SEAN PETTIT JUST FELL IN THE LIFT LINE. He pulls himself up, mumbles his disdain for "lift-line snow," and pushes up to me, one foot out of his snowboard binding. We're waiting in a long queue at Blackcomb's Crystal Ridge chair on a February powder day, one that we didn't get on the hill for until well into the afternoon. He greets a couple friends but doesn't link up with them. Pettit, Leo Hoorn, and I ride up the chair quietly. We take three laps before heading in.
Pettit isn't exactly hurting for days on the mountain. He just got back from Italy and will be heli skiing in the Whistler backcountry in a few days. So a resort day--even with fresh snow--isn't all that exciting. In part, that's what the snowboard is for. "It makes the mountain big again," says Pettit.
At 23, Pettit is one of a kind. At 12, Powder dubbed him a prodigy. At 16, he landed the opening segment in Matchstick Production's 2008 film Claim--what Pettit calls "a big breakout year." He hasn't gone a season without a major film part since. Whistler Blackcomb dubs Pettit a "ski icon," while other athletes his age are just "pro skiers." When I asked Pettit what he'd be doing if he weren't skiing, he simply replies, "I wouldn't be."
The insulation, accolades, and challenges of a long, successful ski career make Pettit a bit of a conundrum. His image--one of the most recognizable in the industry, and one that used to pass through many hands before it reached his fans--is now something he curates and controls so carefully it is hard to separate the Pettit of Instagram, reality TV, and endless Snapchat stories from the real Pettit.
Pettit's most formative years were spent filming, competing, and getting paid to do what he would have been doing for fun, had he not been discovered when he and his peers--namely Kye Petersen and his older brother, Callum--were just kids ripping the Blackcomb halfpipe.
Deb Hillary, Sean and Callum's mom, moved them west from Ottowa, Ontario, in 1999 after the brothers quickly worked their way through the most difficult runs at their original home mountain, Camp Fortune.
"I knew that little hill wasn't going to make them happy," says Hillary, who brought the boys up largely on her own after divorcing their father in 1994. "I started saving up to move to Whistler. I had an understanding that I was going to benefit as well as them; they were going to excel, and I could guide them better if they had that opportunity."
"I ski for the camera. That's my job. I see myself as an entertainer, more than anything." --Sean Pettit
The brothers quickly fell in with a talented, albeit diminutive, crew of Whistler kids that spent their days on the hill, afternoons in the halfpipe, and evenings on their skateboards. As the youngest and smallest of the group, Sean was a natural punching bag with everything to prove. In “Krüe,” a 2004 edit made by a 14-year-old Petersen, you see a tiny Pettit, crumpled on the ground, sobbing, his brother and friends heckling him in the background.
A shy, quiet kid, Pettit would hang back, study the older boys' skiing with characteristic intensity, and only then would he huck it. Despite his fearlessness, he was remarkably reserved. Callum recalls him as "quite satisfied being alone," and Petersen tells me he "was more quiet then. You could tell he was just absorbing everything."
"You could see the potential in the older boys, because they knew what the industry was and wanted to be a part of it, but Sean was just a little minion that hung out with them, Callum by his side, always trying to keep up," says Chris Turpin, a well-connected local pro. "Sean would be starting an extra 80 feet higher, like, 'Oh yeah, I can hit the big jump.'" Everyone has a slightly different take on when Pettit really started getting attention, but the stories all begin with Turpin giving the boys a break.
"It might have been the 2004 or 2005 WSI halfpipe, and I had just recently gotten him and Callum on K2... I gave my bib to Sean during the competition," says Turpin. "He started throwing huge fives, sevens, nines. I'd never seen him go that big before. The moment someone realizes that they can do more comes at the same time they're given a big challenge. And when Sean realized he could perform at a high level given a little pressure, that's when he started to grow."
Pettit caught Tanner Hall's eye, and Hall put him in his first ski film, 2004's WSKI 106. A young Pettit and Petersen jib and make mischief to the unfortunate Benefit song "If I Owned a Midget," their outsized talent still too big for their bodies.
From there, Pettit's career accelerated exponentially. With the right people behind him--Turpin, Hall, a very supportive mother, a brother to compete with and learn from--the pre-teen became one of the most exciting prospects in the industry. His early sponsors, K2, Oakley, and Red Bull, launched him and Callum into a whirlwind of competitions and film projects, and the boys' lives became a product of many well-intentioned hands pulling them up through the ranks of the industry.
"By the time I actually realized what a career was, what a professional skier was, that you could make money doing it, I was already in it. It was already happening," says Pettit. "Before that, what? You're not thinking about money when you're 10 years old, or what your career's going to be. When someone asks you when you're 10 years old, 'What do you want to be?' you're like, 'I want to be an astronaut. I want to be a fucking rocketship. I want to be a bear.' I think I was 14 by the time I realized what I was doing. And from there, I fully committed."
Pettit eventually dropped out of high school, during his junior year, after taking the fall off to do a movie premiere tour with MSP. "I just came back from that and...couldn't. There was nothing left for me to learn there," he says.
Building a career as a teenager off of style and personality is different than ski racing at a high level, or even participating in the park competition circuit. It calls for creativity and a penchant for the spotlight. And despite his quiet youth, Pettit quickly grew into the role.
"I ski for the camera. That's my job. I see myself as an entertainer, more than anything," says Pettit. His skiing could certainly stand alone, but his personality became a major part of his career regardless.
"There's no doubt that you can thrive on the attention. And he didn't reject it," says his dad, Greg Pettit. "Maybe it turned him into a better person, the person he is today. Did it go to his head? I would say, you know, obviously. You're going to feel a lot better about yourself when everyone is looking up to you."
Greg describes his son as "wise beyond his years," though that wasn't always the case. "I think he grew into it really quickly," he adds. "I remember in the old days hearing stories about these pro skiers. They'd get lots of sponsorship money and go out, buy a brand new $75,000 truck, and party all the time. And then all of a sudden they weren't sponsored, and all they've got is a truck to show for it. Sean has always been a person who doesn't rush into things and make rash decisions. He's always been the type to take his time. He's thorough. He has good judgment."
Among the attention and accolades, Pettit stayed loyal to his original sponsors, saved and invested his money, and became a homeowner at 19. He's been producing his own film projects for the last three seasons, starting with Superproof films The Recruitment and Masquerade, combination ski film/B-movie thrillers featuring the talents of Mark Abma, brother Callum, Noah Bowman, and others. Now, Red Bull has given him free rein over a web-based reality show, “Keep Your Tips Up,” for which Pettit calls all the shots--where and when they ski, what the storyline is, and which athletes he brings along.
I'm staying at Pettit's home for the weekend, a beautiful lakefront property in a quiet neighborhood outside Whistler Village. It's well put together--art and photography hang on the walls, the kitchen is fully equipped, a hot tub overlooks Green Lake from the deck. The three-story affair hosts a rotating cast of characters--Hoorn, Callum, even, in turn, his mom and dad. Currently, he shares the house with his dad, better known as Groovemeister (a nickname he bestowed upon himself) and professional snowboarder Jody Wachniak.
It's not exactly what you'd expect from a 23-year-old pro skier. But then again, juvenile touches abound: a massive pile of Playboy magazines sits on display under his glass-top kitchen table, pictures of naked women punctuate the art on display, and a sticker on the fridge declares, "No fat chicks." His garage houses his boat, his BMW, his bike, and an astounding collection of surfboards, skis, and, of course, a snowboard. Atop that is a patio overlooking the backyard, which is unoccupied save for a gold-painted toilet. "My attempt at art," Pettit says with a grin.
The commitment to perfection that Pettit brings to his home reflects the attitude that brought him success at such a young age. He can exert total control over the space and create the environment he needs to decompress, to come home to a bottle of wine and work in peace, even on a Friday night (a common occurrence, according to Wachniak). He can sit at his kitchen table for hours, focused on whatever project he might be working on at the moment. With a pile of tax papers beside him, a view of the lake ahead, and the blues playing in the background, we do just that on my first afternoon in town.
He's quiet and calm at home among his close friends, not one to entertain the room. But when we're out, Pettit holds court everywhere we go.
In fact, we spend a lot of time in his kitchen; reviewing Instagram after an afternoon on the hill, drinking wine, and eating poutine with his roommates before hitting a few of Whistler Village's pro athlete-studded bars. He's quiet and calm at home among his close friends, not one to entertain the room. But when we're out, Pettit holds court everywhere we go, greeting each hostess with a kiss on the cheek, making plans and slapping backs with every guy he runs into. He exclusively orders cocktails ("I've never seen Sean drink a beer," says Nick McNutt, one of many friends we run into) and schmoozes like only a man trained to build relationships, both professional and personal, at parties since age 12 could.
Pettit lives like he's on vacation. He eats most of his meals out, many of them at his dad's restaurant, Legs Diamond, a fine-dining establishment in Whistler Village that Sean had a large hand in founding. He eats eggs benedict for breakfast, drinks grappa after dinner, and takes his coffee sweet and frothy. He dresses well, keeps his car and home immaculate, and surrounds himself with beautiful or talented people. He even exploits his goofy, easygoing dad as comic relief for “Keep Your Tips Up.” ("Sean gets Groovemeister to do things that he maybe doesn't want to do for the show," says Callum.)
Every situation is Snapchat or Instagram-ready, his careful hand curating his existence to precisely his preference--and what he'd like his audience to see.
Pettit's mom, dad, and brother all admit they've no idea where Pettit came from. The rest of his family is free-spirited, with a 'come what may' attitude toward things like finances and careers. Greg Pettit has twice turned up on Sean's doorstep with no place to stay, and Sean readily admits that their relationship is a bit of a role-reversal. The same goes for Callum.
"Callum is not like Sean at all," says Wachniak. "Callum's like, 'I moved to Pemberton! I like skiing! I'm gonna have a bonfire! I'm gonna have a few boys over! We're gonna have a beer! And then we're gonna get up really early tomorrow and we're gonna skin up the mountains and get some turns!' And Sean's like 'Mm, pow looks shitty tomorrow, probably not gonna go. Oh, it doesn't look good for a week; sweet, I have a week to work, then I have a heli day.'"
Ask Pettit who he looks up to and he draws a blank. Ask whose career he'd like to model his own after, and he dismisses the question; he's on his own path. And he freely critiques skiing itself: the insular industry, the competition circuit he refuses to engage with, and especially the image.
"Skiers want to be like snowboarders, snowboarders want to be like skaters, skaters want to be like surfers," says Pettit, discussing his desire to see more innovation and style in the industry. You could argue that skiing isn't just about looking good. It's about a love for the mountains, testing our bodies against a limitless backdrop of ice and snow, the philosophical goodness of it all.
You could argue that skiing isn't just about looking good. It's about a love for the mountains, testing our bodies against a limitless backdrop of ice and snow, the philosophical goodness of it all. But that's not Pettit's experience of skiing.
But that's not Pettit's experience of skiing. It never has been. Every step of his relationship with the sport from pre-puberty onward has been documented, commoditized, and presented to the masses.
"When he's out there he's loving it. He's hungry. He wants to ski rad things," says Callum. "But I don't think he's gotten to appreciate the mountains for an extended period of time; camping, hiking up them, the serenity of it. He's been spoiled with heli budgets that a lot of people don't have. Sean, he's so good when he skis downhill, he's just gotten that priority: the luxury way to get into the mountains."
Because of that, Pettit isn't exactly relatable. He isn't the people's skier. He's certainly not a soul skier, like Sage Cattabriga-Alosa or Ingrid Backstrom, other skiing superstars. For him, a powder day is to be weighed and measured. The mountains aren't something to marvel at; they're a puzzle to be decoded, a canvas to splash a little style on. Parties are for making an appearance, his house is a sanctuary that must look good for the cameras, and his relationships--even with his family--are written into a reality show.
"I have ideas for what the future could potentially hold. I'm not just like, 'Oh, I'm a skier and that's all I do,'" says Pettit as he discusses his ideas for film and business ventures. "Skiing is a leisurely sport. I do it for fun. I just happen to make a career out of it. And a career is a career. I have a lot of time, and I'll just continue to do it while it's here. I don't know what will happen after that. Been in it for long enough already."
Pettit is an incomparable athlete, a businessman with great judgment, an icon who carved a unique path among skiers. And with that kind of success, does passion and the soulful, down-to-earth quality we expect and love from the ski community really matter? Well, he's got plenty of time to figure that out. He's only 23.