Standing on the apex of stardom, Terje Haakonsen rejected the Olympics and launched his very own contest. Now snowboarding’s renegade superstar is back with a new film...
Munich International Airport bustles with life as we make our way through the terminal with cameras in hand. But Munich, we have a problem. Terje, the star of this behind-the-scenes look at the Burton World Tour, is not in a good mood. He’s pulling faces – the ones you pull when you’re annoyed, when you just wish the world would disappear for a few minutes.
Eventually, he decides he’s had enough – and tells me, in no uncertain terms, that he wants the film crew to “keep their cameras out of my face”. Had this been anybody else, I would have thrown my head back and laughed at the request. But instead, I walk straight up to the cameraman and ask that he avoid shooting Terjeany time other than when he is aware and happy about it. Why? Because he’s Terje Haakonsen, that’s why.
Fast-forward a few years and Terje (pronounced Teh-ree-eh) remains one of the most iconic snowboarders of all time. History speaks for itself. At fifteen he was already good enough to place fifth in the World Championships. Two more years of experience down the line and he had flipped and spun his way to World Champion status, going on to win three US Opens and fourteen international contests in a row. The future of snowboarding had arrived.
Bored of wiping out the competition in the halfpipe, Terje took on the big mountains with a skill and grace few could match, pushing the sport forward with unprecedented force. I could also mention the fact that he is six-time Mt Baker Banked Slalom Champion, can hit a quarter pipe like almost no other, has immortalised himself through the ever popular Haakonflip, and to my knowledge is the only person in the world to have ever surfed a wave -(we’re talking water here) – on a snowboard, but the point I am trying to make is that as far as snowboarding goes, Terje is the man.
And the man they call the ‘Sprocking Cat’ has also never failed to surprise and entertain us by his actions: boycotting the Nagano Olympics, creating the Arctic Challenge, disappearing from the scene entirely, reappearing as prominent as ever before, and all the while remaining something of a mystery to us all.
Terje is a curious mix of quiet and aloof with outspoken and sometimes downright cutting. You often see a glimmer of mischief in his eye. It is close to impossible to label his character, and you get a strong feeling that this is exactly how he likes it. That said, he disagrees when I suggest that it takes a long time to get to know him. “I don’t think so,” he says. “A couple of drinks, a game of chess should do the trick. My girl says I can be very sarcastic. I think I know that, but it’s meant to be funny. That said, I’m sure I can be too much sometimes.”
Terje’s decision to shun the first ever Olympics to feature snowboarding in ‘98 – at a time when he would most likely have swept the gold – sparked a media frenzy around the world, and made people question the entire validity of snowboarding in the Games. He labeled the International Olympic Committee (IOC) ‘ski Nazis’, refused to take part in an event that was run by the ski federation and was hit with criticism by his fellow countrymen for being unpatriotic. So much has been written about his actions that it’s interesting to hear Terje’s own take on that time. “I know a lot of people say that I boycotted the Olympics, but I don’t think I did,” he says. “I was pretty quiet about it besides giving a lot of criticism about the IOC and the FIS in big sports mags in the US and Europe. A piece in Sports Illustrated and a Swedish TV show that I did six months before the Olympics said most of what I had on my mind, but I didn’t run around yelling and doing more press on it. That’s why I don’t feel like I boycotted them. It was more just not caring and not being a part of it.”
Alternatively, you could argue that he did care – about the direction of the sport, that is. His distaste for the increasingly corporate nature of snowboarding was twinned with his desire to keep snowboarding events credible and rider-driven. This led to the birth of the Arctic Challenge in ’99 – an event run by riders for riders. His motivation in setting it up? “Seeing way too many contests held in storms and shitty pipes. Seeing organisers running to the next event without knowing what happened at the last one.”
Terje has an uncanny knack for fascinating people. The movies Subjekt Haakonsen and The Haakonsen Factor back in the early nineties marked the dawn of my personal snowboarding experience; First Descent and For Right or Wrong, which he has featured in over the last couple of years, are closer to its dusk. And yet we are all still equally fascinated by what the man does and says.
Having been instrumental in helping set up TTR (Ticket To Ride) as an alternative to the contest circuit run by the FIS (Fédération Internationale de Ski), how do you see it in terms of influence?
There’s lots of good things going on, and TTR has been important in this process. What makes TTR so strong is that it consists of lots of events, people and brands working for the better good of snowboarding. An organisation based on a common idea is much stronger than a federation built on a method for qualifying into the Olympics.
In the past, filming for a movie part was enough to make you a big snowboard star. Today it seems that they are a dime a dozen and riders need to do more than simply film a two-minute video part each year. Where do you see snowboard movies heading in the future?
Not sure, maybe they will have to take acting classes [laughs].
You spoke out about the commercialisation of the sport during the Nagano Olympics. It now seems more widely accepted that it has gone mainstream and Burton even provided the uniforms for the US team at the 2006 Games. Do you still feel as strongly about it?
No, I did not speak about commercialisation. I spoke about the fact that a ski federation took over the sport for only money interest and about how the IOC operate. Yes, how weird is it that Danny Kass and Andy Finch – who are not sponsored by Burton – had to wear Burton clothing while competing there. You can’t pack your own bags! I think the Olympics are good for the sport in certain ways, but I could write a book about facts that seem very strange to me.
You once won $100,000 for first place in a halfpipe contest. Those days of big money prizes have long gone. Do you think snowboarding will ever get back to the point where companies see it as big enough to put that kind of money in again?
I wouldn’t say those days are long gone. I haven’t done the maths, but it might be that the prize money in snowboarding is higher now than in the nineties. If you look at TTR events, all six-star events have $100,000. Burton have their 100k for the overall winner for the Opens. Then you have the X Games, etcetera, etcetera. I think we will see more prize money in competitive snowboarding in the years to come.
There was a period where Terje went AWOL. He took a backseat to devote time to the son he was bringing up on his own. He might not be the first pro rider to have a kid, but he is unique in that he took his son on the road with him throughout the season. Today, he is quite the family man – adding another son to the mix and a baby on the way. “The hard part is when you miss them on the road,” he says. “I’m not traveling like I used to. I can’t be more than three weeks away from them. The career is not first priority anymore.”
At thirty-one, Terje can do things his own way. I have a list of questions as long as my arm that I would love to ask the man who changed the face of snowboarding. But knowing he is in the middle of touring for the premiere of For Right or Wrong, there’s only time for a final few.
What keeps you motivated to carry on snowboarding as a career after so many years in the business?
Lots of things – I’ve got many friends and it’s still fun to ride powder. I think it always will be.
Which riders have had the biggest influence on you?
Craig Kelly the most, because of his lifestyle and his motivation to go free riding.
Has your increasing skill in surfing over the years changed the way you snowboard?
I think so, not the riding part but how to look and read a mountain. For me, mountain riding can be about making a power turn in a critical part of the mountain and not always looking for spins off a huge cliff.
If you could impart some wisdom to your children, what would it be?
Be open about religions, the Dalai Lama… Have some good thoughts about that. Eat organic food, because it’s good for you and Mother Earth.
As I sit here and reflect on the life of snowboarding’s true superstar, it all takes me back to the classic snowboard movie Scream of Consciousness from 1991, in which a young Terje is asked what he hopes to get out of riding. His reply: “A car”. Millions of dollars later, a life spent between homes in Oslo and Hawaii and a name that is synonymous with the very sport itself, man, did he ever get that ride.