In the last decade of competitive big-mountain skiing, perhaps no one has had as much of an athlete presence as Drew Tabke. So it's no surprise the man nicknamed "The Flying Hawaiian" would claim the world championship of the inaugural Swatch Freeride World Tour by The North Face. On March 22, Tabke narrowly won the overall title of the six-stop series, finishing sixth on the famed Bec de Rosses venue at Verbier, 40 points ahead of Swede Reine Barkered in the overall.
A niche genre of a niche sport, competitive big-mountain skiing has largely gone unnoticed by mainstream North American ski media. The underside of the glitz of X Games or glamour of ski film, big mountain contest skiing requires a tougher kind of passion. And Tabke, 28, a nine-year journeyman of the now defunct North American Freeskiing World Tour and European Freeride World Tour, has been a charter member of the genre by championing its history and importance to skiing, practically shouting for respect against the more accepted varietals of ski stardom.
Now, with nearly 1,000 competitors on the Freeride World Qualifier Series vying to gain a spot on the 2014 FWT, the world champ weighs in on the true victory of his efforts: growing a sport he's dedicated his life to the last decade.
POWDER: With the fully unified tour, there was probably more interest in this side of the sport than there has been in a long time. Now that you've had a month to reflect, does it feel different?
Drew Tabke: It feels big, for sure, because I won the Freeskiing World Tour in 2011, but at the same time, there was a separate tour going on in Europe with its own world champion. When I won before, there weren't as many athletes or people watching. So I'm definitely aware of the scale of it, especially since I've seen it grow and go from not that many people knowing about it to now knowing there are 100,000 people watching the live shows from around the world.
During the season, I spoke to you and Griffin Post [who finished 15th overall on the FWT] and you guys both remarked how it felt "legit" and like a real world tour. What are your overall thoughts of the first year of the tour?
We've always had the talent, so I'm not surprised at the level of skiing as much as I'm impressed with the organizers—Freeride World Tour [European event organizer] and MSI [Mountain Sports International, North American event organizer]—and how they figured out how to cooperate globally. To me, that was the real breakthrough. You've had the same athletes and organizers for a lot of years, but it's more about how they learned to work together to put it out to a bigger audience.
What were some standout moments for you during the season?
Seeing American riders who had never traveled to Europe before get over there, be in the Alps, and get in the heli was f–king awesome. Their minds were blown. And in Fieberbrunn, we waited beyond the official weather window to do the competition. But since we overstayed the hotel availability, they moved us out of this four-star Austrian hotel into these army barracks with like, 60 bunk beds in a row, shared showers, common room, and mess hall. And nearly everyone on tour decided to say in there. It was awesome, because you got all these pro riders competing against each other and it felt like summer camp, the one you always wanted: hanging out watching ski movies, looking at photos, talking about skiing, girls hanging out in the boys room…it was so fun.
The media played up an American and European rivalry with the union of the tours. How'd that play out?
You expect people to get along, because you're skiers, you're doing fun shit, but it went above and beyond what I thought. It was almost weird, because you almost forgot how competitive you're supposed to be because everybody got along so well. Which is so cool when you have an event come together like this. On the Freeskiing World Tour, everyone was couch-surfing and nobody was making any money, to now it's become more legitimate and something people are basing their careers around, you expect that to be lost. But it seems to be somehow still intact, the good parts of being a ski bum, where everyone gets along and takes care of each other.
You've mentioned before about the massive influence Jim Jack had on the daily psyche of everyone on tour. How much did he affect this season's camaraderie?
His influence on the culture of the sport can’t be overstated, and what I learned from him during the years we were traveling really shaped me a lot. It's cliche, but a lot of times if I don’t know what to do, I ask myself, 'What would Jim Jack do?' For example, if conditions are challenging, it can be easy to get down, lose motivation, and be negative. Jim would never do that. Instead, he would remind everyone that, "This is a celebration." And that we should go out there, ski safe, cheer each other on, and show people what we can do and that we love to do it.
You've been pretty outspoken how the industry and magazines like POWDER have treated you guys as the black sheep of skiing. Do you feel like that's changing after this year, since it's this true global tour now?
I don't know that answer yet. I think we'll see the results of our progress in how the industry decides to support us next year. But look at the Europe side. Those guys make enough money to make a whole career out of it. And they'll do other projects, like film, but it's not nearly as make or break as it is for an athlete in the United States. Freeride is big over there. It gets on mainstream media and it gets really good numbers, which translates into major sponsorship. So I think for that to happen in the United States, we need more U.S.-based events, since we only have one [Kirkwood, CA] competition and one in Canada [Revelstoke, B.C.] and neither of them get enough visibility, which doesn't translate for athletes. Even though the tours combined, the American and European markets are separate. It's like it always has been: You have to produce the numbers to affect the market.
Talk about your input as a member of the eight-person Pro Freeriders Board and your guys' impact as a group.
In Fieberbrunn, we got a semi-on-site inspection where all athletes as a group traversed through the middle bench of the venue along one track to get a better look at stuff. The snow was not good, and despite organizers wanting to run the event due to logistical pressure, and the local guide wanting to run because he thought the snow was good enough, I, along with Reine, basically called it off for a week. We felt the conditions were too dangerous and pushed it to an athlete vote. The athletes agreed unanimously, and we ended up waiting like seven more days in Austria for better conditions. It was expensive and a bummer because spectator turnout in Austria is the best in the world. But it had to be done for the riders' best interest, which is why the PFB is so important.
You've been competing on big-mountain tours for nine years. This has to be gratifying to win the very first unified world tour, no?
It's not like that for me. It's not, 'Ah, man, I finally won.' It's more, and not just for me but for everyone that's been a part of it for so long, a labor of love. You look at MSI and they run more lucrative events, like the Dew Tour and certain Red Bull events. But they've had a hand in freeride since the McConkey days, so a lot of people have remained involved because they love it and the lifestyle. And, yes, it's more lucrative in Europe, but the organizers are really, really passionate about it over there, too. And I'm in the same position. Since I've been it for so long, it's not really a breakthrough so much as this is really just a part of my life.