ANDREW BURNS INTERVIEW | AGAINST ALL ODDS
By Rob Lemay | Photos [o] Ben Girardi Andrew Burns. That name goes hand in hand within Canadian snowboarding. It’s one that...
Chris Witwicki’s roots in snowboarding are thicker than his coke bottle glasses. As a coach for the Canadian National Slopestyle Team, he wears contacts, but don’t let that fool you. He’s a bonafide Nerd when it comes to breaking down the nuances of contests, rotations and results. Despite the strength of his prescription eyewear, he’s always seen snowboarding 20/20. A complete frother: skating, surfing, snowboarding—doesn’t matter, he’s always jumping at every opportunity to get it. As a coach, Witwicki is a willing slave to a perpetual winter and camping out on those jump knuckles for weeks at a time would turn most avid participants into a disgruntled trench-footed grinch. But whether it’s a pow day, park day, or side-hit laps with a side of groomers, you’ll never be able to turn Witwicki away.
Like many of us, Witwicki found skateboarding first. In the streets of Rocky Mountain House, Alberta, when he was seven years old. He took to the snow on skis before quickly realizing it didn’t offer the same thrill as skating. Snowboarding was the logical transition. “I went to The Source in Calgary,” Witwicki remembers. “I bought my first snowboard, a Liquid 145 with baseless bindings. Worst bindings I’ve ever owned.” That didn’t curb his progression. Witwicki quickly had success in contests and landed sponsors. “I had a bunch of sponsors while I was going to school, but then ended up blowing my knee out in 1999.” The classic snowboarding setback was shortly followed by another, “I healed up, then competed again, and blew my other knee.” That one didn’t bounce back as quickly and Witwicki admits, “That’s when I fell into coaching. While rehabbing my knee, it was an opportunity to keep snowboarding and get kids stoked on snowboarding.”
[o] Crispin Cannon
Witwicki continued to ride and coach programs in Calgary for years before slopestyle was ushered into the Olympic program. With the inclusion of slopestyle came the government funding a National team, and his opportunity to work with the best in the country. After an Olympic appearance and six-plus years in the program, he’s a believer in the athlete benefits that didn’t exist before the national team.
“With the Olympics, there’s more funding for the programs and riders,” he explains. “The funding provides a lot of stability in terms of physio, doctors, strength training—all that kind of stuff. Those things are put to use so the team gets to snowboard more, adding to their longevity. There’re shorter injury sidelines and rehab times now. The team stays stronger and healthier so that they can actually snowboard more often. They will get more days on snow because they’re less likely to get injured.”
The work Witwicki and his team are doing, it’s working. They were dealt a strong group of athletes from the jump: Mark McMorris, Seb Toutant, Max Parrot—and they’ve brought up the next generation. “Now with Mikey [Ciccarelli], Tyler [Nicholson], and Darcy [Sharpe], they’ve come up and I feel like the program’s really helped them push and get into that upper echelon of top-tier riders.” He’s right, and the Canada Snowboard program is renowned for being the best in snowboarding; a competitive squad ready to take to any podium it approaches.
What was once a side gig to accommodate a knee injury is now an all-encompassing career. “Everyday, it pretty much consumes it. It’s constant planning and organizing through the season. It’s 12 months of travelling the world, going to contests, finding snow, and locating good jumps, all in order to keep up or stay ahead of the rest of the world.”
And we all know the contest scene in snowboarding isn’t perfect. No one claimed it was. Witwicki volunteers on the board of directors for World Snowboarding and attends annual FIS strategy meetings because he believes it can be better. “I’m a firm believer that if we want to change, we have to do it from within. Although it’s a long process that’s pretty bureaucratic.”
Witwicki remains optimistic of the direction contests should be pointing. “Big Air competitions are getting pretty boring, they’re stale. We need to keep it entertaining for everybody, so we want to change the [Big Air] formats and in slopestyle the courses themselves.” He believes, “Making the riders more versatile will showcase the true snowboarders.”
[o] Crispin Cannon
The time Witwicki spends on the road with the team has also given him the opportunity to learn photography. Taking advantage of the time he spends not snowboarding at contests he picked up a camera and learned how to shoot photos. He’s been published in the biggest snowboarding magazines in North America and sees it as another way to give back. “It’s something that I’ve learned to love a lot. Capturing those ‘why we do it’ moments in snowboarding is awesome.” And it’s a win-win for the team. “It gives back to the riders, adding more value to the program and what they do for their social media, or their sponsors or submitting photos to magazines so they can get more exposure.”
A selfless snowboarding nerd. And when you love what you do, the gold at the end of the rainbow can’t be monetized. For Witwicki, the payoff is witnessing the riders become their best. “The real reward is seeing the guys that have come up through the program succeed in snowboarding.” Using Mikey Ciccarelli’s breakout performance at the 2017 US Open as a shining example, “Seeing where he’s come from and seeing him come up. It was sick to see the best in the world, do the best runs they’ve ever done in the heaviest final they’ve ever been in and Mikey Ciccarelli sitting second on the podium.”
It’s a give-and-take world and Witwicki believes snowboarding has given more than it takes. “Throughout my whole life, snowboarding has given me so much: opportunities to travel places I never thought I’d see, and lifelong friends I’ve made through snowboarding…” when he pauses to reflect, it boils down to, “Snowboarding has given me so much happiness in my life.” And believes his passion and time spent contributing to the team, the future of contests, and sharing his photography all has been something he’s been in debt to. “I feel like what I’ve been doing it’s kind of the best way to give back.”
If you’re watching Canadian snowboarders at the Olympics, know there are a handful of passionate persistence nerds like Witwicki behind the scenes that have dedicated their lives to see snowboarding succeed.
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