The Original Freeskier, Scot Schmidt, at 50
Interview: 'An inspiration is all you can hope to be.' - S.S.
By John Clary Davies
Scot Schmidt doesn’t need an introduction. Perhaps, though, an update: In winter, the original freeskier serves as an ambassador for the Yellowstone Club. He is sponsored by the Swiss ski company Stockli and The North Face, and is featured in Greg Stump’s upcoming film, Legend of Aahhhs. Otherwise, he lives with his family—he has kids ages 11, 18 and 20—in Santa Cruz, Calif., where he surfs and wave sails. Here, in a conversation with Powder.com on his 50th birthday, July 21, Schmidt reflects on his 27-year professional ski career.
I made a conscious choice when I was 14 or 15. I just remember making a decision after I had won some races and was stoked. I decided I was going to be a skier. I didn’t care what anybody said, I was going to follow it. It’s tough when your parents say that’s not very practical, and you’re not being encouraged. I basically ran away from home to chase my dream.
I won a DH and a GS and afterward my coach pulled me aside and said I had potential. He advised me to get out of the state. Luckily, I chose Squaw Valley. … I tried to get to the FIS races. I had the points but didn’t have the dollars. I didn’t make it.
The same year I fell out of racing I ended up in a Warren Miller film (Ski Time). I didn’t think too much of it. A couple weeks later I got a letter from Warren and he said it was the most spectacular footage he had ever seen and wondered if I was interested in travelling around world with his film crew.
I struggled forever. After about six years of getting free trips and free skis and free jackets, I hit a wall. I was so broke. Nobody would pay me. Warren Miller wouldn’t pay. If you didn’t like it they’d take the next guy in line. I put my foot down and hung in there.
North Face was the first to sign a contract with me. Then K2 and Salomon, and all of a sudden I had four endorsement deals and I was on my way. I had a steady income. It took six years to convince them to sign a freeskier. I was the first freeskier signed in the industry in mid ’80s. I was in magazines and in films, yet nobody would pay for it. We were risking our lives and couldn’t understand why we couldn’t be compensated. We tried to demand some rate so that we could do this professionally, but there is always some guy that will take your spot for free skis.
I was in Santa Cruz and met a guy who was managing some surfers at the time. I told him my dilemma. He saw the exposure and said, “This is crazy.” Three months later everybody had signed. It took a guy to go in there and say you can’t take advantage of this guy. He got the ball rolling for me. I’m celebrating my 27th year with North Face. That’s like a world record for an athlete.
Greg was kind of hounding me. I didn’t think I’d fit into his films very well because they were all kinds of zany and crazy and I was a racer and big mountain skier. But Greg kept hammering me. He said he had a pretty good budget and was headed to Chamonix. I liked Chamonix. I was glad I didn’t turn down The Blizzard. I didn’t have a whole lot of hope for the film but it was a sensation, and it took everything to a whole other level. The Blizzard did more for my career than ten years of Warren Miller films. We ended up on the Today Show.
I was going to the premiere and hadn’t peeked at any of the edits because I wanted to be surprised. I had no idea. It could have ended up being another wacky Maltese Flamingo. Seeing it with a big crowd and having it be so successful was memorable and one of the highlights of my career. There’s something different about it. It came out right about when the VCR became affordable. So all of a sudden everybody had ski movies in their home. They wore their copies out, watching it over and over until they played a gray fuzz.
Greg is really one of the best editors in the business. The music was perfect. He took it to a whole other level. You got to know the characters. It was the right recipe.
I see Plake every now and then, but he’s super busy—I don’t hang with him. After K2 dropped some of us, I lost track of those guys.
K2 dropped me and I don’t know why. I never missed a beat and I couldn’t understand, especially for such a nominal retainer. Tim Petrick made the decision. He lost me and Plake. It’s funny how would they just abandon legends like that.
After 25 years working with photographers and filmmakers and all the travel and anxiety and the pressure and danger—I survived a lot of crazy stuff. There’s a whole new wave of guys coming up. I had my turn.
Sage is one of the smoothest out there. I love his attitude. Seth Morrison took it to a whole other level. He was the first one to really step up and consistently do that. He’s humble and quiet and he sticks it.
I’ve taken some pretty nasty tumbles and was swept away four times by avalanches and have never broken a bone. It’s a lot of luck.
Skiing has taught me everything about myself. I kind of learned how to make decisions. My skiing life has taught me how to live life—how to deal with challenges and hardships and dangers and being in the mountains.
I don’t see myself slowing down. I’m not hucking 100-foot cliffs, but I’m dropping things on the right days.
Skiing was a selfish pursuit for a long time, but it’s amazing the impact that it has had. What gives me the most pleasure is when somebody comes up and wholeheartedly thanks you for changing their life, for taking them into the mountains. An inspiration is all you can hope to be.
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