretty good, I’m just chilling at home, just got back from walking the dogs.
You told us it was your birthday on Saturday, happy birthday dude! How old are you?
Oh thanks! Yeah, I’m 25. It’s a pretty good number – at least it’s cheaper to rent cars in the US! (Laughs)
You’re back in Finland at the moment, in Helsinki. Is that where you’re from originally?
Well actually I’m originally from Eespo, which is like a town 15 minutes outside of Helsinki, but I just moved here a couple of years ago.
Can you tell us a bit about growing up there? I guess it’s a bit different from growing up in England.
Yeah, Eespo is a lot different to Helsinki too. It was actually pretty cool because everything is surrounded by nature, with like forests and stuff, so there’s a lot of cool stuff to do. Growing up in Finland is like pretty sick I guess, because everybody’s really into winter sports. Like I started skiing when I was really young. My mum and dad were really into it and they took me with them. I started out cross-country. I think I actually have a videotape of me cross-country skiing. I was probably four or five. It’s pretty funny! (Laughs)
What’s the coolest thing about Finland apart from the snow?
I think it’s definitely the summer. The sun only goes down for a few hours, which is super-cool. You can stay out skating ‘til super-late. When you go to a bar, it’s still light out, when you come back from the bar, it’s light again you know. The sun never goes down.
Do they have all-night raves then?
Well, everything closes at four ‘o clock, so not really lots of people do after parties, but it’s kind of warm during the summer, so a lot of people continue partying outside after the bars have closed.
Finland still feels like home then? You don’t have any plans to move to the US?
No, no I really love Finland. I tried moving to the States for a little bit, cos I used to date this American chick for a year and a half, like a couple of years ago, but it just didn’t feel right. She lived in Hollywood and I was just like, ‘Meh. I hate this place!’ She would always work and I would be hanging around at the house and always be on the internet talking with my buddies from Finland and I would be like: “Fuck, this doesn’t make any sense.”
So when you were growing up where did you shred? Did you have a close group of friends that you rode with?
We had a hill – like no lifts, nothing, just like a sledding hill – and that’s where I tried to snowboard for the first time. I borrowed a board from my friend and I used my twin sister’s moon boots to ride with. I went down the hill once, and I fell in love with snowboarding. Mum and dad bought me a snowboard the next day. Though actually I had to share it with my twin sister, so for the first year, half the day I would have to ski and half the day I would have to snowboard, cos my sister wanted to snowboard too! So that kind of sucked (Laughs) But the closest resort to my house was like thirty or forty minutes away, so everyday after work my dad would take me there and I would just go snowboard. When I started snowboarding Iikka [Backstrom] was one of my best buddies and then there was everyone else – like Lauri Heiskari and Eero Niemela. I started riding properly with those guys. I think from around that time, six of the group of about 15 guys that we rode with turned pro. Which is super-cool.
Were you a good student in school? At what stage did you stop going to concentrate on snowboarding?
Actually, I was a pretty decent student in the lower grades. Until I was 15 I think my average score was 8.6 out of a maximum of 10. I beat my twin sister. She was actually way smarter than I was, but in school I was kind of trying to always kick her ass (Laughs). After that I went to high school, and that’s when snowboarding started getting a bit more serious you know, so then I started studying less. I still finished my high school, and got like average grades. But that was always really important for my parents. I could always do whatever I wanted, as long as I finished school.
What do your parents do for a living?
Err, my Dad works for an insurance company, so he takes care of all my insurance stuff, which makes my life easy. I don’t have to worry about anything.
I read somewhere that Finland has more pro-riders per head of population than any other country. Did that make it hard to get noticed and pick up sponsors?
Wow! Well, it seems like it’s getting harder now, but when I was growing up and got sponsored for the first time it seemed like that was the height of sponsors wanting to get Scandinavian riders on board. But now it seems like there’s thousands of good Scandinavian riders so it’s harder. It felt like I was in the right place at the right time.
So how did you get your first sponsors?
I went to France for the Junior Worlds halfpipe contest in ‘99 or 2000 and I got fifth place. Our head coach knew the Oakley team manager from the US so he hooked me up, so that was my first real sponsorship. And I’ve stayed with those guys since. So it’s been…well, ten years I guess.
You started out doing well riding halfpipes. Why did you stop?
Oh, I still love riding halfpipe, but when I got sponsored by Nitro, they didn’t really care if I did contests or not. They were more into filming and taking photos and I was like, “Oh, that sounds cool”. I tried pipe for one year and it just felt like there was no return. It seems like you kind of have to pick whether you just ride icy halfpipes all year long or you ride pow and do different kinds of stuff.
How did you get into your first big movie with Standard Films?
I was riding in Hemsedal for a Burton shoot, I got invited somehow cos I was really good friends with Heikki [Sorsa]. Heikki used to film with Standard back then, and I was filming for Marco Lutz that season. But then the next season Heikki went to Mack Dawg and Standard asked him to recommend someone to film with them. Heikki mentioned my name and that’s how I got on Standard. Then after two years of filming on Standard Films, Heikki brought me along to Mack Dawg with him.
Was filming with Standard the first time you properly rode pow? Was that a big step up?
Yeah, for sure! (Laughs) The first time I didn’t have any idea of what kind of board I needed so I rode my park board in the pow – that didn’t really make it too much easier! I guess I’m still struggling in the pow because I don’t really get to ride it as much as I want to. At least don’t get to do the whole season in it, cos I’m always trying to film rails, park and powder you know? I wish I had more time! So I definitely still don’t feel that comfortable, but it’s getting better year-by-year.
It’s true that you do seem like you do everything pretty well – rails, park, pow. Which is your favourite thing to ride?
I would almost have to say it’s park. It’s the easiest. You can create your own schedule you know? Powder is more hard work. You have to wake up the earliest and then build your own stuff. The urban stuff is really fun, cos you can be really creative plus I can do all that in my home country, but it’s not the easiest stuff to film. The park is cool because you can kind of sleep in, and people build the stuff for you! (Laughs)
Why are rails harder to film then?
You always have to work at night and stuff. It’s my favourite part of the season cos I can be in Finland, but when I’m filming rails, I always feel like I’m sort of jetlagged – I wake up around 5.00 and then go film rails all night. But it also seems like urban stuff is always the easiest for me to get footage on. Those shots always come the fastest. It takes me like two weeks or something to get all my rail shots that I want. I have everything kind of figured out pre-season, what I want to film and stuff.
You walk round Helsinki just scoping spots in summer then?
Yeah, actually it’s pretty funny. I know more than 100 rails in Helsinki and I’ve got a list on my computer with photos of the rails. I even have the details of some tricks already figured out. But it’s not only Helsinki. In the summertime I drive around the whole country and go to other cities and look for stuff.
You’ve filmed with the three biggest snowboard movie makers in the business – Standard, Mack Dawg and now Absinthe, for that brief appearance in Neverland. What are the differences between them?
Well, the difference between Standard and Mack Dawg is that with Mack Dawg I had a group of friends and it seemed like everyone wanted to ride the same stuff that I did. With Standard most of the time it was like: ‘OK, these guys want to hit these lines, what do you want to do?’ I ended up just sitting in my flat waiting for the guys to finish so we could build a jump and hit it. I only had a chance to film two days with Absinthe, but that seemed pretty mellow. It was just me, Nicolas [Müller] and Justin [Hostynek, Absinthe filmer and director], who was really easy-going. Whatever we wanted to hit, he’d film. Even if it was the smallest hit he’d be like: “Yeah let’s film it, it might be rad”. It seemed like they were more laid back about filming you know? They were into making it look like fun.
The ‘Tracking Eero’ TV series looks cool. Did they just give you a budget and let you go where you wanted?
We discussed everything with Oakley, and we wanted a good balance with everything. We wanted to make sure there was a cool park shoot and then a cool urban trip, and a good backcountry trip. So it was Oakley and me sitting down and thinking: “OK, what would be the best locations to make it as interesting as possible for everybody.” And it had to be interesting for me too – not just for their viewers.
Was that project the main focus of your last season? You still do quite a lot of comps don’t you?
Yeah, well, I always try to pick like three or four of the most important ones that I want to go to. I figure it’s important to do one big one in Europe, one in the US and one in Japan.
Just to keep your sponsors happy?
Yeah sort of. Just so they don’t think I’ve quit snowboarding or something if they don’t see me for a few months! (Laughs). I usually do the Air & Style, Freestyle.ch, then X-Games, the Toyota Big Air in Japan, and actually this year I’m going to Arctic Challenge because they’re doing a slopestyle comp. So, that’s actually going to be a pretty contest-heavy season. It’s kind of not normally my style, doing that many contests.
Do you think it helps your riding at all? Last month we talked to Torstein Horgmo and he said he thinks big comps help push the level of riding overall. Do you think that’s true?
Whenever I go to a contest I feel like I’m missing out on something, like on filming or something. It always seems like when I’m somewhere, it’s really good in Finland and I could be filming rails. But, for example, when I was at Freestyle.ch I saw the level of riding was really high. So somehow I found myself trying a new trick, cos all the kids were throwing down. I was like: “OK, I’ve gotta try this backside 1080 late cork that people are doing,” and I ended up learning it at that contest. [Eero actually won the contest with that trick – Ed] I think it’s probably good to go to contests just to see the level of riding. If I went to a contest and saw that everybody else is a lot better than I am then I’d go home and try to practice more cos I’d be like: “Fuck dude, I need to catch up!” (Laughs)
Do you visualize a trick in your head before you do it, or just go out and throw it down?
Yeah, I will definitely think about how it should look and then if I film a shot, I’ll always check that out and make sure it looks the way I want it to look and if there’s something wrong with it I’ll just go up and do it again. I always have a picture in my head of how it should look you know, the way I want to do it.
I hear you’re trying a switch triple backflip. How’s that going?
Well the first time I tried it was a couple of years ago on a park jump in Big Bear, and I got pretty close to landing it. That was the year I was riding without the ACL [anterior cruciate ligament] on my knee, because I blew it out in January and I was still filming the rest of the season. So I didn’t quite get it. This year I was trying again in the powder but the jump just didn’t feel big enough to get it round. I kind of get the feeling that I definitely have it in me, what it takes to do it. It just needs the right spot and then for me just to go for it. I definitely don’t think it’s a cool trick at all, but it’s one of those tricks that no-one’s ever done before so I think why not go for it? It would just be cool to be the first guy to do a triple flip and land it.
You’re really good friends with Heikki. What do you think about the way he lost his sponsors recently? [Heikki got dropped by Burton and Analog]
I thought that was totally fucked up. I definitely didn’t see it coming. I thought Heikki would have been one of the last guys Burton would have dropped because he has one of the best images in the Burton team. Now it’s like they have either old guys or contest machines. They don’t have anything in between you know? Heikki was just different. More a kind of real snowboarder and not just into the corporate stuff. What’s kind of weird to me about Burton is that Heikki stayed loyal to Burton for so many years and then they just dropped him. But I always thought that Heikki didn’t get as much as he deserved from Burton anyway. There were always so many other guys like, for example Mads Jonsson. I think Heikki is ten times better than him. But they had Rene as a team manager, who’s from Norway like Mads, so he would always back up his Norwegian buddies. So I think it’s almost better for Heikki to be somewhere else and getting the respect he deserves.
So was he pissed off?
I think at first he was just disappointed with the way Burton handled everything. And then I’m sure he also felt like there were people on the team who didn’t deserve to be there as much as he did. But now he seems really happy about the situation he’s in because he can actually work with people at Bond and Weekend who he knows he can rely on and he can be more part of the whole program. He can take those brands where he wants to go.
Recently we had an interview with Nicolas Müller, who was talking about his friend Freddi Kalbermatten, who was also apparently close to getting dropped from the Burton team.
Yeah I heard about that!
Nicolas was saying that he thought it was because Freddi was more about “providing a list of shots for the team manager” rather than taking an individual approach to snowboarding. Do you think that’s a trap some pros fall into?
Well, while we’re talking about Freddi, I kind of felt like he wasn’t really creating that much new. In my opinion his part in Standard Films’ Notice To Appear from a few years back was actually better than his parts since. In that part he was doing some really fresh stuff, but after that he just kept doing that same stuff, even though he had the skills to try something new. It seems like a lot of people, when they come out with a good part, just think: “OK if I keep on doing the same stuff every year then people are going to keep being stoked”. They don’t realise that you have to be bringing something new every year to keep people happy you know? But it’s not just about keeping other people happy. It keeps snowboarding fresh for me as well, you know, trying to think more ahead and not just do the same stuff. I wouldn’t be satisfied if I kept always doing the same stuff.
You’ve been a pro snowboarder for 10 years. Does it ever feel like a job to you? What’s the worst thing about being a pro?
Well, definitely getting injured, that’s the worst thing, because then you can’t snowboard or skateboard. But also, by the end of the season you kind of burn out with all the travelling you have to do during the whole season. But when you look back to the season and all the fun times it’s always worth it in the end you know? There’s always hard times, when you think you are kind of over it, but having that one fun day in the powder or that one fun day in the park kind of erases the memory and then you’re just full-on stoked on everything again.
So what do you see as the future of snowboarding? In terms of your own personal progression and the sport in general?
I think what I want to do is try to take the more… let’s say ‘park’ tricks – into the streets. You know like being able to do switch double backflips on the streets somewhere. When you see a shot, I think it says something about the person, you know? I want people to be like ‘That guy has put a lot of thinking into doing that and setting that up’.
What projects do you have planned for this season?
Well, we’re talking about doing a Nitro team movie. But it’s still sort of open. Andreas Wiig is leaving Nitro and going to Forum. So it’s still sort of open with the team movie, but I hope it’s going to happen. It would be cool to give something back to a sponsor who has always supported me.
Obviously you have a long way to go, but what do you think you’ll do when you eventually retire?
Well, it’s still pretty open, but me and Heikki started a clothing company that we’re involved with, called White Moment. We started that like one year ago. They make sweatshirts, T-shirts, jeans and there’ll be shoes coming out at some point. It’s a pretty fun project. Heikki and I both own a part of it. So hopefully, when the time is right, there will be a job for me there.
How would you like to be remembered when you’re gone?
It would be nice if people remembered me as a nice guy. I’ve definitely tried to be nice and polite to everyone I’ve met. It would be cool to get respect for whatever I’ve done with my snowboarding career as well, but mostly I’d like to be remembered as a person.
Interview – Tristan Kennedy