Being Candide

The portrait of the artist as a young skier

In celebration of POWDER’s 45th Anniversary, we are releasing select stories from every volume. This story originally published in the February 2002 issue (Volume 31, Issue 6).

By Michel Beaudry

It’s the last day of the 2002 Winter X Games. While snowmobilers charge each other in a bizarre uphill battle-cum-race they call “Hillcross,” the world’s best ski-jibbers boost above the lip in the new Superpipe event.

Candide Thovex, already an X Games veteran at 19, is definitely one of the boldest on the hill today. With his signature light touch and long, floating spins, the diminutive Frenchman seems to hover above the crowd longer than any other skier. When he grabs a ski, it’s a true grab. Sure and neat and very clean. And he doesn’t release it until the very last moment. There’s a style to his skiing that no one else can duplicate, an artistic touch that no one else has.

31.6

But the heat is on for the young phenom. After all, this is his last chance to impress the judges in Aspen, his last opportunity to win the X Games gold he so badly covets.

Still, he’s not working the pipe as hard as he could be. It’s as if he’s playing it safe, making sure he nails three or four big tricks per run rather than trying for five and six like some of his rivals. His final run, however, is beautiful. Lots of style. Lots of finesse. The crowd shows their appreciation with hoots and hollers. He comes to a stop at the bottom of the pipe, waves to the fans, and kicks off his skis.

Sitting on the slope, Thovex is the archetypal action-sport prodigy: toque pulled down low over his eyes, headphones wrapped around his head, pimply-faced and peach-fuzzed. A kid who never grew up. Big-eyed and innocent-looking. He is the enfant terrible of the freestyle world—the man who refuses to be limited by others’ lack of imagination.

Now comes the waiting. He walks over to his entourage and sits down in the snow. He looks lost under his fake-fur-lined hood. “How did I do?” he asks. Everyone hurries to praise his runs. “Excellent,” enthuses one of his servicemen. “You’re in the medals for sure.”

“We’ll see,” says Candide.

Sitting on the slope, Thovex is the archetypal action-sport prodigy: toque pulled down low over his eyes, headphones wrapped around his head, pimply-faced and peach-fuzzed. A kid who never grew up. Big-eyed and innocent-looking. He is the enfant terrible of the freestyle world—the man who refuses to be limited by others’ lack of imagination. “Skiing is all about playing on the mountain,” he says. “And that’s how I learned to ski.” Growing up at La Clusaz, France, a resort just outside of Annecy, Thovex was encouraged by his coaches to freeski as much as possible. “It wasn’t just about training,” he says. “For us, it was always about getting out on the hill and expressing ourselves.”

The home of world and Olympic mogul champions Edgar Grospiron and Raphaelle Monod—as well as big-mountain freestyle pioneer Seb Michaud—La Clusaz isn’t one of the biggest, or highest, or fanciest, resorts the French Alps. Far from it. But it makes up for its lack of size with a surprising amount of variety. “It’s one of the most beautiful natural terrain parks in the world,” says Thovex. “It has a little bit of everything: gullies, cliffs, windlips—even powder snow from time to time.” He smiles. “I can have more fun skiing for a morning at La Clusaz than I can have skiing a week anywhere else.”

He stops for a moment, as if he’s trying to find exactly the right way to get his point across. “You know, I wouldn’t be the same person I am now if I’d grown up anywhere else. That mountain has a spirit about it that’s unique in the world. A little bit outlaw. A little bit edge-of-the-world. But totally committed to pushing the boundaries of the possible. It’s a truly magical mountain to grow up on.”

Candide Profile 2

He’s an artist, he says. A dreamer. A sensitive soul. He shares a big, rented farmhouse on the outskirts of La Clusaz with his “princess,” a Filipino-Arab beauty who was once married to a friend of his in the village. “There was a lot of talk,” he admits. “It was a bit of a scandal. But everyone eventually got over it.”

Like most kids, he loves to skate as well as snowboard. “My skiing has always been inspired by skateboarding and snowboarding,” he adds without apology. “I love to snowboard. On those big powder days, I’d just as soon be on my board than be on my skis.”

For Candide, whatever the medium, style is everything. “Everyone has his own signature,” he says. “Some guys can go really big, but they’re ugly skiers. Others don’t have so much amplitude, but they’re really clean. I believe everyone should be judged on their own merits. I, for one, will never compromise my moves to please the judges.”

But don’t be fooled. Behind the artistic, pseudo-naive façade is an indomitable will. A notoriously independent-minded athlete.

Thovex has always skied to the beat of his own drum. At 16, already crowned twice as French junior moguls champion, Candide quit school to pursue his passion for the new-form freestyle discipline just then emerging. It wasn’t long before he was showing his stuff in the U.S. At his first appearance in the X Games, in 1999, he finished fourth in the big air contest. A year later, he was first. He also won gold at the Gravity Games that winter. By the end of the winter of 2000, the Thovex legend had taken flight.

Not yet 18, he was being touted then as the most stylish, most naturally talented, of the new wave of young skiing stars. Those who know him say those claims weren’t exaggerated. “His vision is extraordinary,” says big mountain champion Guerlain Chicherit, a longtime friend and former teammate on the French Junior Mogul Team. “He’ll describe to me a new move he wants to try while we’re going up the lift. Then, on the next run, he’ll pull it off perfectly.” Thovex is a real skier. Not merely a newschool jibber, but a true big mountain skier who can arc a turn with the best of them. “That’s his secret weapon,” says Chicherit. “Powder, frozen moguls, wind- or sun-crust—he can do it all.”

“For me, skiing in the halfpipe or the park is fine when there is no powder on the hill,” Thovex says. “It’s a way to hone your skills, to get a better understanding of how you can extend your limits. But for me, the real skiing happens when I’m freeriding on the mountain.”

His style and personality garnered the attention of one of the most important men in professional skiing. Salomon’s Bruno Bertrand gambled big on wooing Thovex away from Dynastar last year. He even had to drop a couple of marquee names to make room, including high-flying Quebec ace Philou Poirier. The deal made instant headlines. Rumors spread that Thovex had received a million dollars to defect. Others said he got $100,000 every time he made the podium.

“We paid Candide a fair price to join our team,” says Bertrand. “But a million bucks? Get serious. Nobody makes that kind of money in our business.”

No matter how much the deal was worth, it was enough to put many at the X Games on edge. It was obvious that Thovex had some serious pressure to contend with there.

Until the spring of 2000, it seemed like Thovex was invincible: X Games champ, Gravity Games champ, Australian Xtreme Games champ—there wasn’t a big air contest he didn’t dominate. Back on his home turf, he’d even been asked to star in a segment for the legendary French film, Les Nuits de la Glisse (Nights of Ride). For the young skier-cum-artist, it was an offer too good to resist.

For Candide, whatever the medium, style is everything. “Everyone has his own signature,” he says. “Some guys can go really big, but they’re ugly skiers. Others don’t have so much amplitude, but they’re really clean. I believe everyone should be judged on their own merits. I, for one, will never compromise my moves to please the judges.”

“We were shooting the sequence at Les Crozets, and it was pretty late in the day,” says Thovex. “We’d already done quite a bit of backcountry heli ski stuff and I was getting tired. But the director asked me if I’d mind doing one last gap jump in the terrain park.” Without thinking about it, Candide agreed. “It was really dumb,” he says, “but I completely overshot the landing and landed way out on the flats.” The impact was hard enough to completely sever his ACL. His season, and much of the next, was over before he even knew he was hurt.

The ensuing rehabilitation, he says, nearly wiped him out. “I’d never been hurt before. Never had to sit by the side of the hill and tough it out. Now I had to deal with all the baggage that comes with surgery and healing and downtime.”

By January 2001, Thovex was ready to start mounting his comeback. “Last year, I came to the X Games thinking I could win again and wipe away all the questions about my return to top form,” he says. “But it was too soon after my surgery; I struggled a bit and finished sixth.” He pauses for a moment. There is no question that his artistic bent is often overpowered by his competitive instincts. “That was a huge disappointment for me. I wasn’t ready for it all.”

So Candide decided to set new goals for himself. “I have a pretty clear vision of what I’m trying to do with my skiing,” he says. “So I get quite frustrated when I see filmmakers include what I consider to be flawed sequences of me in their films. That’s why I decided to start producing my own ski flicks.”

His first film effort, Rastafaride, was released in the fall of 2001. A very personal statement on what Thovex-style skiing is all about, Rastafaride was produced in conjunction with the equally eccentric Lionel Gehin, a colorful cameraman who seems to have implanted himself deep inside Candide’s psyche. “We’re not sure exactly what role he plays in Candide’s life,” says Bertrand. “And we’re not always keen on the influence he has on him. But we don’t really have a choice in the matter. If we want to work with Candide, we have to learn how to work with Lionel.”

Less than a half-hour long, Rastafaride features a laid-back reggae soundtrack—Thovex is a big fan of all things ganja-esque—overlaid with some of the most stylish, progressive ski tricks ever caught on celluloid. From his anti-gravity gap jumps in Alta, to a slew of soulful, high-speed, big mountain powder carves, to insane rail rides, to backcountry jibs, Thovex turns in an amazing, eclectic performance.

It’s a great film for one, simple reason: The vision is clear. There’s no bullshit. Just a kid, a camera, and a lot of daunting skiing. “I love the creative process involved in filmmaking,” says Candide. “I could easily see myself turning completely over to that side of the business.”

Candide Profile 3

Candide was the second-to-last skier in the pipe. The judges are still tabulating his score as Tanner Hall drops in for the final run of the event. For the third time today, Tanner lands in the flats while attempting a flatspin 540 off the first wall. The slopestyle gold medallist will not be a factor in Superpipe. Candide now only has his own score to worry about.

His final run could easily land him in the top three, especially considering that the second- and third-place skiers both crashed in the third round. A 78.34 will put Candide on the podium. But, as with any judged competition, nothing can be taken for granted. Thovex looks like he’s about to burst. Bertrand isn’t much calmer. They want a medal. The score flashes across the electronic scoreboard: 77.33. Thovex finishes fourth, behind Swedish ace Jon Olsson, Phil Larose, his former teammate with Dynastar…and Phil Poirier. The very same Poirier who was dropped by Salomon to make room for Candide.

The young Frenchman is beside himself. “Can’t believe the judging here this week,” he says. “I got beaten today by nose-pickers.” His angry words are meant to mask the deep disappointment he feels at his failure to bring home an X Games medal. But no one is fooled. His voice is quavering with emotion. He’s as close to tears as you can get without crying. “I can’t believe this is happening to me,” he says. “Maybe he’ll learn something from his experience here,” Bertrand snorts.

He does. The next week, Thovex finishes second at the U.S. Open Superpipe event. Although gold medals will continue to elude him for the rest of the season, he ends the year on a positive note with another Superpipe silver during Whistler’s World Ski and Snowboard Festival in April.

“The season didn’t turn out even a little bit like I imagined it would,” he says. “Everyone expected me to win right away on the new gear. But it took me a little longer to get everything dialed. I was being written off by all the experts as over-the-hill.” He stops talking. Thovex is relaxed. Sitting in an outdoor café in Whistler Village, sun-kissed girls in shorts and halter tops float by. Thovex says the year was a learning one. A cloud passes over his face. It moves quickly, like yesterday’s Superpipe “defeat.” The young Frenchman smiles again, breaking into a long, mirth-filled laugh. Already, he can’t wait to get started on next year.