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Monday, July 20, 2009
Updated: July 24, 4:47 PM ET
The Perils Of A Pro

By Robbie Sell

Will work for shred: Stephen Duke, left, all crutched up with Hoven Team Manager Curtis Sorenson.

There are those professional snowboarders whose careers have been immortalized by the media. But the harsh reality for many riders, having attained pro status, is that it's a very short-lived path. What becomes of a pro after their career is over? Going one step further, what led to the end, what did they do wrong, and did they have control over it?

In other words, where does the blame fall? Is it completely on the individual—from their own skill level being surpassed by the competition, or maybe a lack of motivation or, most typically cited, the all-pervasive injury—or are there other factors that play a role, such as industry politics? Do you know where your favorite ex-pros of yesterday are today, and what was their story? Did they put up a fight for their passion of snowboarding, or just get burnt out and vanish? Did they go behind the scenes into the industry, or leave to start an entirely new career?

There is more to being pro than landing tricks like this switch frontside 900. Stephen Duke, Cooke City, Montana.

Stephen Duke is a prime example of a rider whose love for snowboarding has seen extreme obstacles, a guy who has time and time again kept his career alive, but is finally realizing the limits of maintaining "pro status." Though his endorsement paychecks have stopped coming, Duke is still working to land in movies, magazines, and websites. He's had a taste of the top, but a chronic ACL injury has pushed him out of a legitimate run indefinitely. For Duke, being pro isn't the dream he's chasing any longer—because there's more to this lifestyle than the fame and fortune of the A-list.

How has your career been in your eyes—easy, challenging? Did you ever expect it to be like this when going pro?

I would say it's been a massive challenge [Laughing]. Much, much bigger than what I could have imagined when it was beginning. I mean, there are a lot of things that happen, or can happen to people, that magazines and the other media outlets don't really like to make news of.

Throughout your pro career, you had many friends "retire." Did you ever wonder how it came about for them and take that into account, so you could avoid those situations yourself?

Yeah, you always take note of your friends that for whatever reason have decided to go do something else with their life. For some it's injuries, others just seem generally over it and want to move on. Right now I think I've always been a bit jealous of friends and people that could just go do something else. Like every time that I've had to deal with months and months of rehab, I still always knew or assumed that I was coming back to snowboarding once it was over.

There are a lot of things that happen, or can happen to people, that magazines and the other media outlets don't really like to make news of.


After your first ACL surgery, did you think it would hold you back from doing your job? And especially by the time you had your fourth ACL surgery?

After the first one, I figured I'd be one of the kids that would be claiming they've blown out their knee. I don't know what the percentage of pro shreds with blown knees is, but I know its high. But yeah, once they [ACL injuries] started stacking up it kind of started to mess with me in a few different ways—like a slow spiral or something. A returning injury messes with your head, which has an affect on how far you're willing to push it. I guess that's where I've always blown it. Like I'll just try to block out the past injuries entirely, but if you go a little too hard you end up regretting it.

Stephen Duke is just trying to live the American Dream, snowboard style.

And not just physically but the time needed for rehab, and the need to pay for numerous bills (even with insurance, which sponsors don't supply), and this ultimately drains your budget, including money you could be using for travel, keeping you from going on trips and getting work done?

Yeah, so then sponsors realize that you're not the most consistent kid on the block. Then this has an effect on your income, paying all those medical bills you stacked up. And in the end you're digging completely into your own pocket to try to make a movie part. Which sucks when you've got team manager ____ over at mego-corp ____ telling you to go get another credit card.

Yeah, it's easy for them to sit behind their desk, telling you it's an investment somehow. Like you'll make more incentives, but really it seems you're just making them look better—and making them more cash. There are some great people out there, but sketchy ones too.

Well, yeah. I don't really envy those people. I wouldn't want to hold that kind of power over kids. I just think it's one of the weird parts of how this industry works.

In the end you're digging completely into your own pocket to try to make a movie part.


You were once called "the next Kevin Jones"—a guy who definitely enjoyed all the fame in the snow world. Were you ever jealous of people like me who had a relatively easy career, having strong legs and basing it off my image and good looks? [Insert sarcasm here.]

[Laughing.] Completely jealous! I actually never thought of it like that. I wish I had been called the next Tarquin [Robbins] or something. And I'm not saying he wasn't insane. But he just had, like, a look you know? I don't want to be the next best dude in the world. But you know I could never have pulled the denim sh*t either, 'cause I never could fit my knee brace under a pair of jeans I owned.

With all the connections and experience you have in the snowboard industry from creating and selling pro models, working with your sponsors and helping develop marketing strategies, assisting editors on your video parts and working with photographers; do you want to stay within the industry and pursue an avenue here? Or are you jaded and bitter and want to go do something new?

Duke, backside 540, Lake Tahoe, California.

No, no I'm not jaded at all. I think I was for a bit last winter realizing my hurt status, plus being fresh cut off the People movie program. But yeah man, I want to stay involved. Honestly I would love to be more involved these days. With all of the time freed up by not needing to worry about how flawless my my 12s are or if it's going to be snowing or raining in Minnesota in 36 hours. Think about how much other stuff I could be doing. But realistically these days, there isn't a lot of opportunity in this industry.

After this interview goes live, your phone will be ringing off the hook.

Hah.

Do you have any advice for pros that will unavoidably be in your position in the future?

No, I actually don't. Just do whatever is making you happy and run with it. Actually no, that's not true. Make sure you take advantage of everything you can now I guess. They say hindsight is 20/20 and I think personally I've had way too many times in my past where I was thinking that. Oh and if you've got injury issues, get a trainer. Like a body builder dude who can help you get buffer than you ever imagined...and I'd like to add, get a personal stylist. Have some of you guys looked in the mirror? [Laughing.] Not to be too hypocritical of myself though.

Hah, true! I've seen internet clips from Mt. Hood this summer that suggests some of you kids just don't know when to call it good on the ridiculous kits. So what can we expect next from YOU?

Well, like I've told you Robbie, I'll probably give my knee a bit of extra time this year before getting on snow, but once I'm healthy again I want to go shred. I don't wanna drop any numbers but last year sucked. And it's been way longer than any other point in my snowboarding life since I've shredded. In the meantime I've been talking to some close friends about the idea of doing our own brand. And there is definitely some things in the works. For now it should just be called some-super-secret-sh*t-that-you-wish-you-knew-about. But if you looked at it for even a couple moments, your head would pop...

A very sizable switch back 180, Cooke City, Montana.