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Stephan Drake: The Definitive Interview

DPS Skis founder Stephan Drake show the world of professional freeskiing from the inside.
posted: 08/14/2000

We grill writer Stephan Drake, who chronicles a month in the life of the freeskiing tour in the September issue, to find out where all our expense money really went.Editor's note: Author Stephan Drake's article in the September issue of SKIING, "Huck to Live," showed the world of professional freeskiing from the inside. Drake is a veteran of South American extreme skiing competitions.

A.H.: First off, Stephan, what really happened when Jeff Cricco, your photographer, got stopped by the police before you even started the road trip?

S.D.: The cop wouldn't let him drive anywhere, and made him stay right where he got pulled over. So he had to call me, and have me, my brother, actually, come and pick him up. It was funny, because he was just waiting at this gas station in the middle of nowhere. It was a pretty wild way to start the trip.

A.H.: Now what about your actual trip... in three words, can you sum up the freeskiing tour, or at least your experience of it?

S.D.: Three words, huh? I'm always really bad at these...

A.H.: Do you want to start off with an easier question?

S.D.: Yeah, let that one sort of mill in my mind. I'll try and come up with something.

A.H.: Fair enough. One of the things that I found most interesting about the article is that it seems as if you wrote very admiringly about most of the skiers you came into contact with. Are you really such a big fan?

S.D.: Yeah, definitely. I grew up being obsessed with skiing and like I said in the article, ski culture is pretty much my culture. I grew up watching Greg Stump's movies. When I was a little guy I'd come home from school in New York City and watch Blizzard of AAHHH's three or four times in a row followed by License to Thrill a couple of times. As much as I tried to avoid idolatry and pop culture or whatever, skiing is kind of my one leak. Scot Schmidt was my hero growing up, and I have an equal amount of respect for this new generation of skiers and their abilities. The silver screen has definitely had an effect on people, so seeing all these people in movies and then meeting them in person, I was a little bit starstruck.

A.H.: So Scot Schmidt was one of your idols as a child?

S.D.: Yeah, definitely. He's one of the most beautiful skiers. When I was growing up, I thought that his style and technique and his whole attitude toward skiing and life were pretty admirable.

A.H.: So who was the coolest person you met on this trip, and who do you see down the line as being one of these extreme skiers you'll really look up to?

S.D.: I guess it's sort of different now that I'm grown. I'm kind of doing my own thing with skiing now. But with the kids watching the movies now, as pure skiers go, I think Seth Morrison is definitely a successor to Scot Schmidt, at least as far as aesthetic beauty in skiing goes. I only saw him once or twice, and I never really talked to him while I was doing this tour, but I think he definitely inherits the role as top dog. There are a lot of really nice, outgoing people. Gordy Peifer is really nice and outgoing and helpful in the story. He's a really cool guy. And Dave Swanwick, I liked him quite a bit.

A.H.: Who do you see as the future stars of the freeskiing tour?

S.D.: If this guy doesn't destroy his body, I would definitely look at Guerlain Chicherit, the French guy I talk about in the story. He's got a superhuman mindset that I can't even imagine. He brings stunt skiing to a different level. The guy is just crazy¿well, I don't know if he's crazy. He eliminates risk in ways that are pretty admirable. I guess I'm more oriented towards the whole big mountain theme, because that's what I like to do, but the jib scene is definitely going to create some superstars. Especially in terms of the ski media in Wisconsin or New England, because there they can't ski big mountains. There are all these little guys¿like Tanner Hall¿who are like 16 and who are basically like monkeys. What they're doing is incredible. And with the influence of skateboard culture, kids are really gonna adopt those guyas their icons.

A.H.: That leads me to my next question. Are these skiers really a special breed? Does it take a special kind of person to be a successful freeskier? In other words, are these people crazy, or are they just a bunch of people competing for sponsorship money?

S.D.: Among the skiers who hit the media, there's a whole breadth of personalities and motives. I talked about the sponsor/product thing in my story. I've been around that mentality a lot, traveling and skiing, and it takes a lot of the fun away from it. Some people are really more concerned with their image, and no one's really making a ton of money, so it's really more image-oriented. Then there are people who are doing it for the love of it, mostly the big mountain/backcountry people, and I think that that takes a very different mindset. It also takes a very dedicated and professional racer who perhaps works harder, but there is definitely an intangible free-flowing mindset.

A.H.: At several points of the article, as you just mentioned, you seem to poke fun at the corporate nature of the events you attended. Do you see this corporate sponsorship of the events as selling out¿or as a necessary part of a sport that doesn't have much funding?

S.D.: Yeah, I think it's a necessary evil for the development of the sport and the marketing of it. I think it's the coolest thing in the world when NBC shows big mountain skiing. But when there's money involved and there are people directing that money who aren't directly involved in the sport, that can have a negative effect. They can change it to suit their own needs¿basically, making money¿and that's not too much fun.

A.H.: Glen Plake said that the crowds at the X Games were comparable in size to crowds at European World Cup races. Do you see this as another example of American fans only being interested in the biggest and the fastest and the most dangerous product they can find? Sort of the FOX network mentality? Or do you see it as the beginning of a new, all-around trend in competitive skiing?

S.D.: Well, if you're talking specifically about the X Games, I don't know if you can pick up on it in the story, but there was way too much of the corporate thinking going on. It was cool that there were all those people out there watching, but I don't think that any of them really follow the sports too closely. For example, if you went to a ski race in Europe, everyone would know every racer. Perhaps Americans are becoming more and more familiar with some of these names, but this year at the X Games, they had all of these new events. They had this new skier/snowboarder-cross type of thing, then there was a special skiercross. But, as you can probably tell, a lot of these "X sports" are just thrown together for television or marketers. I don't think that a lot of the events are worthy of achieving long-standing continuity or appreciation. I don't think the fans get much of a chance to familiarize themselves with the athletes and to really know who's out there and who's competing. At the X Games, I mentioned that the crowd at the snowmobiling event had the greatest turnout, and it was obviously all these tough backwoods New Englanders with Carhartts and hunting jackets on. That was the biggest turnout. And everyone else there is kind of drawn in by the Mountain Dew corporate hype. They don't really know the sport so well, and it's kind of like going to the Olympics where you walk over from bobsled to figure skating. You see these athletes once every four years, and you don't really know anything about them.

A.H.: But on the other hand, the Olympics have this kind of mystique about them, whereas the X Games, not to downplay their popularity, but I think that people now are more likely to be drawn to the X Games because, yeah, you're going to see some guy flying down the hill at 80 miles an hour and crashing into things. Do you know what I mean?

S.D.: Yeah, it's definitely got that race car allure. Folks come to check out the snowmobiling, and then they're like, "Oh, let's go watch some skiers crash," or something like that. But then again, with stunt skiing and the whole exposure that skiing has been getting, there are these little kids who know all the athletes' names and who have grown up with them.

A.H.: Do you think there's a chance that it'll gain in popularity due to the little kids being into it more so than teenagers and adults are?

S.D.: Actually, I don't know. I kind of equate it to a fringe sport, like skateboarding. I grew up skateboarding a little bit, and when I was little, I was totally into Tony Hawk. I don't really skateboard anymore, but every once in a while I flip through a skateboarding magazine just to see what's going on in the sport. When a sport makes up a good part of a kid's childhood, then when the kid grows up I don't think he's ever going to reject it or get bored with it. No one's ever going to turn off the Super Bowl to watch freeskiing, but who knows? If kids start getting into it now, then it's definitely gonna have some longevity.

A.H.: What would you say was the coolest experience you had on your trip and please tell me it had something to do with some kind of freeskiing tour groupie?

S.D.: Tour groupie? Ha, ha, ha...

A.H.: Seriously, is there as much sex following this tour around as one would imagine? It just seems like the tour should have a bunch of freeskiing, freewheeling people who are into going out and having a good time.

S.D.: Yeah, totally... I'm not a super party guy, so I suppose I didn't get the best scoop on that, but I was thinking about making that part of the story: trying to speculate on the comparisons between the 90's freeskiing tour and the 70's hotdoggers. From everything I've gathered about the hotdoggers, they seemed to party pretty hard. It seemed like the heyday of the big parties. And I didn't really see any groupies around...

A.H.: Ohhhh, all right.

S.D.: There are a lot of dirtbags, though.

A.H.: So, what would you say was the most exciting or the coolest thing that you did while you were following these guys around?

S.D.: I think the comp I did at Snowbird was the coolest thing. Competing against a lot of the guys who I kinda always knew from afar, from magazines and movies... that was pretty cool, and it was great to ski that mountain that I'd always wanted to ski. Good terrain and beautiful snow, so I really liked that. It was lots of fun.

A.H.: At one point in your article, you say that "The future of freeskiing is stylish skiing, not hospital air." What exactly do you mean, and why do you think that's the direction in which freeskiing is going¿or maybe the direction in which it should go?

S.D.: Those are just my own crazy feelings. That's what I get for growing up admiring Scot Schmidt...the way he skis, it's just really beautiful. I think that's where the art is, to be able to throw your body into those angles, to be able to ski those kinds of lines. It's just so beautiful. Airing to me is super cool, but a lot of people who really can't ski can air. It's also like the race car appeal...big airs! A guy hucking himself off something huge will draw someone in who's never really skied before. And personally, I love taking air, but for something to really be an art¿like flying off snow as gracefully and as powerfully as you can¿it should take lots of years to practice and learn. And there aren't many people who can do it at such a high level. That's what should be most admired. But it's the whole package, too. And air is part of it.

There are a lot of skiers now, like I brought up Seth Morrison before, who can do amazing tricks, but who are also really good technicians. The whole package is the future, but on the tour, they want to be scored really high for going huge and I don't think that the judging should necessarily go that way.

A.H.: Okay, the readers want to know...what was the best party you crashed while you were following the tour?

S.D.: Well, like I said, I'm not the biggest party guy, but I had a good time at the Snowbird after-event party. It was just wild. It was at a crazy venue, and everyone was drinking these Salt Lake City power drinks with tonic and a thumbnail of vodka. It was just a fun scene. There were crazy fans. Also, in Mammoth, California, at the Gravity Games, there were parties every night. There were nights where there was the Powder party and then there was the Freeze party and then other parties after that. It was just an overload on the whole party scene. Anyone who's anyone was just walking around, going to these parties. It was fun. I wish I could relay some wild antics to you, but...

A.H.: Well, there's no reason to make stuff up. Finally, are you still competing? And what's in the near future for Stephan Drake?

S.D.: Well, the complication for me right now, and I think about it every day, is that I have this crazy internal dialogue about whether to compete or not. I have a problem with it, because it turned something that I think is really fun and soulful into something that's competitive that you have to get stressful about, and it kind of takes away from the spirit and the fun of the sport. So, I always have that debate going on in my head, but at the same time I have this desire to ski my best and to be as good as I can be. Competition is definitely encouraged and has given me the forum to be acknowledged for my skiing. There's kind of like this two-sided battle all the time, but I think right now, I'm looking to do the South American extremes coming in September. That's the place where I've spent a lot of time and I know all the lines really well and I feel really strong. I almost feel like it's my home court.

A.H.: Where is that?

S.D.: Las Leñas, Argentina. And I might be in Chile for a few days, too. But from there, who knows? It's a battle.... One day I'll break out of it and just forget about it. But right now, it kinda plagues me.

A.H.: So what about those three words that best sum up the freeskiing tour? Based on what we've talked about, how about competitive, corporate, and fun?

S.D.: Yeah, that pretty well does it.


Be sure to check out Stephan Drake's article "Huck to Live" in the September issue of SKIING, on newsstands now. Look for more from Stephan in September, right here on skiingmag.com, as he reports for our Snomads section from South America.g should necessarily go that way.

A.H.: Okay, the readers want to know...what was the best party you crashed while you were following the tour?

S.D.: Well, like I said, I'm not the biggest party guy, but I had a good time at the Snowbird after-event party. It was just wild. It was at a crazy venue, and everyone was drinking these Salt Lake City power drinks with tonic and a thumbnail of vodka. It was just a fun scene. There were crazy fans. Also, in Mammoth, California, at the Gravity Games, there were parties every night. There were nights where there was the Powder party and then there was the Freeze party and then other parties after that. It was just an overload on the whole party scene. Anyone who's anyone was just walking around, going to these parties. It was fun. I wish I could relay some wild antics to you, but...

A.H.: Well, there's no reason to make stuff up. Finally, are you still competing? And what's in the near future for Stephan Drake?

S.D.: Well, the complication for me right now, and I think about it every day, is that I have this crazy internal dialogue about whether to compete or not. I have a problem with it, because it turned something that I think is really fun and soulful into something that's competitive that you have to get stressful about, and it kind of takes away from the spirit and the fun of the sport. So, I always have that debate going on in my head, but at the same time I have this desire to ski my best and to be as good as I can be. Competition is definitely encouraged and has given me the forum to be acknowledged for my skiing. There's kind of like this two-sided battle all the time, but I think right now, I'm looking to do the South American extremes coming in September. That's the place where I've spent a lot of time and I know all the lines really well and I feel really strong. I almost feel like it's my home court.

A.H.: Where is that?

S.D.: Las Leñas, Argentina. And I might be in Chile for a few days, too. But from there, who knows? It's a battle.... One day I'll break out of it and just forget about it. But right now, it kinda plagues me.

A.H.: So what about those three words that best sum up the freeskiing tour? Based on what we've talked about, how about competitive, corporate, and fun?

S.D.: Yeah, that pretty well does it.


Be sure to check out Stephan Drake's article "Huck to Live" in the September issue of SKIING, on newsstands now. Look for more from Stephan in September, right here on skiingmag.com, as he reports for our Snomads section from South America.

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