Interview by Peter Hasselgren
Johan Olofsson’s legacy to snowboarding is such that he really needs no surname. Like ’Terje’ and ’Shaun’, his skills are so legendary that it’s obvious to anybody which guy you mean when you talk about ’Johan’. His reputation was made with one groundbreaking part back in 1996 when, as a scrawny 19 year old kid from the icy funparks of Sweden, he went on a trip to Alaska with Standard Films. What followed was nothing short of mindblowing, as Johan took his freestyle skills to the backcountry in a way no other rider had done before. More than that, he tackled lines which veterans of the Alaskan heli scene had only contemplated in their dreams, with a speed and fluidity that would change the concept of freeriding forever. As the current king of powder Jeremy Jones put it, ”Johan’s part, TB5, was hands down the biggest influence I’ve had in snowboarding.”
The experience had a big effect on Johan too. In the subsequent years he turned his back on the world of contests, parks and media hype, spending large parts of the winter like a hermit in Alaska – waiting for that small window in the spring when the storms finally clear. It seemed his eyes had been opened to a superior form of riding, and everything else fell short. Finally, as he went further underground and a series of injuries interrupted even those fleeting appearances on video, the patience of his longtime sponsors at Burton ran short; he was dropped from the team to make way for some younger riders. With a damaged knee that needed time to heal, Johan decided the time was right to retire from professional snowboarding and return to Sweden, where he has embarked on a new project building a funpark in Gällivara, called ’Thunderpark’. Is the prodigal freestyle son back for good? We caught up with him to find out more.
First I have go back to the time when you were all over the media. About ’96 you started to do big mountains and were topping the bill in the videos. Then you seemed to fall off the radar – what were you doing?
Hmm, basically I was just doing that: riding big mountains and filming for about six years.
But at some point you kinda disappeared, and all these wild rumours started circulating about you. Can you tell us about that?
I was still filming a lot, but all the early season footage was useless compared to the stuff I was shooting later in the winter in Alaska. So I started to skip early seasons and just focus on enjoying riding Alaska during the spring. I didn’t do any promotion or competions for a while, so that`s the reason i didn`t have any coverage in the media.Then I blew my knee – I think it was 2002. It took about seven months to get it fixed. Then I managed four months riding and it blew again. My doc said than we could do an operation, but that it would be much better if I just had a six month vacation and took things really easy with it. I did that but it didn’t really help, so in the end there was still two more operations.
A year is a long time to be stuck inside when you’re in the snowboard business!
That`s true, it’s hell. I didn’t even tell Burton about the operation – I didn’t really care cos I’d heard that they wouldn’t be giving me a new deal. I’d had a wonderful eight years riding without any injures, so overall I think I was lucky.
After you got dropped from Burton, were you tempted to cash in on your name with some smaller company? You were very respected rider!
I dont know… it might have crossed my mind! (laughs) I missed a couple of seasons and this is the first one since that I haven’t had any injures. Now my knees have started to be strong enough without using a support. I still need to do a lot of training before I can go back to doing big mountains. Why don’t I find a sponsor that would be fun to work with and take some money? Well the answer is: if all pieces fit, I will!
So do you still want go back to the pro rider’s life?
Well (thinks). First of all I`m not in the same shape I was, so I don’t think any sponsor would take me! (laughs) But I’m still always getting calls from movie companies like Standard Films. ”What about this year? When are you coming to shoot?” That would be great. But stuff like promotion tours and competions every second day – no way! The last five years when I was riding, I flew only one route: Sweden – Vancouver – Alaska. So I wasn’t travelling to so many different places.
At the time you had your injury, did you move back to your real home in Gällivara?
First I stayed in Stockholm for 3- 4 months, and went to rehabilitation myself. Then I moved back here and shared an apartment with my friend. After my knee went the second time I thought, ”OK, now I have to live here,” so I bought a cabin by the lake. There are too many other distractions in Stockholm anyway… like the nightlife! (laughs)
What else have you been doing last couple of years?
Well, rehabilitation is an endless process, so it was almost entirely that! You have to go to the gym five times a week, and every time you have to try to add to your weights. After the second time my knee went I was too fucking tired to start that process again.
Did you think at that moment that you were gonna end here – no more snowboarding?
Not really. When I go riding I get so excited that I have to restrain myself. When the adrenalin starts to flow I`m stupid and I’ll try anything! Like the first time we were trying our park, everything was way too big. The plan was to be able to fit Cats between jumps and the landing. When we made the step-up I was the first to try, but I landed way too short and heard a pretty nasty sound from my knee. Right then I thought my snowboarding days were over, but luckily there was only minor swelling.
What about the snowboard industry? I gather you’ve experienced the downside of it as well as the good times?
Yeah that`s right, Burton snowboards had a pretty shitty attitude at the time. I don’t really know what happened cos I didn`t talk with them after I got dropped. I thought they were the idiots, so I didn’t want to waste my time thinking about it.
Burton were your only sponsor, it must have been pretty tough thing?
Yeah it was. After Jake Burton went on his year long vacation around the world, it was like this army-style power struggle started in his absence. They try to make young riders who haven’t formed their own opinions do crazy jumps. ”Hey that guy did that jump – let`s mark it down in the black book!” I felt the spirit of snowboarding had been lost somewhere.
You were good friends with Jake, did talk to him about it?
Yeah I was, but I haven’t talked with him since then. I didn’t really want to argue with him. And on the other hand, it was big relief that I got time to deal with my injures, and nobody was breathing behind my back. I could have had surgery and continued riding but I’d probably have been using crutches by the time I was 40 years old.
Did the dream of Thunderpark come while your knee was recovering?
My friend had this idea to start a snowboard shop in Gällivara. I thought it would be a good idea to bring more snowboarding to this town and so I bought a 50% partnership. To begin with we just wanted to improve on the one jump they had at the local Dundret ski resort. We started with one park, but feedback was so good that we ended up making a pipe and two parks.
So there wasn’t any park at Gällivara before yours?
Nothing. Actually these hills are pretty good but the ski resort was stuck in the 80s. They thought that some skiing worldcup event might come here, with big exposure, and it would change everything. Teenagers with snowboards were not welcome before us (laughs)
Was the idea to run a business which would pay the bills, or was it more about giving the local kids something to do?
A bit of both really. I had no sponsor deal so it started from a business perspective, but it’s still important make some positive changes in town. This is an ideal place for park – the local snow means it can be fully ready for opening on 1st November and continue into late May. In other areas it starts to rain and get really warm in May, but not here.
Have you invested lot of money in this project?
Yeah, and we’re spending more every day without any profit! (laughs)
Let`s hope all the hard work you’re doing will pay off!
Yes, lets’ hope we dont go bankrupt!
Did you negotiate with Gällivara town? Have they been part of this project in any way?
This is big thing for the town. We’ve had meetings with Swedish ministers and risk investors. This kind of project need´s a lot money and we can’t guarantee anyone that it`s gonna work. So we needed high political influence to persuade them that it might help this town. We actually talked with the bosses of every big business in town, and they were all stoked on our plans. It took a year of fighting a paper war before we could even think about the park, but it had to be done. Nobody wants spend that much money out of their own pockets!
So far thing`s have been going as planned, with just a few minor problems. The biggest hurdle is that those business guys seem to speak a different language to me. Luckily Jörgen my business partner take care of those things – I´m the guy who sprays colour edges on the pipe, ha ha! I like it so much more.
Jörgen says that local snowboarders have been helping a lot with the construction of the park?
Everybody has been stoked to help. Gällivara is a nice town but there is not a lot to do round here. The ski resort is here but it’s been stuck in the ice age, so it’s nice to have something else to do. Actually not everyone has helped – a lot of the faces are the same everyday and others are sitting at home in front of their Playstations waiting for the park to be finished! (laughs)
So are you gonna stay here and run Thunderpark if your knee doesn’t heal or you dont get a new sponsor?
I hope that I can ride seriously for a couple more years and don’t have to do anything else for living. Still, Thunderpark is my first priority – I can’t just run away to Canada before we get this thing going smooth. Jörgen and I have a deal that I make the park, and after that I can go as I want. Everytime there’s something important happening I come back to make sure everything is OK. We have one guy who’s job is to upkeep the park. This guy came straight from the unemplyment office but luckily the guy knows his job! (laughs)
Right now we dont have enough people so finishing the first park took little bit longer than expected.
How does the business side work, since you don’t really own anything of Dundret ski resort?
We’ve rented the park area from the owner for as long we want to. Because Thunderpark has to be on the same lift ticket as Dundret we get a share of the profits if the number of people visiting starts to grow. We offered Dundret a pretty good deal and they took it!
It’ll be an important thing for the town if you get more tourists here.
Yes, we tried to think about this from every angle and we couldn’t find a reason why it won’t work. The biggest problem is that town only has accommodation for 1200 people – that ’aint much!
So the next big thing must be hotel?
Yeah, and there must be a wave machine for indoor surfing in basement! (laughs)
After last night’s opening party do you feel relief?
Yes, so much… because we got only just got that park before the party. It would have been so much easier to work if we had all the right tools. We don’t have money to buy everything at the start so we’ve been cutting trees by hand which doesn’t make any sense!
You had a pretty wild opening party [Johan is sporting a black eye] and I’ve heard some pretty wild rumours about you. Is there any truth in them?
Yeah right! (laughs). In Gällivara there’s a pretty hard atmosphere. There are a lot hardcore rednecks up here, so that`s all I have to say.
What other plans do you have now?
I have some. I would like to go back to Canada. There I would like to get a job as some kind of advisor for a ski resort – but that’s just a dream. Here in Gällivara we’ve been planing luxury heliski packages for exploring the local areas. Trips where you can ride off piste for a whole week, with accomomication and snowmobiles included. There are some good mountains here, comparable to any area in the world. First we plan to get a few wealthy people here, then if the concept works we can drop the prices to make it affordable for normal people too.
So you are still planning to spend time in Canada?
Well I try to spend as much time as I can in my cabin in Canada. They still have better mountains and snow over there.
Thank you for this interview.
Interested in checking out Johan’s park for yourself. Check out www.thunderpark.se