Snowboarding, like most extreme sports, lends itself to being dominated by younger competitors. In a sport so taxing on the body with the ever-present risk of a severe injury and also requiring constant progression of tricks as boundaries get pushed further and further, few athletes are able to remain at the elite level late into their 20s and early 30s.
Of the current top 10 in the FIS snowboarding halfpipe rankings, only three riders were born before 1990 (only four were born prior to 1992). Those three are Shaun White (snowboarding’s most famous and most decorated rider), Iouri Podladtchikov of Switzerland and Louie Vito.
Vito has been around as a podium contender since 2007 and was a member of the 2010 U.S. Olympic team. At age 28, he’s one of the circuit’s veteran riders, but remains a threat to the podium, as he earned a third-place finish early in February at the Toyota U.S. Grand Prix at Mammoth Mountain Resort.
Vito spoke with UPROXX Sports ahead of the upcoming Burton U.S. Open in Vail, Colorado, which can be viewed live on Red Bull TV on March 3rd and 4th, about the challenges of being one of the veterans on the hill, keeping up with young riders, Olympic qualifying, building a brand outside of snowboarding and why Dancing with the Stars is still the most stressful thing he’s ever done.
You’re coming off of a third-place finish at Mammoth. How nice was it to get back on the podium early in 2017 and start building a little momentum into the Burton U.S. Open and beyond?
To me it was really great to get back on the podium. For me it’s all about consistency this year. I’ve been consistently right up there and to be able to just push it a little bit more to get onto the podium and start 2017 off right was great and I hope to keep building the momentum. I still have more tricks I have to get going again in my bag and once that happens I think I’ll be good.
What are some of those things that you want to add back into the arsenal and get out there into competition?
I have my Double Michalchuk which I’ve had in my bag for a couple years now, and it’s just a little different than everybody else’s that does that trick and I just need to bust out and get ready to go. But then I have some new tricks that I’m working on that if they’re not ready to go this week, then early next season they’ll be fine tuned and ready for the first contests.
Snowboarding isn’t a sport that’s always friendly to athletes as they get older, and in snowboarding late 20s is getting up there. You’ve been really big into fitness. How has that played a role in keeping you as someone that can still be a podium contender this far into your career?
The problem is, in all these years prior, people never really adapted with their body and their health, and for me it’s something I looked at seriously. I started to pay attention to what I was eating. Stopped drinking, started working with my trainer John Schaffer (sp?) who I met through Apollo Ohno and those are all things that play a part from your ability to take some of the falls and getting back up, to just your overall conditioning.
I mean, I’ve been hiking four hours straight this last week at 10,000 feet and still being able to work on new tricks and have the energy to do it and not be too fatigued. It just played a part on everything. A lot of recovery, and you just have to adjust a little bit more. Things that you might be able to do where you take all these slams and then go hang out and do all this stuff after, now you might have to take a little bit of time and take care of your body a bit more.
Health plays so much of a role in being able to deal with impacts that you take on a regular basis. It’s starting to be something guys take notice and do it themselves, but nobody quite does the training I do off the hill. That’s always been my mentality. I’ve always wanted to be one of the hardest workers if not the hardest worker on and off hill, and then whatever happens happens.
Aside from general fitness, what’s the hardest thing about keeping up with the young guys and adapting in a sport that’s so progressive?
I think it’s a couple different things. The first thing, as far as tricks go, that’s hard is kids are almost molded to be going in that direction, where someone that’s been in the game for awhile, you might have to adapt your own riding style and your technique on how you start tricks. You might have to change a few things the way you throw this trick you’ve been doing for five years in order to flip over twice. You might have to adjust and sometimes it’s hard to break some habits and muscle memory.
As far as contests go, it’s harder because you’ve had these judges judging you for 12 years, 10 years or whatever and some of these young kids it’s the first time they’re seeing them. So everything they do is brand new to them. Whereas, you might be doing the same thing, but they expect it from you. They know when I drop in, they have an idea of what Louie Vito can do, whereas a young kid they’re not sure what he’s good at, what’s new, what’s hard for that person. And that’s the hard part with judging being subjective is that I’ve had so many years of contests every single time and they know, “OK, this double cork is easy for Louie.” But that doesn’t mean it’s an easy trick, it’s just easy for me. So that’s another thing that can be difficult.
I remember growing up and playing “1080 Avalanche” as a kid, and back then the 1080 was the golden goose of snowboarding. Now that’s just something you have to do and string together along with 1260s and double corks. There are always more progressions, what’s the next thing you think we’re going to see becoming the norm in halfpipe runs?
I think with each double cork, with each year that it’s around, I think you see more creativity with it as far as grabs and style. And then it’s going to be mixing up your own unique run with big tricks, because if everybody is doing these same tricks, how do you stand out? In the beginning everybody was doing the double cork this certain way, but now two years, four years since that came out people are able to add their own style and their own flavor to it. And that’s what I think you’ll start seeing more. Once it becomes a little more normal to see it, you’re going to start seeing more creativity and style to it.
What’s the biggest thing that you’ve seen change in snowboarding since you came in now a decade ago?
That’s a good question. I think it’s a little bit more, it’s almost treated more like a sport as far as contests. You have to be in shape. You have to be smart about everything. You have to do the right steps. Where before, it didn’t matter. You could be hungover and still go out and try certain tricks and you didn’t even have to think twice about it. You could slam and get right back up, but now there’s so many kids that are so good and the tricks are so gnarly now that you kind of have to take each precaution and do things in the right steps or you could get really broke off.
On top of that, with every year it’s in the Olympics people pay attention more and you’re a little bit more in the mainstream. So you kinda have to be a little bit smarter off the hill as well. And with it being part of the Olympics you have drug testing. You have major media publications that are covering the sport and care more.
With the Olympics coming up, do you see guys get a little bit tighter during qualification events when the team’s being put together? Is there a different vibe on the hill?
Yes and no. I think everyone’s a little bit more uptight, but your boys are still your boys, you know what I mean? You’re still going through the same thing. It’s just more frustrating. I think you take things a little more personally as far as scoring or how you judge yourself and you’re a little bit harder on yourself. And I think you can feel that in the atmosphere with everybody, but not necessarily — people aren’t gunning for each other’s throats because they’re competing with them.
What was that Olympic experience like for you in 2010 and how did that shape your career?
It was great because I just grew up as a kid in Ohio and to make it to the Olympics, we’re not really known for mountains and snowboarding … and it’s something that will never be taken away from me. But, again, I’m competitive in snowboarding, I’m competitive in anything I do and I’m competitive with myself, so you know once you get there you want to go to the Olympics twice. You always want to do more. So, it’s cool, but then once you’ve done that you want to do better. I want to podium. I want to go to another one. I want to — you know, you always want to do better, but it’s something that, when you look back on your career, it’s something that will never be taken away from you.
And it’s kind of funny, I still deal with people in mainstream sports that don’t quite understand snowboarding or think their sport is God’s gift to the people. When it’s like, listen, our stuff’s gnarly. The things we do, every single day, is something that you can easily break your neck doing. And we do it — we have a sprained ankle or we have surgery the week before and you still see people out there riding. And it is a lifestyle. You’ve got companies that want to come in and build off of our image and our lifestyle without being in our industry. But at the end of the day, yo, I’m an Olympian, and that kind of carries across the board with everybody. You might not understand snowboarding, but you understand that I’ve been to the Olympics. So that’s something that, no matter what sport is in the Olympics, it’s always a dream of people.
What’s your personal favorite trick or a thing that when you land you feel like, “I crushed that?”
For me to think I crushed something, it’s just nice when you land a run and you feel good or a trick you’ve been trying. I think the best feeling is learning a new trick because there’s so much mental preparation. Like a lot of the doubles I’ve learned, I just did a do or die on snow. There’s a single and then a double and then you just go for it. You don’t know what’s going to happen.
As for my favorite trick? I love just doing, like, even something as simple as a crippler it’s just something that’s super floaty and fun for me. At the end of the day, all of my snowboarding is mostly things that I think are fun and that I like to do.
What’s a trick that you think is underrated in terms of difficulty to land cleanly?
I think a double cork in a halfpipe, so many people can do them with ease now, but it’s still a double cork. You can still get wrecked. People still get wrecked learning them. So I think any of those, a trick you see people do with ease it doesn’t mean it’s easy and it doesn’t mean there isn’t risk involved.
You’ve done some TV broadcasting, you have all your sponsors and do commercials and are someone who just seems very brand conscious. How early in your career did you realize it was important for you to have your hands in things outside and get your face out there beyond just snowboarding?
Well it’s always been a plan that my parents have always instilled in me. The way I’ve always looked at things is I always wanted to be different than anybody else and I always wanted to create partnerships more than sponsorships. At the end of the day, you have to love the product. You have to believe in what the company wants to do and the company has got to believe in what you want to do. If you don’t have that, then it’s pointless to me. I’ve done very well in my career of snowboarding where, you can offer me a good paycheck and if we don’t see eye-to-eye on it and it doesn’t make sense for me I’ll pass.
That’s why, for me, there’s been companies that come in and out of snowboarding and I don’t just jump on the next thing. For me, I just want something that makes sense where I’m on the same page as them. Also, I’ve always wanted to be bigger than just snowboarding, but also take snowboarding with me. … For me, it’s always been be yourself, have fun and whatever you do try to be the best at it you can be.
One of the things you’ve done outside of snowboarding was you did Dancing with the Stars back in 2009. What was the reaction from other riders on the hill when you went on the show?
To me like, I don’t really care what other people think about anything and you’ve got to be able to make fun of yourself. I always said, if you’re gonna make fun of me, vote for me. I don’t really care. The way I look at it, 22 million people watched that show and it gave me an audience beyond just snowboarding and increased the market. … I’m so far out of my comfort zone that if I can do that, then when I get back to snowboarding and I’m wearing what I want to wear and I’m doing what I have confidence in and know exactly what the judges want, it’s going to be a walk in the park. And it was. I went straight from Dancing with the Stars right to the Olympics.
So was Dancing with the Stars more nerve racking than when you are in the final of a big competition?
Oh Dancing with the Stars was 100 percent the most stressful thing I’ve ever done. It is unbelievably stressful. And then you do your most perfect dance and you go, “that was the best that I’ve ever done,” and then you get ripped by the judges. And you’re like, “man, if you had just seen me yesterday you’d be so proud of how far I’ve come.” You’re wearing clothes you wouldn’t see me wearing on Halloween, you’re doing dances you don’t have much confidence in and you’re doing it in front of a live audience, live judges and 22 million people watching at home. Man, it was stressful.
If you had to give any advice to the young guys coming up, what would you tell them about how to carry yourself, build your personal brand and take yourself from being just a snowboarder into something a little bit bigger?
The thing nowadays is you’ve got to have the whole package. You’ve got to be able to do interviews and commercials, but also be yourself. Don’t be like whatever’s cool. Just be you because at the end of the day that translates the best. Don’t try to be somebody you’re not. Don’t try to be the cool guy. Just be you, align yourself with brands you like and who you identify with that fits your persona, your brand, your personality and it’ll all come from there. Some of these kids just want to be like “oh, this is cool, this isn’t cool.” Well, what do you actually think about it. Do what you think and do what you love to do. Snowboarding’s all about being your own person and it’ll all fit after that.