People’s Champion: The Danny Davis Interview

“I never like to call it training. I’m just always snowboarding”


That there isn’t a sentence you’d expect to fall from the mouth of someone who is, for all intents and purposes, a double world champion. However, Danny Davis is no ordinary competitor.

Despite the kind of success that you’d imagine only comes from unbroken focus on the podium’s top step, he remains one of snowboarding’s more colourful characters. Loud and hirsute, throughout his career he’s combined the gusto of an Italian opera singer with all the solemnity of a custard pie fight – and it’s been a winning combination in every sense of the world. He’s taken home some of the sport’s biggest prizes, and in doing so has – much like Sage Kotsenburg after his Olympic slopestyle win – been held up my many as the man to ‘save’ competitive snowboarding.

But with all the systemic problems begging to be addressed in the contest circuit, how much can one man do? As it happens, quite a lot.

Dan plants his flag at Jackson Hole. Photo: Blotto

“I got super frustrated with snowboarding, like, ‘Why is it doing this shit to all my friends?’ The tricks started to frighten me”

Danny is at home in California when we talk, not long back from a pre-season trip to Hintertux with his girlfriend. Boreal Mountain has just opened, and he’s getting in the occasional shred while planning for the coming winter – which, from the sounds of things, will involve a mix of halfpipe contests and filming trips similar to his last few seasons – albeit with one significant difference. “I’ll be taking the filming a little more seriously this year” he explains. “I’m not doing any Grands Prix, so after the Dew Tour I can film until Christmas – and actually, the contest season works to my advantage. The ones that I want to do are kind of spread apart. Because I don’t do Big Air I don’t have as busy a schedule, so I’m going to take those chunks of time I have outside of competing, and be ready to go with a crew and a filmer.”

He’s no stranger to epic video parts – just check out the latest Burton Presents… edit, where he heads to Japan for the powder trip of a lifetime with Ben Ferguson, Mark McMorris and Terje Haakonsen. It’s not often that someone’s got the chops to headline a video production and win X Games halfpipe gold, but that’s exactly what Danny did last year – and, for that matter, the year before. “I filmed when I could, between contests” says Danny, describing the making of the part with what turns out to be typical modesty, “but then I got hurt in March. That was a bummer! I really would have liked to add more to the part, but I dislocated my shoulder at Double Pipe. I’m very excited to have what I have, though.”

The injury (or as he calls it, “another scar on the body!”) is the latest in a career full of them. The worst of these was an incident – which had less to do with snowboarding and a whole lot more to do with drunken quadbiking – that kept him out of the 2010 Winter Olympics. It came at a particularly bad time for Danny, when he and a few other members of his Frends crew had a particularly rotten run of luck. Top of the list was fellow pipe rider Kevin Pearce’s near-fatal Traumatic Brain Injury, which ended his professional career and became the subject of the 2013 documentary The Crash Reel. It was, as you can imagine, hugely affecting.

“It made me look at snowboarding in a different way, and changed the way I ride a little bit” he reflects. “Luke [Mitrani] broke his neck the year before the Olympics, Kev got hurt, I had my own injury. I got super frustrated with snowboarding, like, ‘Why is it doing this shit to all my friends?’ The tricks started to frighten me – I didn’t want to learn doubles. It made me say to myself, ‘how do I want to snowboard?’, and I started just doing stuff that I wanted to do.”

McTwistin' the night away at X Games 2015, and winning a second consecutive halfpipe gold. Photo: Adam Moran

While he did eventually get the double-dip under his belt, anyone who’s followed halfpipe snowboarding in recent years knows what to expect when Danny drops in. Technical ability is in no short supply, but gets eclipsed all the same by the pure style that oozes out of every pore as he follows tweaked-out McTwist with switch method. It’s not just how he wants to snowboard; it’s how just about everyone on the planet wishes they could too.

He’s been well rewarded for it, and rightly so; on top of those back-to-back X Games golds are wins at the Burton European Open, US Grand Prix, and the Dew Tour. Not bad for someone to whom, unlike some of his contemporaries, pipe riding isn’t the be-all and end-all.

Jonny Depp’s stunt double kills time on set. Photo: Adam Moran

As already mentioned, this year he’s cutting down his pipe time further still in order to focus more on the backcountry. Having ridden the stunt ditch competitively since he was 16 – he’s 27 now – it’s not surprising that he’s dialling back. Even though the results keep coming, boredom has crept in: “Everyone’s runs are exactly the same, all year, and they don’t feel the need to change them much unless they’re losing. Rarely do people do different runs at different halfpipe contests.” It’s a problem that he also identifies in both slopestyle (“it’s just rail-rail-jump-jump-jump”) and Big Air (“It just becomes aerial skiing after a while!”). The problem, at least according to Danny, is easy to spot. “I just think snowboard contests are a bit boring in general because the terrain doesn’t change much. That was one cool thing that the BEO used to do was adding some quirkiness to the course. That always made it a little more fun, you know?”

“I don’t understand surfing all that much, but I can still go to the World Surf League website and see the standings. We’re lacking in a big way”

However, rather than turn his back on competing – like his Burton team-mate Mikkel Bang did, among others – he remains very much in the fold. To him, contests are an important part of snowboarding, and wins at certain events rank among his personal career highlights. He speaks passionately about what that side of snowboarding needs, and rather than just go through the motions or walk away altogether, he’s keen to help it improve. A good start, he says, would be for what everyone seems to want but no-one has yet been able to deliver: a unified tour.

That famous switch method at the Burton US Open 2015. Photo: Blotto

Ever since the Fédération Internationale de Ski (FIS) was given control over Olympic snowboarding in the mid-90s and the competing International Snowboard Federation folded soon after, confusion has reigned. The organisation that followed the ISF (the World Snowboard Federation, administrators of the World Snowboard Tour, formerly known as the TTR) seems to be in a constant state of reinvention.

Whatever your thoughts on FIS, the WST or the Olympics, there’s no denying that the whole thing is a mess. Events on both tours get called ‘world championships’ or something similar, yet often don’t feature anything close to the cream of the crop on the rider list. More often than not, you’ll find those guys at an invite-only event taking place at the same time.

“Talk about a hard way to follow something!” says Danny. “Any sport that’s great, they all have leagues and champions and a way for people to follow it. I don’t understand surfing all that much, but I can still go to the World Surf League website and see the standings. We’re lacking in a big way.”

The cat in the hat. Photo: Adam Moran

Of course, it’s been tried, and a marquee name like Danny is exactly the kind of rider that needs to be involved if it’s ever going to work. It’s no surprise, then, when he mentions that those aiming to fix the situation have indeed come knocking in the past. “I think it was the beginning of last year,” he recalls. “They came to me and said ‘Hey, we need you to sign up for the… whatever it was – the World Snowboarding Association? WS-something! Anyway, they said I needed to sign this contract that said all these things and I was just like, ‘you guys don’t even have a main sponsor or anything – how am I supposed to just jump on board and sign up?’ They needed to have more things in place. I realise that it’s tough to do, though. I’d love to help start something like that, but it’s a big undertaking. Maybe I need to be more open to it, more supportive…”

“If we had these different crazy parks then it would truly be about what the rider can adapt to. That would be a blast”

While he might not have signed on the dotted line on that occasion, over the last few years he’s been playing his own part. In 2012, with backing from Burton and Mountain Dew, he set up the Peace Pipe at Northstar. By augmenting the usual pipe design with wallrides, rails, hips and cutaways, he attempted to put some spontaneity and fun back into contest riding. His format eliminated the incentive – and even the ability – to rehearse a stock run to perfection, and when the time came there was an all-star rider list in attendance, drawn to Danny’s flame and excited about his ideas. Creativity reigned on the day, and the project was scaled up to the Peace Park which has taken place every year since. With planning for the 2016 event already well underway, it’s become as solid a calendar fixture as anything professional snowboarding has right now.

If enough events like this appear, there’s no reason why they couldn’t all be tied into a global contest series. If each location embraced their differences and adapted to the natural layout of the mountain, as Peace Park does, no two events would be the same – something that Danny believes would definitely be a step in the right direction. “One thing with contests, you almost know the top three going into the event. If we had these different crazy parks then it would truly be about what the rider can adapt to. That would be a blast! I’d back that 100%.”

It’s definitely within the realms of possibility; recent events such as The Arctic Challenge and the Red Bull Double Pipe show the willingness of professional riders to change the record. A trip last year to Jackson Hole with Mikkel and Mark McMorris gave Danny a further reason to be optimistic: “We were like, ‘this park is so fun!’ so we caught up with the park manager and he said it was totally inspired by the Peace Park. That makes you feel really good, seeing it spread. Hopefully more mountains will work on their own park and not just say ‘hey we’ve got a 30-footer and a 50-footer!’”

It's a powder day: do you (A) hit the gym while they finish grooming the pipe, or (B) do THIS? If you answered (A), you're a tit. Photo: Blotto

“As soon as we became an Olympic sport and tried to cater for those that aren’t into snowboarding, it feels like we’ve been failing more and more.”

Given how many high-level riders clearly want to see a change, it must be frustrating to watch the same old formats being trotted out every year. However, there’s an obvious counter-argument: if the courses keep changing, surely that would make it harder for the casual observer to follow? At a time when attracting eyeballs from the general public is touted as being of paramount importance, it might make that an even bigger task if the current methods – or back-to-back double corks, rather – are abandoned.

Photo: Sami Tuoriniemi

When I put that to Danny, he’s not convinced: “Does it help, though? It seems like the more we try to cater to the global public who aren’t into snowboarding, it seems like there are less and less contests. You know what I mean? When Air & Style was in its heyday there were a ton of contests, and I didn’t feel that they cared so much about the format. They were just stoked on the shredding! As soon as we became an Olympic sport and tried to cater for those that aren’t into snowboarding, it feels like we’ve been failing more and more.”

It’s a fair assessment: perhaps chasing the primetime audiences is a false economy, and that it’s much more the cause of competitive snowboarding’s problems than it is any kind of solution.“If you’re not into hockey, you’re never going to sit and watch a hockey game and know what’s going on”, Danny continues. “So why are we trying so hard to get people to understand snowboarding? And look at aerial skiing – what kind of following does that have at this point? That’s what we’re trying to change.”

I ask what he thinks about keeping the same course layouts, for the sake of consistency and logistics, but changing the weighting of scores so that style and creativity are always rewarded more than technical tricks with dull grabs and no flair. Perhaps Markus Keller was on to something when he capped his spins at 720s in the 2014 Burton European Open? “No, I think just change the terrain, like we talked about,” he says, “otherwise people can only take it so far. It’s also not true to the sport; first we rode pow, then dudes dug their own halfpipes, then they made jumps and began to hit rails… If there was only one way, where would we be? We need to be changing things up.”

Halfpipe’s shining light tears up the Cardrona ditch. Photo: Matt Georges

It’s hard to argue with that last point, and while Danny’s vision may lack some of the spectacle that was undeniably a big part of the last Olympics, it has the potential to inspire snowboarders – and maybe even the wider world – in a much more effective way.

Let’s hope that, however the future of competitive snowboarding shapes up, it bears his imprint. Whatever else happens, it does look like the X Games superpipe is here to stay – and Danny, for one, is glad about that. “It’s a really fun contest,” he says. “It means a lot to myself, and to snowboarding. The X Games has supported snowboarding for a long time”. This January, he’ll be dealing with the small matter of defending that gold medal. From the sounds of things, his preparation will once again involve heading far away from the pipe with some of his best friends in tow. And why not? As he puts it, “that seems to be helping me to bring new tricks into the pipe anyway!”

When the time comes, God knows what some of his contemporaries, especially those who train in the pipe like their lives depend on it, have got lined up for this year. While we’re sure Danny’s run will be as aesthetically-pleasing as ever, Taku Hiraoka’s amplitude continues to increase; after two silvers, Iouri Podlatchikov may be looking to add the elusive X Games gold to his Olympic title; and, of course, we now live in a world where Yiwei Zhang can huck a triple cork.

“Fuck! It’s really gnarly!”, is Danny’s take on the trick, put down in Mammoth at the tail end of last season. “There’s not much room for error – but it shows how airbags have allowed us to get super comfy with stuff. It’s crazy, I was like ‘I wish I had the balls to do that right now”. It might come as a surprise to learn that the man known for wielding that beautiful switch method hasn’t ruled out going for it himself. “If I had the right setup, I’d be down to give it a go. I’d try to go a little bigger than eight feet out, though! That’s what blew me away about the whole thing, I was like, ‘holy shit, he got a triple round and he’s like head high’. But yeah, that’s the future, unfortunately – or fortunately! I think all those tricks are very cool, and they’re very challenging.”

Travelin’ Dan / shreds Japan / He’s the man. A poem, by Whitelines. Photo: Adam Moran

Whether or not the triple makes an appearance, the competition in Aspen will be as intense as ever. On his recent visit to the ESPN studios, mentions of a possible three-peat came at Danny thick and fast, but he’s doing his best to treat it like any other contest. “I feel the same about it as I did last year. If I win another X Games I’ll be surprised out of my head! I really didn’t think I was going to win last year. When I did, I was hyped, and if I win another one I’ll be just as excited – over the moon, in fact – but I try not to put pressure on myself. I’m very excited about having won two!”

Should he pull off yet another victory, we can’t imagine much will change. He’s already a legend within the sport, and enjoys a comfortable level of anonymity compared to what it would be like if, for example, he’d won back-to-back US Opens in tennis. That’s definitely how he likes it: “Everything would be awful, to be that famous! I like living up in the mountains and doing my thing. The other thing, though, is that when snowboarding’s popular, the industry’s doing well. Do I wish snowboarding was more popular in that sense? Yeah. It’s such a rad hobby – not even a sport for many of us – and it’s really fun to do, so I wish the industry all the success it needs.” Even if that means getting asked for an autograph every five minutes? “Sure!” he laughs.

Throwing shapes in Chile. Photo: Adam Moran

Perhaps if Danny’s approach to organising contests takes off in the way that it could so easily do, that day may come. For now, though, his focus remains on taking what he’s already done and improving it where he can. Of course, that goes for the Peace Park too: “This year we’re going to bring more of a public aspect to it. I feel so bad that we get to ride all this cool transition, me and the fifteen other guys it was built for, and nobody outside of that world ever gets to ride it. I got bummed about that, so we’re going to try and bring the public into it a bit more. Maybe a banked slalom, a bowl jam, some music… “

As much as anything else he’s said, that’s incredibly telling of the kind of snowboarder – and the kind of man – Danny Davis is. Snowboarding for him is the constant, infinite pursuit of personal improvement, but one that’s moot unless there are others with whom to enjoy it. He finds the fun in everything, from bad weather days “making something out of nothing” right through to high-pressure events where medals, cash and even his own neck are on the line. And despite currently being the guy on top, he’s doing as much as anyone to shake up the status quo – taking responsibility rather than just griping from the sidelines and cashing cheques.

What we currently have is still far from the best of all possible worlds for snowboarding – and that goes for the competitive side of the sport more than anything – but with Danny’s help, we may yet get there.

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