Chatting with the Pros: Dave Downing on Keeping Snowboarding Fun
Snowboard Expert Bobby Chadderton sat down with Dave to chat about his career with Burton and the one truth we all agree on: Snowboarding is fun. Let's keep it that way.
Snowboarding as we know it today wasn’t an overnight emergence. For a perspective on snowboarding’s recent emergence, let’s use the Olympic Games as a timeline reference. The Olympics started in 1896, and a casual 102 years later, Olympic Snowboarding premiered in 1998, with Shannon Dunn-Downing becoming the first American woman to medal in Halfpipe.
Snowboarding is extremely immature from that perspective. What’s even more remarkable is that in 2021, that same “immaturity” is what truly defines snowboarding. At the root of it all, snowboarding is fun. If you’ve experienced it, you’re familiar with the same liberating, child-like smile that comes from a good day of standing sideways. That feeling is what unites us all, and nobody has worked harder to maintain the idea of keeping snowboarding fun than Dave Downing. In mid-September, I had the chance to pick Dave’s brain about snowboarding’s roots and the industry's wild evolution.
If you’re not familiar with Dave Downing, it’s probably because he’s genuinely one of the most humble figures in snowboarding. Dave officially began his career in snowboarding (“career” doesn’t seem to encompass enough to truly qualify his contributions) with Burton 33 years ago as a sales rep. That gig led him to, accidentally, become a professional snowboarder with Burton in 1993 when team manager Eric Kotch invited him to go on a trip for a Transworld Snow article. Dave’s fluidity, control, style, and passion for snowboarding quickly became apparent. That trip introduced Dave to his wife, Shannon Dunn-Downing, and resulted in a 14-year career with Burton as a pro—filming 24 video parts in that time.
Dave’s contributions to snowboarding may be impossible to quantify, but consider that he created the Burton Custom in collaboration with Jake Burton Carpenter—the Burton Custom. The all-time greatest selling snowboard with countless Burton Pros still dominating the competition on the same snowboard. Dave also played an enormous role in developing and perfecting Burton’s AK line of gear designed for the most extreme weather conditions and highly skilled riders alike.
Oh, and splitboarding? Dave made a point to film an entire video part on a splitboard just to prove their capability and versatility which was a huge risk that opened eyes across the entire snowboard industry. Today, Dave still holds an enormous role for Burton with… an unofficial job title. Sales, marketing, initiatives, product testing, PR, fun, stoke, you name it—he’s probably involved.
How did you even discover snowboarding in the first place?
On a ski trip! I skied for like 14, maybe 15 years. That ended on a trip where I broke my skis and my buddy talked me into snowboarding. Right away, I'm thinking…I really don't wanna do that, that's stupid. Because back then, you didn't really see people snowboarding. I mean like, really snowboarding. But my buddy convinced me. It was a powder day, like six inches of powder in Utah when I first learned, so it was a wild feeling being on a snowboard in powder on my first day ever. That's what truly got me hooked.
Hooked is an understatement. Looking back at ‘93 and those transformative years, what was going on in your brain during that trip for TWS [Transworld Snow]?
Huh, a lot. I mean, the beginning of my whole "pro career", or whatever you want to call it, was pretty innocent really. Seriously, it was very innocent. It wasn't like it is nowadays, you know? I was pretty naive to everything that was going on. Back then, [as pros] we were all just figuring it out, like what it even meant to be “pro”, you know?
The sport was blowing up a lot in the early nineties. There were pro snowboarders—Noah Salasnek, Chris Roach, Craig Kelly, those people. When I first started, a lot of them were just coming up. Honestly, we were all just kind of doing stuff. We’d just go out and shoot photos for magazines and try to film whatever we came up with. There were contests then but it was mostly half-pipe and racing, I mean slopestyle wasn’t even a concept back then. The best way I can describe my ‘come-up’ as a pro was pure innocence and naturally just having fun snowboarding.
Quick moment of appreciation for your unforgettable intro in TB3: “I’m Dave Downing and I like to ride everything, the whole mountain.” You really did back that up without ‘conforming’ to any one facet of snowboarding. Backcountry, park, urban...you truly did it all.
Hahaha, Mack Dawg actually made me say it. But yeah, I mean snowboarding is snowboarding. Some pros might specialize in things, but most people that snowboard definitely wanna ride a bit of pow, lap some groomers, maybe hit the park. They might even just wanna ride down local fields and hills out of the resort. In the end, it’s all just fun in its own way you know? Whatever is truly fun for you—that’s what you should pursue.
Like, today, if you're talking about the professional side of snowboarding, it's become so segmented because the level of riding has gotten so high in each facet.
How can we ensure that the upcoming generation of riders is getting the perfect gear and the perfect start with the right encouragement and stoke in a quickly evolving e-commerce world?
I mean, video is great because you can read somebody's interaction. You can explain things with your hands. You can talk, you can really just...get a vibe from somebody, you know? As opposed to just typing on a screen and getting words. Like, I don't know, say you get some comments from somebody on Instagram. It's just like, what is this? Does this really mean anything to me? Really, it's just a comment.
It’s not human interaction—which is the goal. Any type of video connection is great. Really, I just think you're trying to help guide somebody into the right product. That person is really trying to get some valid information from somebody that hopefully is objective, not their own opinion, you know?
That's the biggest thing. I’ve talked to a lot of people that work at snowboard shops and stuff, and as soon as they ditch the mentality of “what I ride is the best”, that’s when you do a good job. So that’s gotta go because I'm not going to tell you what I like. Even when you asked me about the Burton Pow Wrench—sure, I like it. But that’s just me. Let’s find out what YOU like!
So, I'll show you a board, Bobby. I'll be like, "Dude, tell me what you do. Why, where do you ride? What do you have now? How many boards do you have? Okay, how are you doing? What do you like? What's your favorite day? What's your best day? What do you ride with your friends? Do you ride by yourself?" You know, I would ask you all these questions and kind of get a vibe from you. And then I'll be like "Ahhhh, alright." I'm vibing with you now! I know what you're all about.
That connection man—that’s what Curated is all about!
Yeah! I know what you're all about because we’re chatting. I’ve got a real connection with you. I might not talk about these boards over here that I personally love because that's not your vibe. I’ll be objective, maybe bring a few out and be direct: "Are you vibing with this? Why, why not?" So it can totally be a weird thing—talking snowboards to people and selling them without knowing them. At the end of the day, you’re really just guiding people hoping to get the right board for them, you know?
Absolutely, dude! I find so much fulfillment in pairing somebody with new gear and watching them evolve as a rider.
Yeah, totally. There's just a lot of confusion out there and understandably. There are so many opinions, everyone’s got their own style. The worst is hearing: "That board's the best! That board's so sick! I ride that board! It’s everything!" Okay so, that means… everything is the best? That's actually what you would think if you were to just read something online.
Totally agree. I’ll take hinged Malavita EST’s and Swaths for most things inbounds—just laiiiiid back! But that’s me. My buddies will rock a 9/10 flex setup and rip the same terrain.
Talking EST’s, Step-Ons, edge-tech, that’s an endless industry-wide list. If you had to pick one tech advancement that you’ve seen come to life, what stands out?
Bindings, for sure. We used to have a five-way surface when I first started snowboarding. That was a five-hole pattern that only gave you two stances. In the late eighties/early nineties, you literally had a 19-inch stance or a 20-inch stance—that’s it.
So yeah, the invention of the disc binding alone was huge. Burton dropped the 3D disc. Seeing that evolve into the channel with EST’s, that’s insane for me. And that’s solely for the ability to change your stance. The rest of the tech? Yeah, insane. Those developments speak for themselves, but the binding game today is killer.
Because honestly, snowboards themselves haven't actually changed that much. I could probably go back to '94 and jump on a Custom prototype and ride that today having just as much fun as I would on the latest release.
There’s truly so much diversity out there with so much talent in the many “facets” of snowboarding. Today, the bar is seriously set SO high in competition. What would you say to the upcoming riders that are looking to “go pro”? To the groms who are truly grinding for sponsorships and exposure?
[With a grin] Honestly, if you’re asking me personally, I’m not sure I’d wanna do it. If you truly do have that drive and mindset of "I wanna go to the Olympics, I wanna go to X Games," then get to work, man! It's a 24/7 grind because it is that gnarly. It’s your athletic ability, preparing your body, your mind. It takes a lot more than what most people think.
Just imagine all the steps behind putting down a run in a slopestyle course. Dialing in every technical rail feature, throwing huge spins off giant jumps. If it’s not just taking care of your body and avoiding injury, you gotta have the mental capacity behind that. You gotta be strong. You gotta train. Repetitions. Like if you're going to the X Games Big Air 15 years from now, you're not gonna really gonna snowboard that much. You're gonna hit those same jumps, landing in bags, pushing your limits.
Honestly, to me, that's not snowboarding. It's just hitting jumps and spinning. If you’ve got that mindset, it’s absolutely killer. Send it. But if you just wanna snowboard, get a job and go snowboarding.
I get it, totally. Let’s dive into that—what does snowboarding mean to you? What are you personally looking to see from today’s professional representation? You mentioned Blake Paul as a rider that you enjoy watching. What is it about him that you dig so much?
Totally, yeah. Blake rips. To me, it’s all about control—that’s pleasing to my eye. That's what good style is. When I'm looking at someone ride or watching film of somebody doing something, I’m really thinking like, word, that was cool. It’s not really the trick that the rider did. It’s the confidence and fluidity they display. They hit that lip perfectly, spun, stomped, and rode away well in full control.
To me, it’s all about control. That's what good style is.
I've seen a lot of stuff where I’m like… "Whoa. Gnarly but jeez, scary to watch." Sketchy take-off, landing, over-rotation, even when it’s stomped—that’s not what I personally love to watch. That’s just me though. I know a lot of people that love that like, crazy, hardcore craziness and that's totally cool.
Sendin’ it to the moon, all gas no brakes. I hear that. Apply that to the competition scene, we’ve all heard about spin-to-win. X-Games Men’s Big Air 2021 turned into a Quad Competition but where’s this trend taking us?
It’s wild. There are probably only 15 people in the world that can hit those jumps. Even like the U.S. Open. It literally was the U.S. Open. Open to everybody—drop your best line in the halfpipe (which was basically a ditch compared to today’s vert in pipe), and that's what it was.
Today, it’s definitely not that. It's gnarly. You go to the U.S. Open and seriously, I can’t imagine dropping a full line in any event. I was looking at the jumps a couple of years ago thinking like, "There's probably like 20 people in the world that can ride this course," you know? I mean literally just...survive it.
Yeah, the risk involved in training alone is hard to fathom. The pressure to stomp a fluid line through Slopestyle takes some serious mental fortitude.
How about recent events that are starting to develop some diversity? I’m talking X-Games Knuckle Huck, Natural Selection and Absolut Park had a “Best 540” competition last season that was beautiful to watch. Do you think these are the right steps from the competition scene to make snowboarding more tangible for all riders?
Yeah, 100%. I think they’re really important. I know where you're going with that, I agree.
I think it’s vital that at some point (whether it's now, 10 years, 100 years from now) that snowboarding and the limitless creativity behind it totally has to level for riders that express themselves in what would be considered non-traditional competition. Whether it's the courses changing, Knuckle Huck, Natty Selection, these are definitely huge assets to show that snowboarding can’t continue to push riders to go bigger and spin faster. Talk about control? No way. That future just couldn’t be good for the sport. More creativity and more platforms to be able to express that creativity, that’s crucial.
Couldn’t agree more. Going big won’t disappear but I’m hoping to see creativity in the next decade that I can’t even fathom today. I mean, look at Zeb Powell throwing down! That dude is seriously unpredictable. Taking a wider scope in the industry, what do you think this looks like for the next generation of snowboarders?
I mean, it's their generation, you know? I had my time. My generation was what it was. Me? I’m gonna have fun snowboarding, no matter what, but yeah, there are not many things I look at today that truly inspires me to go snowboarding.
Paradoxical maybe, but snowboarding itself inspires me to go snowboarding. I don't need to look at things to get stoked cause I know where I’m at. But imagine a kid that's five years old just growing up wanting to shred. He’s gotta find that inspiration somewhere right? If these groms grow up watching the X-Games, quad corks, is that really gonna inspire them? Maybe, but that’s a very minuscule part of snowboarding, you know?
Ideally, the generation of pros that are coming out in the next five, ten years will continue to branch out and make the sport inviting from different angles. Regardless of skin color, identity, age, everybody should feel entirely welcome to love snowboarding in their own way—to do what they have the most fun doing. Socially, snowboarding is huge. My kids love to ride and golf with their buddies, that’s how you build connections. They don't want to go riding with me. Like they just don’t—I mean, they do sometimes—but they'd rather go ride with their buddies and have a good day on the snow lapping chairs. They're just hanging out.
Yeah! I think today, a huge part of the industry that we're in is the comradery. Which is great. Human interaction—riding the chairlift with your friend or your wife and your kids or whoever you're with. That’s just a huge part of having a great day on the mountain, you know? So that connection and just having a good day riding with your buddies is super cool.
There’s nothing like hearing a giant “yeeeeeew!” followed by a frothy high five after nailing a line, linking your first turns, hitting that jump.
Yeah, dude! Snowboarding is so intrinsically fun that it seems so necessary to share that joy with others. And it comes in so many different forms—like splitboarding! Haha yes, I’m going there.
Since you are so humble, I’ll just say this: you really brought it to life in the U.S. That’s my take on it. With COVID closures, resort lines, splitboarding is appealing to a newer, larger demographic. Many people without much resort experience see it and (understandably) wanna be a part of it. So right away, they're purchasing online.
What's your top piece of advice for that person, or any person who's buying splitboarding gear for the first time, online?
I’d say just a couple of things: I'd warn you a bit. First, it's hard. It's not easy. You're not just riding powder. So if you want to just ride powder without effort, splitboarding isn’t the way to go.
The other thing is to educate yourself. It is dangerous. It can be very dangerous. So educate yourself and know that it's an effort. Those are the two things that I would tell somebody, and not to put them off at all! Seriously, if you’re up for the exercise and willing to put in the effort to learn, you can truly experience nature in the backcountry and ride some powder. Splitboarding is an awesome tool. I mean, you're walking on the same thing that you're coming down on. You’ve got tons of flow as you're walking around, it's killer.
The third thing I would probably say is to keep it super mellow while you’re learning. Your terrain should be fairly low-angle. Just go up something—say 1000 ft. up—find a mellow zone, and lap it over and over. It’s not like riding powder gets old. Have friends with you to learn with, take an Avalanche Course together and know what Avalanche terrain is.
Personally, I don't even try to go near it. Especially splitboarding. I don't want to hike up some super steep chute! I wanna chill and cruise down this cool, roly-poly, super fun and long run that has like no danger on it. Which is attainable. I can skin up super easily and ride down. That's what I want to do on a splitboard these days.
When every one of those turns is earned you gotta value them!
Yeah. It’s so fun, just cruising around the wilderness with your friends.
A huge help is to practice with your setup at home on a carpet. Put on your mittens or gloves, grab your setup, take it apart, put it back together. Do it a lot. I used to do that in Utah. I used to practice transitions constantly. Ascending to descending, reverse, and repeat. Incorporate your backpack and the rest of your gear and you’ll eventually develop a system that’s like muscle memory. That way when you’re out in the backcountry at your summit with mittens on and crazy wind, you’re confident, you know? Cause if you skip even just practicing with mittens, you’ll be at that exposed peak struggling, getting frustrated, it sucks. You're gonna start crying. Knowing what you’re getting into and preparing for it is huge.
Then you’ve even got splitboard technique. It’s unnatural and it feels weird at first. I see a lot of people make the mistake of leaning way forward. This makes sense if you’re climbing something steeper, you wanna lean into it. You’re putting a lot of trust into your skins and highbacks by standing straight up, so it can be intimidating. I had to teach my son, Logan, that because he was really leaning forward when he first started. You’ve got heel risers, know when to put them down, and pay attention to those little details.
You started surfing when you were eleven, how did you develop such a deep passion for both surfing and snowboarding? For me, snowboarding is a form of self-expression and creativity. Did you look at both passions the same way back then?
It’s hard to say, they're both seriously just fun to do. Just… fun. When I first started surfing it wasn't because I was trying to be creative or anything. I was just trying to ride waves and emulate something that looked so fun. When I was younger, I was kinda just like "Woah, this is cool," and then when I got into snowboarding, yeah that was by accident. I started snowboarding and it was just the exact same feeling. Like, whoa, this is just like surfing. Getting on a snowboard was like "Whoa, this is just like surfing down the mountain, you know?"
That’s when the light bulbs went off and I thought: "This is awesome." So yeah, eventually that turned into creativity and being able to express myself through it. With surfing, it's harder to find that. It’s difficult to surf and learn the fundamentals, you know? It’s much harder to express yourself surfing than it is snowboarding. It can take like 10 years to learn to surf and it might take a week to snowboard, in terms of really finding the ability to express yourself through those lifestyles.
Totally, with two passions, there’s gotta be a balance. Surfing and snowboarding clearly evolved from passions to lifestyles for you. In that regard, if you had to do just one activity today, would it be...
a. Surfing the dreamiest swell imaginable anywhere
b. Snowboarding anywhere on the deepest day of your life?
Today? I'd be snowboarding because it's still summertime in Southern California. Ask me that same question in February—I’ll probably say surfing. It truly just depends on what's going on. If the weather is good, I wanna surf. If the snow is good, I wanna be snowboarding!
At the end of the day, we’re all here to have fun. Whether you’re snowboarding or surfing right now, we hope you’re enjoying the winter season! If this inspired you to go stand sideways, reach out to myself or another Snowboard Expert here on Curated to get hooked up with any of your gear needs. Whether you’re looking for a new daily driver to lap your local resort or your first splitboard to ditch the crowds, we’ll help you out with free, personalized advice!