A local session
A good picture supposedly is worth a thousand words, but the glossy ones you see in snowboard magazines never tell the whole story. You want the truth?Well, it hurts. Literally.Behind the veneer of those gleaming photos worthy for the pages of Transworld Snowboarding or Snowboarder, there are bruises and broken bones. There are dead-end jobs and long nights sleeping on couches. For some, there are years spent in anonymity.Rob Bak, 27, has been pictured in both magazines – the bibles of snowboarding – numerous times. He’s seen himself on ESPN.He’ll be the first to tell you his life story isn’t a glamorous one. Glamorous at times, maybe, like this week when he gets to launch off mammoth kickers in front of a huge crowd and ride rails under the careful watch of swiveling television cameras at The Session being held at Golden Peak. It doesn’t always sparkle like this, though. The gloss? The glitz? It’s just a temporary coverup for the reality.The local pro snowboarder – one of the three Team Vail riders to compete in The Session – is also a night doorman at Art’s Bar in Vail. He’s living out his dream, for sure, but it’s definitely not the dream life that kids imagine in their heads when they watch Bak on their televisions at home or see his mug in a magazine.There have been hard knocks the whole way, and despite being a recognized name, Bak still has to work a Joe-Schmoe job to eat.”I’m happy where I’m at,” he says. “People are stoked on what I do. I get what I need and a little bit of help here and there to get places. It just works out good.”
Bak’s teammate Rachel Nelson, 23, is in a similar spot. Growing up in Vail, she always idolized local pro Barrett Christie – one of snowboarding’s female pioneers. This year, Nelson got her first big pro deal with Oakley – an agreement that gives her free clothing and eyewear and has cash incentives for appearances in magazines and videos.The money she gets from being in magazines doesn’t pay all the bills, though. Neither do the boxes of free goggles.She waits tables to make it by. She also works at a skate and snowboard shop in Denver during the summer to pull in extra cash.”It’s hard sometimes,” she says. “I’m still scraping by. I’m still struggling. I don’t consider myself professional like a lot of other people do. I’m still trying to push my way through.”Megan Pischke, 34, represents the other side of the spectrum. The 12-year local, who also lives in Squamish, British Columbia, for part of the year, has pushed her way through in the pro ranks. Her long-standing contracts with The North Face and Allian Inc. provide her with enough income to live comfortably. She’s traveled the world for a number of film and photo opportunities and has securely established her name in the sport.Pischke vividly remembers, however, the years after she graduated high school when she was drawing the ire of her family while she bounced from couch to couch in Summit County – all the while trying to make tracks into the pro ranks.”I started snowboarding after high school and just kind of went with it,” she says. “I was getting in trouble, too – in trouble with my family, and in trouble with jobs where they didn’t really work out and getting fired because I was always late.”She refused to give up on her dream, however, no matter how frustrated her parents became with her at points. Snowboarding was the only thing she wanted to do with her life.”My parents really wanted me to go to college,” she says. “I was a competitive softball player in high school and I got a college scholarship to go to school – a couple of them – and I didn’t want to go. My dad was pissed. I was pissed that he was pissed. We didn’t talk to each other for a while.”
Local flavor In a week when the biggest names in pro snowboarding come to Vail, it’s easy to forget about the locals. Shaun White is here! Chad Otterstrom!Aside from White, however, who turned pro at 13, Bak, Pischke and Nelson all share something in common with all the other names on The Session roster. The road to recognition is long and full of potholes for almost everyone.There are snowboarding communities elsewhere – like Mammoth Mountain in California, and Breckenridge – which boast more pro names than Vail, but that doesn’t mean people are getting board sponsors just because they live there. Everyone at The Session has had to put in the work.Bak, Nelson and Pischke just happen to have done most of that work here. And, though small, all three are proud of the local pro scene. “It means a lot to me to ride for Vail because it’s my home and I love to represent it,” Nelson says. “It’s one of my favorite places to be. I’ve traveled a lot and I’ve lived in a lot of other places part-time, but I always end up back here. This is my home. Riding for Vail and representing for Vail – I think I represent it really well just because I’m from here and I’m what it’s all about. I really enjoy being here.”When Bak left Alpena, Mich., after high school in 1996 to pursue his snowboarding dreams, he didn’t know where he was going to land.
“We were originally looking for places from Breckenridge to Vail in a week period,” he said. “If we couldn’t find anything here, we were going to go to Lake Tahoe.” Somehow, he met up with a friend from back home and moving to Vail just happened to work out.He says, after close to eight years riding in the valley, that he finds it hard to picture himself anywhere else. “I’ve traveled a bunch – just around the continental United States and Canada,” he says. “I never seem to really get out of the country. I kind of feel like I might be scared to leave. Vail offers the easiness of living here. It’s gotten too easy to live here. The weather’s great. The people are great. The snow’s all right. The valley’s really growing, but comparatively to say the Northwest – like Mt. Baker, Mt. Hood, those places – I feel like it rains there a lot. California is really crowded. Michigan is really flat. Montana, Idaho, those places are really desolate. Vail’s got a big-city feel in a small town.”Having grown up in Colorado like Nelson, and having lived in Vail since 1993 – two years before she turned pro – Pischke says the strong Vail community is what keeps her grounded here.”I love Vail because it’s where I feel at home,” she says. “I like the community a lot. I love the mountain. I don’t care what anyone says about how it’s so flat. I’m fortunate to film elsewhere if I need to, or if I want to do serious backcountry. I’ve also got rad friends like Bak and Rachel and just a fun community to come back to. I can be on the road for three months living out of my bag and come back home for two days and be super energized.”Nelson also says one of the reasons she loves the Vail scene is because it is a little more low key. There is a little less gloss.”I think it’s different,” she says. “I lived in Mammoth. I was back and forth between here and there for a season. I spent a lot of time over in Breckenridge. What I like about it over here is that there is less of a scene. No one is really caring about what you’re wearing, what sponsors you have, stuff like that. Everyone here is really here just to ride and have fun and doesn’t care about being sponsored, doesn’t care about what’s going on with what. They’re just really enjoying their snowboarding.”Snowboarding will get you nowhere
When Bak quit the varsity basketball team his senior year in high school to focus on his snowboarding at nearby Boyne Mountain, his coach told him the sport would take him nowhere. Pischke’s father also made similar remarks to her when she was bouncing around in her early 20s, trying to make headway as an aspiring rider.”My dad was like, ‘You’re crazy.'” Pischke says. “He’s a ski patrolmen, so they were always busting snowboarders for cutting ropes and he was always scolding me and my friends and calling us out. He couldn’t believe that I was cruising around, sleeping on people’s couches and competing and doing contests. Like hitchhiking to Steamboat to do a halfpipe contest – he just thought I was nuts.”While Nelson’s parents were more supportive, she says she ran into obstacles all the time while in pursuit of her snowboarding dreams. She started cutting class when she was in high school at Battle Mountain because all she wanted to do was ride. “I was like, ‘Mom, Dad, what am I going to do?'” Nelson says. “‘I really just want to snowboard. What can we do?'” We looked into the Vail Mountain School, but I really wasn’t feeling it. The Vail Academy wasn’t really allowing snowboarding because I wasn’t on a team then. They don’t have what they have now. So, I found Crested Butte Academy and I went there just during the winter – from November to April – so I could snowboard every day and travel and compete. I went there my junior year and then ended up taking summer school so that I could graduate early. As soon as I graduated, I came back here.”Despite what Bak’s basketball coach told him, and despite Pischke’s father’s doubts, and despite the hoops that Nelson had to jump through to follow her dreams, all three Team Vail members have made it somewhere. This week they get to showcase their skills – which took years to acquire – against the best riders in the world. “My goal was to snowboard,” Bak says. “Apparently, it got me somewhere. I wanted to pursue it as far as I could and see if I could be professional at something. So, I moved out here. Actually, when I moved out here, some of my friends were like, ‘Well, when will we see ya?’ I was like, ‘Look for me in a magazine.’ And somehow, through guys like Jeff Potto and Mike Gallo and Brian Peters, but mainly Potto and Gallo – they got me a lot of photos in Transworld and Snowboarder.”Glossy ones, for sure.Staff Writer Nate Peterson can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 608, or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.