Long-time pro snowboarder Gian Simmen ends his career with a flourish in his own backyard of Davos, Switzerland.
It’s a crisp, sunny January afternoon on the final day of the O’Neill Evolution snowboard competition in Davos, Switzerland. As a warm-up to the teenage acrobats throwing triples over the Big Air overlooking the Bolgen Plaza, an exhibition halfpipe session is pleasing the crowd. A hand-picked group of former pros and industry long-timers like Reto Lamm, Michi Albin and Xaver Hoffmann are putting down the sort of tricks that have barely surfaced in comps for the last decade. And the man behind this show is local rider and ‘legend’ Gian Simmen who pulls out classic tricks like the Methods, Stiffys and Andrecht plants in a flouro onesie. After twenty-three years, this is him saying farewell to his career as a professional snowboarder.
“You have to end it at one point, so it was the perfect time to end it here because I started snowboarding in Davos. I rode my first contest here and I got crowned world ISF champion twice on that hill. So it’s the perfect story to end it here at Bolgen,” says the thirty-five-year-old afterwards with a satisfied grin on his face. “Without these guys riding here today, I would not be the person I am. They were my idols. The funny thing is I haven’t talked to some these guys for ten years but I just dropped them a text message and they were already in. It showed me that snowboarding is such a big community and brings together everyone.”
As part of this send-off, a greatest hits video of his career is playing on big screens around the Bolgen Plaza. The most notable part is his gold run at snowboarding’s Olympic debut in Nagano, Japan in 1998. Apart from the retro outerwear and hucked tricks, the most telling part is the scruffy and uneven halfpipe he’s riding. It’s in great contrast to the mathematically crafted, six-metre icy behemoth that’s being ridden today, and speaks of how much snowboarding has changed in the span of Simmen’s career.
“It was a big step in progression. Snowboarding being an Olympic disciple changed a lot,” reflects Simmen, who puts this Olympic appearance down as watershed moment for snowboarding. “It showed that it’s a sport – it’s a lifestyle but it’s a sport as well – and opened up snowboarding to many many people. Back then, snowboarding had to decide where to go be professional or just a core group.”
Of course, snowboarding chose the path of profressionalism, leading to multi-million dollar snowboarding mega-events like The Dew Tour,X-Games and the World Snowboard Tour. As a result, the athletic level of riding in competitions is so high that the faces on the podium rotate yearly, as young riders appear out of nowhere to one-up the previous generation with bigger, more technical tricks. For instance in the O’Neill evolution Big Air finals, there were two fifteen-year-old riders making their WST debut with one, Kyle Mack, landing the first ever FS 1440 Triple Rodeo Indy! So where does Simmen sit with this technical arms race?
“I prefer the style in tricks. You can still have style spinning 900 or even 1080, but still a switch back one over a big kicker or a backcountry step down is way harder to do that a switch back nine. But times change,” he says diplomatically.
With all the burn-bright-and-fade-aways, the career longevity of someone like Simmen looks like something from the snowboard stone age. But while money and ‘the industry’ may dictate a pro rider’s profile and career-longevity, it can’t take away the physical act of sliding sideways that all, including Simmen, cling to more than anything else.
“I still go out, shoot photos and film because that’s what I love. It doesn’t matter if your paid for it or not. My heart and feelings towards snowboarding will remain the same,” he says. “I will still snowboard and raise my kids to snowboard. There’s a few people who walk away from snowboarding but they will always come back. Sooner or later, their past will hunt them down!”