A Brief History of Snowboarding

A Brief History of Snowboarding

By, Grant Maly – Certified snowboarding instructor at Mont Tremblant, and contributing editor for Tremblant360.com

From the January 1988 issue of Time Magazine calling snowboarding “the worst new sport” to the likes of Shaun White gracing the cover of Rolling Stone, snowboarding has come a long way over the years. But how did we get here?

Well, thanks must go first to Wendy Poppen! Without her attempts to stand up on a sledge on a hill near her family home in Muskegon, Michigan, in the early 1960s, the world as we know it would not exist and by that I mean (sharp intake of breath) snowboard-less!! And thank you Sherman Poppen (Sherm to his friends), father of Wendy Poppen, for seeing his daughters predicament and deciding on Christmas Day, 1965, to present her with a wondrous gift that would not only bring her joy and happiness, but also countless others throughout the world over the following decades. The gift in question was actually a set of skis! Yes, SKIS! Poppen had fastened a pair of skis together to create a rudimentary snowboard, or “Snurfer” as his wife called it (a mash-up of snow and surfer). And so the snowboard was born!

Ok. To be fair, Poppen probably can’t take all the credit for inventing the snowboard as there is plenty of evidence to the contrary, with some “snowboards” – slats from wooden barrels tied together, for example – and patents dating back to the 1920s.  However, despite its existence in various forms since the early 20th Century, snowboarding (or whatever they chose to call it at the time) never took off, and so it’s really down to Mr Poppen for bringing the concept of snowboarding, as we know it today, to the masses.

As the popularity of Snurfing grew throughout Muskegon, Poppen began making Snurfers for local children who were jealous of his daughter and her new found toy. Fast forward six months and Poppen had licensed the Snurfer to Brunswick Manufacturing, a leader in the marine, fitness, bowling and billiards industries. By the mid-1970s, Snurfers could be found throughout America in the companies many sports and toy stores, and by 1979 people were able to compete in the World Snurfing Championships, first held at the Pando Ski Lodge near Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Such snowboarding luminaries as Jake Burton Carpenter, Demetrije Milovich (founder of Winterstick Snowboards) and Chris Sanders (founder of Avalanche Snowboards) all cut their winter teeth on Snurfers, although Milovich is probably better known for sliding down hills while standing on metal tea trays. These guys, together with the likes of Tom Sims (James Bond double in “A View to a Kill” and founder of Sims Snowboards) and Mike Olson (founder of GNU snowboards) took the basic Snurfer design to new levels. So much so that when Jake Burton Carpenter took part in the first World Snurfing Championships in 1979, he won what is considered to be the first ever competitive snowboard race. In doing so, he generated enormous controversy amongst the Snurfer community by using one of his own boards and effectively setting the standard for future snowboard design as his board included foot straps for better control. Alas, Sherman Poppen decided not to compete commercially at the same level as Burton beyond the end of the 1970s and returned to his previous occupation in the industrial gas industry.

Rival Snurfers/snowboarders would continue to compete against each other until 1982, the year of the first National Snowsurfing Championships held at the Suicide Six Ski Area in Woodstock, Vermont. Now in its 26th year, the U.S. Open Snowboarding Championships helps show just how far snowboarding has come over the last three decades. However, the birth of this event marked the last time Snurfers and snowboarders would compete together following Sherman Poppen’s decision not to continue investment in the Snurfer brand a few years earlier, effectively ending the Snurfer as a serious contender, both commercially and in competition, in an increasingly crowded market.

After 1982, two of the largest snowboard manufacturers at the time (Burton and Sims) established separate competitions, in Snow Valley, Vermont and Lake Tahoe, respectively. In an effort to upstage the Burton gig, Tom Sims included the use of a half pipe in his event. This helped establish the two different types of snowboarding we see today – freeride and freestyle. Fortunately, snowboarding and snowboard design is a competitive now as it was back in the day. Such competition will only benefit the sport, essential in these tough times – no, not the economic crisis, but the resurgence of skiing over the last few years.

By 1990, snowboarding had taken off. So much so, that by May 1994 the Wall Street Journal was proclaiming that snowboarding was the fastest growing sport at the time, showing an increase of 50% in people taking up the sport over the previous winter. This is in stark contrast to the January 1988 issue of Time Magazine mentioned at the start of this article, together with a piece the previous year that described how some traditionalists saw snowboarding as a “clumsy intrusion on the sleek precision of downhill skiing”. However, the early 1990’s were not without their problems.

Following the establishment of the International Snowboard Federation (ISF) in 1989, many snowboarders embraced the organisation for wanting to advance the sport around the globe, unlike the International Ski Federation (FIS), which initially wanted nothing to do with snowboarding on the basis of it being a fad. Despite this, a turning point was reached in 1994 when the FIS added the discipline of snowboarding to its organization and introduced the first FIS Snowboard World Championships, which were held in 1996 in Lienz, Austria. This enraged some snowboarders, given that the FIS had turned its nose up at the sport only a few years beforehand. The FIS and ISF were now full on rivals, but with more money and larger resources the FIS won out. The ISF ceased operation in 2002. Hostility between the two organizations worsened when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) recognized the FIS as snowboarding’s official governing body, thus allowing snowboarding to make its Olympic debut at the Nagano Games in Japan in 1998. Many snowboarders accepted the FIS’ growing control over the sport but resentment lingered among many others, including Terje Haakenson, regarded as the best snowboarder in the world at the time. The Norwegian refused to compete in a single FIS event and was denied entry into the 1998 Winter Games. Fortunately, snowboarding is now fully embraced as an Olympic sport. At the Nagano Games, snowboarding was represented by two disciplines – the giant slalom and halfpipe. For the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City the giant slalom was replaced by the parallel giant slalom, where competitors actually race against each other rather than against the clock, and four years later in Turin snowboard cross was introduced. Roll on Vancouver 2010!!

But what of the name itself – snowboarding? For this, Jake Burton Carpenter must take the credit. His rivalry with Sherman Poppen led him to coin the term “snurfboards”. However, this was too similar to Poppen’s Snurfers and Burton was forced to come up with another name. Thankfully, he came up with “Burton Snowboards”. One wonders if snowboarding would be as popular today if it were called Snurfing? Who knows?


From the Tremblant360.com team: If you’d like a snowboarding lesson from Grant Maly himself (pictured below) the next time you’re at Tremblant, you can find more info about signing up for lessons here… and be sure to ask for him by name!

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