As snowboarders, success is rarely determined through a lens of our own. Instead, it is often gauged in an analogous manner, either against others or by a criterion created at the hand of some authoritative entity. Sammy Luebke resists this model.
As a young teen, Sammy achieved what many in snowboarding consider success—sufficient sponsors, competitive achievements, well-regarded video parts, and the luxury of celebrity within our small bubble. However, just as quickly as it was all attained, Sammy's trajectory shifted. At 22 he became a father, fell to injury, and failed to film a major video part. What followed was considered by many potential sponsors as the first sign of a slip from professional stardom.
Yet, instead of conforming to the industry norm, Sammy refocused. In the years following, he pursued a new path–one that traded manmade features for threatening peaks and high-budget productions for less-glamorous podiums. He set his sights on the Freeride World Tour and determined his own measure of success. Today, he is the only person to win three consecutive world titles, and he eagerly looks to a sustained future in snowboarding—regardless of its divergence from popular standards.
What have you been up to over the summer?
First off, I’m taking care of my two kids a bunch, so that’s a big part of summer. My wife’s been finishing school so I’m taking this on full time. Full-time, made up of being a part-time worker and dad. You have to put in hours over the summer. Work hard so you can play hard when the snow starts falling.
How old are your kids?
My oldest is six and a half, and my youngest is three and a half. They’re growing up super quick.
How old were you when you had your first?
I was twenty-two when she was born. I was young. Started young, but wouldn’t have it any other way.
That must have been tough–being twenty-two and working as a parent while pursuing a professional snowboarding career.
Yeah, I mean it’s a super tough balance. You have to definitely make enough time in the winter. You know, you have to get out–especially for the contests. But you also have to make time for the family at home. I used to just travel around in my truck and spend as much time snowboarding as I could. My wife has sacrificed a lot to stay at home with the kids during the winters–none of this would be possible without her. This year, I'm making sure I can take on more for her.
Absolutely, that’s one of the things I’d like to talk about. You’ve gone through this trajectory that a lot of snowboarders take, but you've done it a bit faster than everybody else.
Yeah, I mean I started super young competing. I was fortunate to get a couple of sponsors that helped me with the gear I needed. Had my mom and dad too, they did whatever they could to help me get to contests. That started me on the path to meeting a lot of people in the industry and just pursuing a snowboard career at a young age. By the time I was 16, I was already trying to film video parts. It’s cool to start early, but it’s also been tough. Keeping that snowboarding career going for so many years is difficult on the body. There are only so many years you can really be with a sponsor. Then they are looking for the next up and comer.
You grew up in Alaska?
Yeah, that’s where I started riding.
How old were you when you moved to Tahoe?
I was nine. I lived in Girdwood and then me, my mom, my brother, and a bunch of Alaskans–pretty much a boarding house of dudes–moved to Tahoe. I think it was ’98 and my dad still lived up in Girdwood. He had a house there 'till I was about 21, so I was able to split time.
How much of your choice to focus on freeriding would you attribute to growing up and riding in Alaska?
I think that definitely helped–just having a mountain that wasn’t really pushing parks or pipe at the time. I was forced to just ride the mountain. I felt like not having that is what forced me into doing park and pipe when I started competing. We never had those, so when I moved here I was in awe. I jumped into it but then I kind of got burnt out on competing. Freeriding came back for me here at Squaw.
When you first moved to Tahoe you were part of the Grenade Army.
There were definitely a few years I was running Grenade–not only the gloves but also hanging out with Clancy and that whole posse.
Your early years were definitely more in line with that renegade snowboarder identity. How much of that is who you are today, and how much of it was time and place?
I mean, I don’t know. You always have that snowboarder mentality, kind of like a thrasher. I definitely am now a little less likely to be in the limelight all the time. I wasn’t … I don’t know … I was just a snowboarder. I just wanted to not give a shit and just do whatever. Didn’t care what people thought, have long hair, whatever I was wearing, didn’t take a shower for like a week. That was the mentality.
I guess, as I got older I moved out of that a bit. But you kind of keep that mentality in your riding. Not giving a fuck and just thrashing the mountain. Hit everything in your path. You still have to be a snowboarder. You can’t always follow the rules. I think it carries over in my riding, not so much my persona.
You started in contests early, and then you transitioned into filming, and then left again just as quickly. Now you’re even—in a way—further from that professional spotlight that is commonly associated with snowboarding. How much do you look to the greater snowboarding community for a stamp of approval—is that something you are conscious about?
Yeah. It’s definitely hard, and there’s definitely a cool kid scene in the industry these days. The image and the people–I feel like a lot of those things help your career sometimes. But I’ve always had that in one way or another. You know, picking the sponsors that were right for me at the time really helped me do my own thing. It was really tough, especially going from filming all the time. I think I’ve had a couple different careers in my one career.
It’s been one filming–that was Lib-Tech for years, just living the dream. Then the reality check comes when you get hurt or you have kids. It makes it a little tougher to be reliable, I guess. People see you as busy all the time so you can’t go and fulfill your goals for the year.
So, for me, it’s nice to work with Pat [McCarthy] and Brent [Sandor] over at 686. They knew that I was a hard worker and I still get out. I love snowboarding so I’m going to be doing it every year. I was much more relatable when I was doing the halfpipe and slope scene. Then I got into freeriding and I had so much fun riding in these contests. I didn’t feel pressure. Then Jones came around and I felt like it was a really good fit. Surrounding myself with those people right there helped me carve a new path, and a new career. It’s always tough when I think about it–but I’m pretty stoked now that I’m not fully in the snowboard scene.
Would you say your personal idea of success has changed over the years?
For sure, I feel more responsible–especially having kids makes me focus a little harder on the important things. It is a job. At the end of the day, I could be snowboarding for fun and just working a full-time job through the winter as well. But I love having the opportunity to have snowboarding as a job. I can do what I love and get paid and travel. I’m not making a ton of money. It’s just helping me do what I love.
I'm interested in how you've reached this mature vision of success when most people your age are concerned with more frivolous benchmarks.
I think just working hard at everything you do is my idea of success now. I didn't work as hard when I was younger. I feel like snowboarding just came easily to me. I took it for granted.
Success for me now is based off, like I said, taking care of my kids, being more responsible, and really focusing on my riding. With the freeriding part, it's really focusing on the tour and making sure that I’m staying healthy and keeping my mind healthy. At the end of the day, it is just about being able to live and have fun and keep living in a place I love like Tahoe–traveling around the world and making the best opportunity for my kids.
My idea of success has definitely changed over the years and it’s crazy how I’ve been able to keep pushing through the contests. The tour stuff's been hard. It took me four years to finally get that first title, and after I didn’t know if I should keep doing it. But, I’m going to do it for myself and not worry about what everyone else is caring about. That’s helped me push through and just go back-to-back-to-back.
Is there anything in particular that you think you learned from those early days that was a turning point in your way of thinking about success?
Filming with Standard was one of those things–having a couple good seasons and then getting injured. You get hurt and everyone’s against you. It's like, "oh man, I don’t know if they've got my back anymore." You feel afraid to get injured. But for me, at that point, it was just realizing that this is a dangerous sport. Coming up with an injury every once in a while is part of the game. It’s how you come back stronger.
That year I hurt myself I didn’t get to film a video part with Standard. My sponsors were bummed, but I managed to pull myself together to do the qualifying tour and that was when I qualified for the Freeride World Tour. That just shifted me to this place where I knew what I wanted to ride.
That was the year I had my first kid, so it was a point where I started focusing on splitting time with my family and competing. It worked a lot easier than filming all season long. 686 and those guys really like backed me up and brought me back to a better place mentally. I stopped focusing on the negative and just worked on being more positive. So I feel that was a big benchmark, where anything before that I dealt with was just leading up to what it is now.
Do you think that having kids has anything to do with your overall perception of the industry?
I feel like a couple of things that happened made me feel that way. But for the most part, I felt a certain way about the industry before. I felt like a lot of other people were getting a lot of love, and they were just like, "oh whatever you're not doing double corks." That was when those were heavy and I was more focused on natural terrain.
I just had this feeling–and the industry is kind of cutthroat in a way. It’s hard to build relationships with people because you know there’s a lot of business to it as well. That’s why I say, once again, surround yourself with the right people and having the right expectations. I personally like being outside the scene and just being in the mountains by myself.
I can’t imagine that was an easy realization to come to.
No, definitely not. It’s always hard. And it’s hard when you lose a sponsor too. Especially people you’ve been with for years. That always affects your thinking. You don’t know if it’s something you did wrong or you're like “Man, I’m gettin’ all washed up.” It’s just about staying positive and focusing on the important things. Which for me is a full-time job in the summer and fall, and my family. Making sure that I’m just taking care of my kids 100% of the time.
Also, having expectations where you like where you're at in your life. I’m not trying to go and make a million dollars and be the next Travis Rice. I just enjoy it. We’ve got tons of beautiful mountains that need to be ridden and there’s tons of terrain that is untapped. I’m going to keep doing it as long as I can make a positive impact. That’s the realization, and it was hard then, but now it’s all just part of life so I love it.
Did that settle in after your first tour?
Yeah, I guess winning the tour was one of those big things. It took three seasons. And I was also building up relationships with 686 and Jones. So things were changing and evolving those first two years. My priorities as well, so I made sure to get out and tried to fit in some filming in between everything. It took a few years.
When it finally happened, I just focused on it. I’ve been able to put out a few segments here and there. Now I’m able to separate my time at home with the kids, with filming and doing the tour and also trying to make it. Winning that first one was definitely reassuring.
How has your perspective of the tour changed over the last three years, now that you’ve become the first person to win it three in a row?
It feels the same as it did when I started. In a way, it’s just different from everything else in snowboarding right now. There’s a lot of weird shit too that I maybe didn’t see in the beginning. After six years you realize running these contests is extremely hard. It’s gone up, it’s gone down.
I think that we can both agree that most snowboarders are really appreciative of the level of riding that goes into being on tour. Why do you think that the Freeride World Tour is less revered in snowboarding?
It’s about availability to the average rider. People can relate to the ski resort and seeing a park and pipe. When you try to explain riding down a mountain to your normal person, they’re like “What?” They don’t understand it’s crazy. It’s not something that the general public’s really seen.
I don’t know–freeriding and charging, like Travis and people, Gigi’s on there now too–those types of riders are people that I watch in snowboarding and I feel like people see that type of snowboarding as dope, but they don’t relate to it.
Do you think that the tour has changed as a result of Travis [Rice] and Gigi [Rüf]’s involvement?
I do. For a while, there wasn’t really much of a freestyle focus involved in freeriding. They weren’t trying to spin off stuff, grab their boards. Those things are important to us. Having riders like that on tour now–I think more people are wise to tune in. It is just like the WSL, or Street League skateboarding–people are watching that shit all the time. We’re finally getting to the point where we’ll have people like that pushing the sport in these contests.
What’s it like beating Gigi and all of those guys? They are huge names within snowboarding, and not that you haven't established yourself, but I would imagine that is a big step, at least personally.
It’s definitely a good morale boost. That said, all the guys I’m competing against are ripping snowboarders. They put in their dues getting on the tour the proper way, and I feel that’s kept a lot of people out.
It also puts it in perspective, these guys [Travis and Gigi] are ripping snowboards, they put out amazing parts every year, but doing the contest is definitely a whole different program. The one run. It’s all visual inspection. You’re basically looking at pictures or photos that were taken. Trying to put all the elements into your line that are good enough for a podium run are tough. You’ve got to kind of look at it like film run in one way, but it’s a contest run as well, so, with time, those guys will get it, but I still feel like it’s tougher for any big-name pro to come in and just automatically think they’re going to win. There’s a whole game plan that goes into everything.
It was cool to be able to come out on top again. I had a super slow start to the season, getting injured early. I had to fight back. So yeah, it pumps me up to be able to put some shit down against Gigi and a bunch of other heavy-hitters.
I think it further proves that you’ve found your own measure of success. It’s not so much the popular snowboarder’s vision, but you found your own way of proving yourself.
For sure, it's always nice to stick it to the haters or the people who doubted you. But for me, I want to do what I set out to do, and I usually accomplish that goal. That’s why I try to tell people who are supporting me that this what I’m going to do. Whether I’m cool or not, whatever, it doesn't matter.
You just need to stay true to yourself, and truthfully, I enjoy doing this. It gives me a lot of time to just snowboard more, without the pressure of putting out a part, or even training all year–learning tricks that I don’t care about. My training is riding every day. Splitboarding early season gets my body strong. Board control is the biggest thing to work on. Riding in variable terrain definitely helps, because I’m just riding the mountain out here and having a good time. Sticking true to yourself, setting goals, and achieving them, that is what allows me to say fuck what’s cool. Just do what you think is cool, and then it will be cool.
Where do you see yourself going? As you said, you’ve gone through all of these different careers, and you’re only 29. What’s next?
Well, in snowboarding, educating myself more. I want to be in the mountains more, I want to travel more, I want to do more things that I haven’t done, and learn more about the mountains. There’s just an endless amount of knowledge out there. That, and also making sure I can pass that wisdom onto my children. Have them grow up with the same perspective on life. If they enjoy it, if they have fun and work hard–it will work out.