Some Thoughts on Competition
By Natalie Jacobs
Here at Korduroy, we tend to focus on the parts of surfing that live outside the big competitions because we believe that the creative energy around this sport, and others like it, simply needs a place to shine. But we recognize that the spirit of competition runs through every aspect of our lives, and we get that people who love their sport as much as we do, decide to dedicate their lives to “going pro” for lots of different reasons. So what happens when your competitive drive intermingles with your favorite sport and your life moves from race to race to race? There are many possibilities, and with this piece we explore the experience of one athlete, Olympic snowboarder Graham Watanabe.
Graham Watanabe started skiing at the age of 8, but it never felt fun. It was the early 90s, snowboarding was on the rise and Graham’s dad just wanted to find something his kids would like to do with him on the mountains in Sun Valley, Idaho. So when his company, Scott USA, purchased Hooger Booger Snowboards, Graham’s dad brought home a couple boards with which the boys could experiment.
They tried them out immediately, but even that didn’t at first strike a cord with Graham. His brother picked it up with no problems, but Graham struggled with it a bit longer…for like a week. That week was grueling, as anyone who has tried snowboarding can attest to, but after fighting through the pain, Graham got hooked on the feeling of turning and gliding down the mountain. That was it for him. He started competing at the age of 12.
He would go on to compete for 16 years, specializing in snowboardcross, the snowboard competition where riders race side-by-side down the mountain (as opposed to one at a time), ultimately participating in two Winter Olympic Games and countless World Cups and regional races. In those years, Graham learned his true capacity for setting and achieving personal goals. Now, at 30, he’s shifting that thinking from competitive snowboarding to something else. He’s just not sure what yet.
Graham never really thought about the Olympics as his end-goal to competitive boarding. He was competing all over the place and in his mind, winning a World Cup was just as big as making it to the Olympics, if not bigger because it shows consistency. “Putting everything on the Olympics is unrealistic,” he said in a recent phone interview. The qualification process begins three years before each installment of the Olympic Games, and relies on wins in certain World Cups, but not all. Like every sport, there are always good days and bad days and it’s easy to feel that judging athleticism based on one three-minute race out of thousands misses the bigger picture of an athlete’s cumulative efforts. But the Olympics is the world stage for a lot of sports, and it is certainly the most well-known competition snowboardcross has, especially now that X-Games has removed the race from its freshly minted World Tour.
“This year is going to be hard for snowboardcross as a sport,” Graham explained. Since he started competing in 1994, he’s seen interest in the sport grow in the sense that more people know about it and like to watch it these days, but that interest doesn’t easily translate into revenue for anyone. There are no stadiums to fill for snowboardcross races and there are very few corporate sponsors willing to shell out many thousands of dollars to get their names on banners running along a race course. When there’s not a lot of money flowing in and out of a sport, there’s not a lot of opportunities to compete.
While much smaller races are beginning to pop up throughout the western United States, maybe Graham picked the right time to set professional snowboarding aside and open himself up to any and all of the possibilities that come his way.
But for Graham, who’s now spent two-thirds of his life as a competitive snowboarder, there’s no doubt that it is difficult and a bit unsettling to make that transition into civilian life. He recognizes the skills he’s acquired through competition are hard to put on a resume in any traditional way. “I’ve done a good amount of schooling but I have no degree, no work experience outside some retail and manual labor,” he said. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t know how to do anything. Being a professional athlete involves so many layers beyond just what fans see during competitions, and the specialized experience has to be worth something on the job market. It’s just that finding the next thing can take time.
Graham emphasizes that what he learned most from competitive snowboarding is that he is capable of achieving the goals he sets out for himself, through discipline and lots of hard work. That’s what it takes to succeed at anything. The rest can be learned along the way.
He understands that the course of his life has been outside of the ordinary, and that it’s not just his ability to snowboard that earned him that opportunity. “It was only possible for me with the support of family and friends along the way. They harbored the open-mindedness that allowed me to take the paths I took.”
So would he take back his days of competition if he could? “Absolutely not,” he said without even the slightest hesitation. “Through competing, I’ve gotten to see so many incredible things and do so much that people never get to experience.”
Even though now it’s time to “keep [his] eyes open for new turns in the road,” he knows that he’s had a pretty amazing ride so far. What he does next may or may not involve snowboarding, but that spirit of competition, that relentless drive to succeed at what he sets out to do will always be in him.