Chatting with the Pros: Street Rider and Engineer Maggie Leon on Filming and Designing Gear for Adaptive Riders

Published on 04/12/2023 · 26 min readCurated Snowboard Expert Sydney Johnson sits down with pro street snowboarder and engineer Maggie Leon to discuss filming and adaptive snowboard gear.
Sydney Johnson, Snowboarding Expert
By Snowboarding Expert Sydney Johnson

Photo by Theo Acworth

I'm Sydney Johnson, Snowboard Expert, here with Maggie Leon. Maggie is an engineer and pro-rider for Burton. She is full of life and passion for this industry on both ends of the spectrum. This interview shows how much Maggie puts into being an engineer and a rider and what they have given in return.

After reading this interview, I hope you can feel some of her enthusiasm for this sport!

Watch our conversation here to follow along and hear about all she's doing to progress adaptive snowboarding.

I am excited to hear about your experiences in the industry and what you've got coming for this upcoming season.

Thanks for having me, Sydney. A bunch is coming up. I'm pretty excited about this season. It's finally kicked off. I just got back from Austria last Monday, so I'm pretty stoked about what's to come. I'm still trying to figure out the balance because I'm now transitioning roles at Burton.

Right now, I primarily work in the bindings category, so there’s a lot of Step On-related work. But as a passion project, I work with adaptive riders as well. Burton's been pretty supportive of those initiatives. So, I think we're trying to move forward with that and streamline a real program. I'm working with athletes and events management to try to build out a full scope and get our product out there as well.

That's so sick and cool that you have that connection and relationship with Burton as a rider and an engineer so that you can take those initiatives to the next level.

Yeah, it's pretty fun. We have a lot of incredible resources here at headquarters in Burlington. So, utilizing our RP capabilities and truly maximizing prototype capabilities overall, it's really insane. You can pretty much build whatever you want.

Are you based out of the headquarters? Or where are you going to be this winter season?

I've been doing a lot of work from home. We utilize a bunch of different types of 3D printers, so we'll kick off the builds on Fridays, and then Mondays are the days when you have the protos in hand. So Mondays, I'll usually go in, pick everything up, maybe do a little bit of testing and assemblies, and then try to get everything on snow. But midweek, if I'm traveling, I bring my laptop, and I can work in CAD on our 3D design software from anywhere, which is an insane thing to have, honestly.

That is so cool. Do you claim a home resort where you're at, or are you on the road, all over the place? What would you say is your home mountain?

I would totally claim Killington as my home resort because my mom still lives there. We just got our first day on hill yesterday. Killington's kind of home base. We were at Sugar Bush a lot. Bush parks are insane. It's tough, though, because I'm traveling a lot, so getting a week's worth of time riding the park is tough. It's usually just a few days here and there when we can squeeze it in or late-season slushy park laps. That's always the deal.

Photo by Ashley Rosemeyer

It is a random question, but I think a lot of experts and viewers like to hear stuff like this, but what type of music do you listen to while you ride?

I don't listen to music when I snowboard.

For real? You have enough stoke and hype on your own. The last video you posted on Instagram, where you were shooting between that stairwell, I was like, "I don't know what she would've listened to before that to get amped up because it was insane."

I listen to a lot of alternative punk rock stuff. Overall, generally annoying music. Many of my friends don't like it, but it gets me fired up. That gap was funny because I've been working a lot on our winch. We've had a couple in the past, and I've learned a lot from some friends who helped me build them.

So, when I went out there, I met Alex, who was running the winch bike, and I got into dirt bikes this past summer. I wanted to learn a little about how he got that thing going. So, I called him the night before and said, "We've got to find a trick to do with the winch bike." And that just seemed perfect because I hadn't used it yet. So, I was like, "Let's just do a Mikey Leblong tribute and just rev the winch bike up."

You definitely got the clip, that's for sure.

Thanks. That post came out of nowhere.

You started riding with your brother, filming, and getting after it at a young age. What was your path going from riding with family to becoming pro?

I honestly wouldn't consider myself a professional snowboarder. I'm definitely hoping to stay on track if you think that's what I'm doing. But to be honest with you, I don't know. Joey and I have been filming together, learning tricks, and progressing since we were 10. But it was interesting going from filming with my brother and our best friends to starting to film with other people or different crews—having those dynamics shift and change is always a very interesting adjustment.

But I think when you put yourself in those situations where you're filming with people you don't know that well, or you're traveling a lot and meeting different groups of people because you're a little bit isolated on the East Coast, it makes you a stronger rider. And overall, you push yourself a little bit differently because you're out of your comfort zone.

So, making friends within the snowboard community outside of the East Coast has helped me build the confidence to go out to different events and travel by myself.

Was there a particular film role or a group you started riding with that you felt like you started to get momentum, and your career was taking off? An opportunity you thought was bigger than you expected it to be, and it's just grown so much?

The Uninvited was clearly the biggest one film-wise because I've looked up to Jess Kimura since I was a little kid. She and Desiree are clearly the two women in street snowboarding that have paved the way here.

It was funny because I called my mom up and told her that Jess wanted me to be in the film, and she was like, "The Jess Kimura?" She could not believe it. And it's funny because my mom's not really that involved in snowboarding, but she picks up a few key names that we always talk about. And that moment that I called my mom and told her that Jess hit me up about it was probably the biggest moment for me because she's helped me in many different ways.

It's interesting because since I work for the brand and ride for it, there's this weird balance and cross-department collaboration that I need to work through. So, there are a lot of weird logistics and stuff that hold me back sometimes or roadblocks.

But Jess was able to help me pull together a pitch deck, and she shared her Uninvited pitch deck with me, and we used that as a baseline or pulled things from to reference. And she truly knows how to navigate this industry and vouch for women. So, I learned a lot from her, purely on the advocacy side, as well as snowboarding.

That is so awesome. Going off what you said, those roadblocks of being a rider and an engineer for Burton, how is your relationship with your sponsor, Burton, and the brand that you work with? And what are the roles that you play in both elements that you represent for them?

Wow. That's a great question. I would consider myself a brand advocate, where it's like, I'm not officially on the team, but I am a full-time employee. But they give me a certain amount of weeks to ride or set aside for riding time every year, which is under my salary. So, it's weird. I'm still learning how to navigate it. There are many interesting relationships and things that I'm still trying to understand about budget allocation and stuff like that. But overall, it's been pretty great.

At the start, it was more a flow sponsorship kind of a thing, purely product based. But now it's cool because if we're going on a trip or trying to set aside some time to do something, especially if it's a shoot for Burton or something strictly Burton driven, then we set it aside. So I work with my project coordinators to ensure that I can meet harsh deadlines on the engineering side and then also fit this in. It's really working with people within my department, ensuring I'm communicating between departments to make this happen.

Photo by Brian Nevins

You have managed to balance your work life with your passion for snowboarding as a rider, and you are taking off as a rider and engineer. So how do you do it?

It's crazy. Sometimes it is tricky, too, differentiating between what is a priority for the brand or what they're expecting me to do versus what I would like to do individually. So I'm working on that.

Absolutely. How has Burton specifically allowed you to grow as a brand rider and engineer? How has your work with Burton developed over the years in both elements?

Something I've really been noticing is my passion for working directly with riders, whether team riders or adaptive riders. A lot of engineers don't like to work with people, but I truly love direct feedback versus theoretical lab-result-tested direction. I'm learning a lot about myself. I like taking laps with people and learning what products work and what doesn't, what things should be improved, and where stress concentrations are.

Something interesting is that while I've been traveling, I've been building off those relationships. I'm going to the Bomb Hole Royal Gem next month, but I'm also going to go to the National Ability Center, meet up with the Paralympic football team, take laps with them, and bring protos out.

It's been fun trying to mesh the two worlds. And the more I've been traveling, whether for my career, which I would consider engineering or snowboarding, I've figured out a way to combine both things naturally, which is fun.

At DIY x Neil's, Jack rode the Step On setup that we grew this 3D printed part for him. He took the high back off, and it's a low back. It's like a spacer. And I sent photos to the engineering team because my boss worked directly with him to build a custom setup. So, it's cool to see how they both come together naturally. It's a part of my role that I really love—working with people to see how we can improve our gear, whether for adaptive athletes or able-bodied equipment.

That's so sick. And I think what makes that so cohesive and advantageous is that you're a rider. You can be on the mountain and say, "I know what you mean." Even sometimes, when we're trying to talk about gear, you can say, "You know when it feels like this, or it goes like this." And from an engineering side, you actually know what's going on, but from the rider's side, you can take that feedback and make it happen.

But it's interesting, too, because with able-bodied equipment, yes, but not with adaptive equipment. So if I'm working with a lower limb amputee on their back leg or something, I can have an idea and suggest something, and they can try it, and it'll work. And I'm like, "Oh well, when I had this really lame little ankle injury, forward lean helped me." And then they max out their forward lean, and they're like, "Oh wow, now I can actually get over my toe edge a little bit more and get in and out of the system."

So, it's been fun to work with those athletes. And then also, carrying over direct feedback from those athletes into bettering our able-bodied equipment is huge too. I keep coming back to this example, but if something is better for someone with one arm, maybe they have a paralyzed right arm or some BPI [brachial plexus injury], it will be immensely better for someone with two. So, it makes you think differently about product direction or overall brief constraints.

That's a really good perspective. “If it's better for this, then it's probably better for everything.” Your passion for snowboarding and the type of engineering you do for Burton and these adaptive riders is inspiring. It really shows the type of heart that you have as a rider and as an engineer. Was the work with adaptive riders an opportunity that came to you? Or did you intend to work with these athletes right after starting your career?

That's honestly a great question. I think I met Doyle in my senior year of college. Doyle's been working really closely with these athletes since the early 90s. He's worked with many different types of riders of various impairment classifications, and he truly has a passion for making snowboarding easier and more comfortable for these riders because the equipment isn't there right now. There's no true inline equipment that caters to their needs. Doyle started to introduce me to these people.

In my senior year of college, I worked with him as a client at Burton. So, our goal was to eliminate the compromises these riders make for able-bodied equipment and to make snowboarding easier for them, utilizing our in-house rapid proto capabilities. It was a very general and broad project scope. Our professor wasn't too stoked because we worked with many different athletes. But in the end, we figured out a few solutions that worked really well for them. And throughout the projects, I got to know the riders pretty well. I became good homies with some of them.

So, it became me wanting to help my friends. That's what it came down to. I got to know everyone, and I learned there truly is no adaptive, hard, good equipment for snowboarders at the moment. So, what can we do to make snowboarding easier for these riders? That's how I got involved in this world.

Absolutely. And especially when there's a gap in the industry, it gives a lot of room to grow. You can pave the way for the standard that adaptive equipment should be, and at what better place than Burton?

Totally. And it made us realize there are current inline Burton products that are pretty great for these riders. Step On is the perfect example, and the adult handlebar is another really great example. As you said, there's a gap in the market, and it's offering and bringing affinity to this group of people, to this underserved and underrepresented group. Where it's saying, we're stepping in, and we're a major leader in this industry, and it's time to truly—if we're going to claim inclusivity—be that leader in showcasing why it matters.

You said those adaptive riders have just become your friends, so it's just helping them, but what has been the most fulfilling thing about engineering gear for adaptive riders? Is it more that gap in the industry and that tech space, or just the people side of it?

The people side of it, and it's fun. It's fun to create and design products that don't exist yet. And it makes you think differently about product development, and it makes you think differently about the possibilities of what you can design.

No doubt. That's so cool that you have that opportunity to make a big impact in the whole industry as a rider and engineer.

I truly believe Step On is the leading product. My ultimate goal is to create an interface that works directly with Step On and then the leading prosthetics in the industry. Either the BioDapt Vera Foot 2 or Auto Box European Procar Foot. But one of these [prosthetic] feet, I think it would be sick to eliminate the boot and make something that utilizes the critical components of an able-bodied Step On boot.

So, I did already make something. It was really ugly. It looked like a Croc, and it had the bottom unit of a Step On boot, cleats, and everything. It even had a prosthetic within it. But we didn't have the bandwidth to test it in-house and ensure that risk management was good.

Photo by Myrion Moss

Other than you working with Step Ons, and your new premier with SPOTHEADS, are there any other projects you're working on right now that you're excited about and want to tell us about?

A lot is going on. Just the adaptive program as a whole, making this thing legitimate and real, and going through the process of not fully moving out of the engineering group, but moving out of the able-bodied inline development group into this new space, and trying to make this thing successful. So, that's my biggest thing at the moment.

Plus, I was talking to my brother yesterday about how freaking cool it is that Rail Jems [events for park riders] are now a thing again. They're blowing up, and they're cool, and there's so much happening everywhere.

On the Bomb Hole, you talked a little about women in the industry and snowboarding. So, I've heard you speak about being a woman in the snowboarding industry and the growth of the inclusion that has been made. What are the most exciting things happening now for women in snowboarding? And what are some things you'd like to see more of?

Women's snowboarding is in such an incredible spot right now. It's so insane. When we were out in Innsbrook, Maria premiered her film, Hot Cocoa, which drops next month. I seriously think it might win movie of the year. It was so insane. They were still on stage, and Method presented them with two covers, and it was just such a special moment. I got chills. It was just so cool. You could tell it was a standout movie out of the entire lineup.

As I said, women's snowboarding is in such an incredible spot, especially with the most recent Olympics [Zoe’s run]. So it's next-level progression right now, especially filming-wise. There are so many girls filming street parts, even low-key grassroots style parts—that some of my friends are filming here in Burlington—that people don't even know they've been up to.

It's so sick to see the involvement, progression, and excitement. I know a lot of people hate Instagram. But I love it because it's this interconnected community where I can go out to Austria, and I see all these girls that maybe I have met before, or I've talked to on Instagram, or we like each other's stuff, or promote each other, that kind of a thing. But you meet in person, and you become instant friends. And I think women's snowboarding is in such a sick spot right now. It's awesome.

And it's cool because Instagram and social media are available platforms for everyone, where now it's not just like, "Oh, these cool women snowboarding." It's cool snowboarding in general [that’s] being done by women, or these films being female.

It's amazing, honestly. And I think the Uninvited was truly a platform to showcase women who weren't invited to film with other groups of people. So, that was a standout trilogy of movies that just took over the industry. And it generated this momentum and excitement surrounding filming and women's snowboarding and camps, too. I'm just so stoked, honestly.

I just got an email from my friends. They started ParkAffair and doing a big rail jam at McIntyre Parks, this cool rope tow park, and a camp at Killington. It's just so cool. I can see all the growth that has been happening recently.

Just so much momentum. It's crazy. We're all gearheads at Curated and love to talk about tech like we were talking about earlier. But what's been some of your favorite board setups—all-time favorite decks, favorite quiver—throughout your career?

I'm pretty basic. I like a simple cambered board with a good amount of camber, like five and a half or six millimeters. I don't like boards that are too stiff underfoot. So I built a Talent Scout about 15% softer. And that's what I'm riding. And then, we're just slapping whatever graphics we want on there, which is fun.

We photoshopped my dog, Snoopy, on the topsheet. So, we swapped them out for the two dogs on the Good Company. We put Snoopy's face right there. But it's pretty cool because we build all the proto boards here at Craig's [a Burton facility], and I've gotten to know the board builders well. Grant, who I've been working with pretty closely. He taught me how to weld and worked on the winch and stuff. So, he's been sharing a lot of knowledge with me.

That's way cool. So, are you riding Step Ons on that?

I'm not at the moment. My ankles have not been great, but what I do like to do, is play around with strap adjustment and optimization to provide more lateral support so that I don't blow my ankles out on landings. It's like a brace, honestly. It works well. So for that reason, I haven't been riding Step On that much, but I've been doing PT and stuff, so hopefully, this year, I'll be able to ride Step On a bit more.

Absolutely. So, do you prefer a binding with the strap for people with ankle stability, lower half pain, or injuries?

It depends on what your injury is. I like to do a lot of weird tricks in general, like deeply tucked knees or laybacks. Sometimes, you need to optimize your straps to work better for those tricks.

Last year, I was shooting with my friend Ashley Rosemere. And I had to drop the ankle strap down on the inside, so I could have full mobility to flex my knee. And then, I cranked the straps down just a little bit to keep my foot in the binding, basically. And then, you can crank your knee down and touch the inside of the board, like a deep tuck knee, which is crazy because it's all about how you set your stuff up. And if you change your angle too, you can have a lot of movement.

It's cool for all the gear available in the industry. It's customizable. Some people forget you can create your deck and customize things. And then, of course, you have that engineering mind where you're like, "Well, if I tweak it here and there."

It's funny talking about customization right now because I filmed this video in the studio last week. This could work for so many different types of people. I don't even know where to begin. But with Step On, the lever's on the outside or the lateral side. The heel cups are symmetrical. The exterior geometry is symmetrical. So, you can swap so that the lever's accessible from the medial side. I did it for my friend who has a paralyzed right arm, so it was tough to reach across her body and grab the lever. So I was like, "Oh, I'll just swap them." And now she just reaches the inside. But that's one quick little change you can make. Or one of my friends at work blew his shoulder out, so we swapped them. It's super easy. So, I filmed a little video on how to do that the other day.

Photo by Ashley Rosemeyer

In your opinion, what is the coolest tech in snowboard gear and apparel out on the market today?

For soft goods, I'm pretty basic. I just like a long sleeve and a T-shirt. If I can just run a T-shirt, that's usually what I ride. I wear GORE-TEX pants if it's raining. That's about it for me. So, I'm not the person to ask. But I think Vans, just outside of Burton, is a leader in the industry right now. All of their outerwear.

I've been paying a lot of close attention to a lot of their boot tech. It's pretty insane what types of closure systems and ideas they're working up. So, I think Vans is doing some next-level stuff, whether it's MTE off-mountain style or just multiple closures on one boot. Arthur Longo's boot is a good example of that. I have some friends that work for Vans, so I've been learning a little bit about what cool stuff they've been up to. So, I think in the boot world, a lot of really cool tech can be optimized there.

What do you think about the helmet techs, MIPS versus the WaveCel?

So, it's interesting because my uncle works for the NHL [National Hockey League], so he's learned a lot about the advantages of WaveCel over other types, whether it's like EVA films or different crush zones. And I was looking into their tech, and it's pretty next-level. I'm not crazy informed on how it works. But after hearing all of the incredible feedback, testing, and lab results, whether direct impact or rotational lab results, I've seen some cool stuff from Dave Connery, our lead helmet engineer. So, I think WaveCel is definitely going to change the market, whether it's within snowboarding or reaching into other types of sports, like action or conventional sports in general.

So, where do you see yourself in 10 years with snowboarding and engineering?

I can't think that far ahead. Five years is a little bit more reasonable. I'm trying to snowboard and work as much as possible because I love what I'm doing right now.

I've had that question asked quite a few times recently. I don't know if I'm pursuing snowboarding strictly or just trying to be a full-time engineer. I don't know what's to come. So I'm just going to keep trying to do my thing. And if it feels right, just follow the path. So right now, I am trying to snowboard, travel as much as possible, meet as many cool people as possible, balance both worlds, and keep everyone happy, including myself.

Photo by Theo Acworth

I love asking this question, just on the lift or whatever, but what does your dream day look like—backcountry jumps, fresh pillow lines, ready set at park laps, street? From when you wake up to when you go to bed, what is the perfect day that includes snowboarding?

I feel most excited about filming with my brother and best friends because we both know how we drive. We find spots that we like. He knows exactly how I want everything to be filmed, exactly how I want my part to come together. So, filming with SPOTHEADS is my ideal day.

Of course, some days are tough when you're searching for spots. You don't find something, you get kicked out, or someone gets hurt. There's all types of shit going on. But when it's a successful day, or you go on a trip, let's say to Quebec or something like that, and everybody in the crew comes back with a clip—not just me, not just Joey—that they're happy with, it's just so fulfilling to know that we all worked together to get the shots for each other.

My ideal day would also be finding spots people haven't really hit before. Something with Joey and just making sure we're all getting clips!

It sounds like a good day. So, what do you do off-hill on your dream day?

We're definitely skating and riding dirt bikes. We'll probably play some golf too, and Snoopy will come for all of it.

Jump on with you on the bike?

He's so good, though. I just got the dirt bike at the beginning of the summer. And I'll tell him to go, and he'll lead the way. Or if we're camping, I'll tell him to stay at the tent, and he'll stay. He just sits there and patiently waits for us to ride the trails and return. It's crazy. It's like the sickest thing ever.

Maybe you'll have to be a dog trainer too. We'll add that to the list of things you're working on.

I have too many ideas, honestly. I'm trying to reel them in a little bit sometimes. That's something I'm working on right now. I have this new mentor. He's freaking awesome. But he's also super high energy, and he's like, "Yeah, sometimes your second year is someone's fifth year. So, you need to make sure when you're delivering your ideas, you slow down a little bit because sometimes it's like it can be overwhelming." And I'm like, blah, blah, blah, so much to say.

I am totally like that too!

So, what are some of the greatest lessons you've learned from snowboarding that you'd want to tell your younger self or a younger rider?

Honestly, just keep throwing shit at a wall, and see what sticks. That's how I go at everything, honestly. You could have a million ideas, whether it's about a spot, who you're filming with, or what you're trying to do next. Keep coming up with ideas, generating energy and excitement around something, and you'll find something that works.

Something that Doyle told me was to start to be comfortable with being a little bit uncomfortable. And that's something I live by. It sounds crazy, but if you're uncomfortable, that's usually when you're going to push yourself the most. So I keep coming back to it. It's like, "All right. If you're uncomfortable, it's a good thing because you're going to put yourself out there at least."

Photo by Ashley Rosemeyer

What an awesome interview! Maggie taught us that you really can do it all if you set your mind to it.

Maggie followed her ambitions and was able to use her engineering degree in an industry she deeply cares about. She continued to push those ambitions and developed a passion project to engineer snowboarding gear for adaptive riders. All while becoming a professional snowboarder, riding with a crew she loves, and creating super sick snowboarding parts. It is so inspiring to see Maggie making the most of her impact and opportunities.

Thank you to Maggie for your time. We so appreciate your stoke and your impact on the industry. Check out Maggie on her Instagram and her latest Bomb Hole episode if you want to hear more about her background.

No matter if you are a new rider or a seasoned pro, at Curated, we encourage you to push yourself and chase those dreams—starting with your dream setup, of course! If you need help finding the perfect gear, click the link here to chat with me or a fellow Snowboard Expert.

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