By John Clary Davies
In 1971, some friends of Wayne Wong’s—a 21-year-old ski school instructor at British Colombia's Mount Seymour—convinced their buddy to enter the first hot dog ski competition at Waterville Valley, N.H. One year later, Wong became the face of freeskiing.
It was an irresistible image: Mirrored white sunglasses seemed to match his big smile—with a Chinese-Canadian mop of jet-black hair serving as an exclamation point—as he rode the tails of his K2s, the bulk of his 200cm red, white and blue bases up in the air. Wong made freeskiing look free.
Wong took third in that first competition, but eventually he became the first freestyle skier of the year, winning the first hot dog competitions in Europe and Japan along the way. In 2008, Wong was inducted into the Canadian Ski Hall of Fame. Now 61, the Reno, Nev. resident spends his time at charity events and as a representative for Anton Dynamics, which makes a suspension system for skis. Powder.com caught up with the legend to talk about his Pepsi commercial, his competitive ski career and how he moved on from it.
At age 11 I took my first ski lesson. I fell in love with skiing right away. It was my first time on snow and I thought it was absolutely amazing. I couldn't get enough of it.
I was going to school at Vancouver City College and I saw this ad in Skiing magazine. They were hosting the first ever hot dog ski competition back in Waterville Valley, N.H. All my friends said, “You got to go do this. You’ve got a whole bunch of tricks that nobody has seen before. We'll get you some funding to go back to this event.”
I didn't win but I came in third place. Just to be in the same area with your heroes was amazing, and to beat some of them was unbelievable. Tommy Leroy, Bobby Burns, Suzy Chaffee, it was amazing to stand in the same lodge with them. I was a 21-year-old nobody.
At that time, skiing was really kind of stagnant in a sense that alpine racing dominated the ski scene, and as a recreational skier we couldn't relate to that. That's what really made us fashionable at that time. The average recreational skier could relate and participate. Everybody could get on their home mountains and do a Royal Christie or 360 or Outrigger.
I was fortunate in being in the right place at the right time. Doug Pfeiffer, the editor of Skiing, took me under his wing. He thought I'd be a great vehicle to promote the movement. He put me in the magazines and did a lot of instructional hot dog movies. I got sponsored. One of my big dreams as a kid was to be on the K2 Demonstration Team. I'd see Bob Griswold and say, “Wow, that's what I'd like to do.” And sure enough, K2 sponsored me and I skied for K2 through my competitive career.
I had three things going for me. I was of Chinese-Asian descent, so that made me stand out. Two, I had long black hair and my trademark white sunglasses, that made me stand out in front of most of the other competitors. People could identify me right away. As far as technique goes, back in those days, we could name tricks and maneuvers. I had the Wong Banger, which was kind of a big deal, and the Wongmill; a lot of people [were naming tricks] at the time. That was the whole spirit of what was going on.
The Wongmill was a 540 tip roll. In the late ’60s, I had seen a couple of guys in the Hart ski movies [do something similar]. Nobody was around coaching us at that time, so I went out and tried it and instead of just doing a single little tip roll, I corked it. I threw it one-and-a-half times around and I said, “Wow, this pretty cool.” Nobody had ever done it before.
For the Wong Banger, I was skiing down slope and went in to a sharp transition and my tips stuck and threw me forward and I instinctively put my arms in front of me and vaulted myself and then landed on my feet and I go, “Holy crap.” I had never seen anybody do it, even in movies, at that time, and here I am on a pair of 200s doing a pole flip.
It was innovative and creative. It got a lot of media attention. Every event you go to you're inventing new tricks. It was pure entertainment because you could expect to see the unexpected, even among fellow competitors. Back in the early days it was absolutely amazing at what you saw at these events.
At the early stages we were all very cool friends. We all wanted each other to do well. As the money got bigger and bigger, it got more competitive—it lost a lot of the camaraderie. In the early first two or three years, we'd all travel together and bunk together. We had our parties and celebrations and we'd come into town and people would want to take us out to dinner, media would want to interview us.
In that day it seemed a lot to us—3,000 bucks. They gave away a lot of cars. I won a Chevy Nova in '74. Back in the day, boy if you won a thousand bucks, you'd take all your buddies out that night.
We wanted to stand out. We dressed accordingly. We went out and tried to find the flashiest, the brightest clothing we could find. That was the whole part of the spirit of what was going on.
The Pepsi commercial was in 1972. I was invited by Skiing magazine for the month of May to Mammoth to test the next year's products and do reviews. There was an ad agency going through the day lodge and they said, “Hey, we're shooting a commercial. If anybody would like to ski for us that'd be great.” A couple of guys I was with said, “Hey let's go do it.” [The ad agency] was like, “Listen, we just want you to ski and do what you do.” They had no idea about freestyle skiing. They thought they'd see some guys skiing bumps and do a spread eagle or something like that. I did my run and they were absolutely blown away. I never thought anything about it. I was just a young 22-year-old kid just having fun out there. It came out in the fall. That helped boost the image of freesytle skiing as well. It was just a matter of being in the right place at the right time.
It's all about being in the outdoors and having fun. It didn't matter what color or race you were, because everybody could appreciate what you were doing. Everybody could relate.
I'm so blessed and fortunate to have done some movies with Dick [Barrymore]. He's one of the great storytellers of skiing, along with Warren Miller. I spent a month with Barrymore with K2 and every night at dinner he would tell some story and make us laugh and it was just really, really fun hanging out and being a part of the Barrymore legacy.
I've been very fortunate to have made skiing my lifetime career. Very few other guys that I competed with are skiing professionally anymore. All my friends back in the day said, 'When are you going to get a real job?” You put on your three-piece Armani suit and I'll put on my one piece and go out on the hill.
Ten to 15 years ago, it was like, what the heck do I do now? I realized that my real calling was to use my celebrity status to help raise money for different charity events. I had no idea what cystic fibrosis was, but I was invited by American Airlines to the first event [in Vail] to participate. At the time it was the number one killer of children in the U.S. and they had two poster girls, sisters, who were six and four. I'm thinking, “Wow, these could be my two daughters.” So far we've raised somewhere around $28 million dollars.
My wife is my biggest fan and supporter. She kicks my butt and says, “Get out there. You're at your best when you're out on the hill with people.”
What bewilders me is as I look back, people were saying, “God, you guys are crazy.” Now I look at the slopestyle kids and big mountain skiers and I say, “Holy cow, how do they do that?” They took it way beyond what I dreamt could ever be possible on skis.
I went into these competitions not out there to win or beat so and so. It was more to go out and show people what can be done on skis. If I won, great, but I if I didn't, it wasn't the end of the world. It was that kind of mindset that just made it so much more fun for me. We skied a lot, we trained a lot, but we enjoyed doing that and then to be able to showcase it at an event was really cool. I knew there were always skiers that were better than I was, but I doubt they had any more fun than I had.