words: T. Bird
photos: Gabe L’Heureux
While Shaun White may be the modern day face of competitive snowboarding, Bud Keene is the modern day face of competitive snowboard coaching. Of course, Bud’s credentials go much deeper than the competitive world, and with names like Jake Blauvelt, Hannah Teter, Kyle Clancy, Travis Kennedy, Zach Leach, and Toby Miller to his coaching credit, Bud has a proven, uncanny ability over time of recognizing, relating to, and nurturing snowboarding talent across every facet of the sport. In the past few years, as Shaun’s go-to guy on the sidelines of every major event, Bud has racked up countless wins with White at Grand Prix, Dew Tours, X Games, and the Olympics over the years, and at the top of the 2014 Sochi Olympic pipe, Bud was there, equal parts stoic and confident, to fist bump Shaun before he dropped in. Unfortunately for the golden duo, Shaun walked away from Sochi with a fourth place finish and stunning the snowboard world, so we thought Bud would be a perfect fit for our Sochi Behind The Scenes interview series. In this interview, Bud is thorough, insightful, and very well-spoken in his answers. Listen up, as we query the most successful snowboard coach in history about how Shaun took the loss, the quality of the pipe, using the lessons we learned in Sochi to make competitive snowboarding better in the years to come, and much, much more.
Alright man, so one thing that I have been asking everyone that we have been doing these interviews with is, a lot of the spotlight was on the potential terrorist attacks that might go on in Sochi. Did you buy into it? Were you a little hesitant or were you curious to see what was going to happen when you got off that plane?
You know, I can honestly say I never worried about it a bit. You know, that is for a couple of reasons. One is, I had bigger fish to fry. I’m over there to compete at the Olympics and it takes all your focus and all your effort and I really didn’t have any left over to worry about that kind of stuff. The second is, we fly all over the world, that is what we do, and it is awesome, but you get used to getting on a plane in LA and having a fourteen hour flight to Australia. I mean, I don’t know who the pilot is. You basically have to assume that the guy knows what the hell he is doing. I just sit down, have a couple glasses of red wine and leave my life in his hands. So once you kind of get used to doing that over and over and over and over, this was another situation like that. I had to assume that the Russians and our State Department, who I know from past Olympics–this is my fourth–I know that our State Department is heavily involved. Years ahead of time, before an American ever sets foot on Russian soil. So, I had to assume just like I do when I get on those trans-Pacific flights, people who were in charge knew what they were doing.
My first Olympics was 2002 in Salt Lake, which was just a few months after 9/11. And you know, if there was ever a time to be worried about terrorist activity that was it. Compared to that, this wasn’t a big concern of mine.
I’m sure that the past couple years as Shaun’s coach had to be pretty hectic for you. Could you talk a little bit about how intense those preparations were for you and Shaun going into Sochi?
Sure. You know, they were pretty intense, but it’s snowboarding, so it’s not that intense. It’s fun. And we have a lot of fun during the run up to it. But having said that, you know, of course with Shaun aiming to compete in both slope and pipe in these Olympics, our workload compared to past Olympics was a little more intense. We all know that Shaun has been a very successful dual sport athlete in the past, but with halfpipe being the only freestyle discipline until this time around, he’s been free to kind of chill on slope and focus on pipe. This time of course, both sports were on the schedule. So yeah, it basically doubled his work and preparation load. So you know, it was intense. Lotta work, lotta riding. But you know, it was snowboarding and he enjoys it, I enjoy it. We had a good time but we worked pretty hard.
I think it’s safe to say that Shaun is the face of snowboarding to a very large audience and he has a lot of pressure on him at all times. How does he handle that pressure? Do you ever see him get really stressed out because there is so much riding on it or does he have a pretty mellow demeanor about it all?
Well you know, I’d say Shaun has got a lot of things going on. He’s a busy guy, and he definitely wants to be the type of person that wants to be very good at everything that he does, but I wouldn’t say that those are the types of things that place pressure on him. He does have pressure, but I think it is self-imposed pressure. He puts more pressure on himself than anybody else ever could. So the pressure is there, but it’s coming from him. It’s the same type of pressure that he has always put on himself. I don’t think there were any type of major departures in that way.
One of the first big pieces of news to come out of Sochi was Shaun pulling out of slope. What was it that led to Shaun’s final decision? Was it a wrist injury or was it course safety or was it Shaun wanting to focus on that third consecutive gold medal in the pipe?
Well, that was absolutely it. Everybody knows what the shortcomings of the course were, that has been well documented. You know, the shortcomings of…I’d have to say the shortcomings of all the Olympic snowsports. The courses, the alpine skiers, the nordic skiers, the alpine snowboarders and skiers, and the halfpipe and slopestylers skiers. I mean, everybody felt that their venue certainly wasn’t X Games quality or what they were used to. So everybody had those challenges. You know, Shaun’s decision–as he has indicated–to pull out of slope to focus on pipe was purely to focus on pipe. I mean, I think that, because our sport is so new to Olympics, and particularly as a multi-discipline sport, I think that people in our industry and our general public are not accustomed to the dynamic there and perhaps aren’t aware at how often that happens. I mean, Michael Phelps pulled out of the 200 meter in London. Alpine skiers and multi-sport athletes in many different sports pull out of events on a regular basis. And the reason for that is you have these goals and aspirations four years out, three years out, two years out, one year out, six months out, one month out, and then you get there, you’re prepared, and then there are challenges. And those are the kinds of challenges that can’t be foreseen a year ahead, six months ahead, a week ahead. A day ahead! You know, Shaun wouldn’t have had any idea what the slope course was going to be like the day before he set foot on it. He only knew that day and then he hoped it would get better the next day and you know, maybe it got marginally better but it still had its challenges. Those decisions have to be made at the last minute. It comes to a point–and again, Shaun’s decision is just one decision in a long line of those types of decisions that have been made by some of the world’s best athletes across all disciplines. Track and field, you name it. It comes to a point where you are like, “Okay, where my heart is really at is maybe in this.” And maybe for Shaun, it was in the pipe event. You know, you have to constantly self evaluate. So he determined that if he were to participate in slopestyle then it would considerably diminish his chances of succeeding in the halfpipe and that was the decision that he couldn’t make two weeks before; even a day before. He had to get on that course and do it, and he did. He put in two days of practice on it before making that decision. It was definitely the toughest decision of his life. And look, in the end, as with all of these multi-sport athletes that I am referring to, he prioritized. He came up, he was able to prioritize and be like, Hey, you know what? This halfpipe event is more important. And I feel like if I go through with this, from an energy perspective, you know, that it would have diminished his chances, which he didn’t want to diminish his chances in the halfpipe. In retrospect, for Shaun, it would have been great if the halfpipe event was first. He could have gotten that out of the way and not worried about wearing himself out or potentially tweaking something on the slope course and it would have been a little bit more wide open, but unfortunately that is not the way the schedule ran so he made that tough call.
And then there was the sub-par condition of the halfpipe that came into play. What were the riders saying about it? Specifically, what was Shaun saying about it?
I don’t want to put words in Shaun’s mouth but the general consensus was, well first of all, there are the facts. Out of the first day of practice, the flat bottom was full of sugar snow. It sucks, well, it doesn’t suck, it is what it is and it’s still rideable. The walls were pretty consistent and hard, but the pipe was extremely verty. That was day one. On that day, Shaun threw double McTwist twelves, front double tens, Cab double tens, Cab double fourteens, and front double twelves. So he just learned how to kind of suck up the lip and he was just like, “Well, if the pipe is going to be like this, it’s verty, but I can deal.” He landed all of his tricks on that day, but still it was really verty. It stopped a lot of the riders from really doing anything at all. I only saw one other double cork 1080 that entire day. And that’s in the face of all the tricks that I just listed that Shaun did. So we were we were dismayed about the shape of the pipe on day one, but we had assurances that it was going to be changed. So we had a good practice day, we knew the pipe was going to get better, and we went to bed that night. The next day, what happened was the pipe groomer knew that he needed to make drastic changes to the vert on the wall, which in his estimation was going to require a chainsaw to cut the lip back to begin the process, and then to finish that process with the groomer. Anyway, that is what he did. Now, I think cutting into the pipe in that way was like open-heart surgery, man, at a critical time. And unfortunately that made the underlying snow that he uncovered on the walls become very rugged very quickly. It wasn’t as consolidated as the surface that he removed to lay back that pipe a little bit. It also made the sugar problem in the flat bottom way worse, and he wasn’t able to get a good blend on the pipe, meaning when he drove through the pipe to groom the flat bottom for the final time, it left major curbs from the flat bottom to the wall. Curbs that, to you and I, would break our front ankle if we slammed into them, and these guys were ollieing up over it and then going up the wall and trying to make it happen. Almost no one was able to ride the pipe very well on that day and the two-and-a-half hour practice session that we had scheduled, was originally supposed to be three hours, then it was cut to two-and-a-half, and then it got cut to an hour-and-a-half.
I remember I was there watching that and riders were struggling with frontside airs.
Exactly. That was just brutal, and that was essentially a wash and we basically didn’t get a practice day. And if you consider the day before, no one really had a practice day except for, as I described Shaun. That is essentially two lost days out of a three day practice session. The day after that, it was basically the same deal and people were super stressing because it was essentially a wash as far as practice goes. When I sideslipped through it later it was wild. From the bottom of the tranny, the curve of the transition would start going up, and then it would drop off like two feet into the wall, and then the wall would continue up into an arc. I mean, how someone could go across that pipe and ride well and hold their speed was beyond me. Although, a few riders did. Shaun did on that day, Ayumu [Hirano] did. Yiwei Zhang did. You know, it was to their credit, it was damn impossible. But they got a few runs in, but it was still like a wasted practice. So here we were, three days in, our only three days of practice, and something had been drastically wrong in the quality. [The builders] were struggling you know, they did have snow conditions that were tricky. I didn’t envy them. But the powers that be decided to bring in a snow expert. Basically, he’s like a snow surface expert who works on the Super G and the Downhill courses all over the world. A alpine skier dude who knows his shit like none other. And he saved it. It would have been an absolute disaster had they not brought that guy in. And you know, we saw Instagram pictures that night of that guy with a fire hose going right down the middle of the pipe. He was on skis just hosing it down. They had slippers going everywhere that he was directing. He had a bag of chemicals in one hand and he had a fire hose in the other hand. You know, he iced it down, got the flat bottom to hold up. On the day of the qualifiers and the finals the walls still deteriorated, particularly at the bottom, and you could see that in the riding. People would go across the flat bottom fairly quickly and then slam into some bump and then go over it and up the wall. It definitely presented a challenge for everybody. Having said that, everybody has got to ride the same pipe, I mean, I hate saying that but you have to agree with that at the same time. Some did, some didn’t, and it presented a challenge. But we weren’t there to complain about the pipe, we don’t want to complain about it, we want it better going forward. Rather than throwing stones at the pipe or the pipe builder or the organization, I think we have to look at the problems in a proactive way. Using any energy going here on forward to use in a positive manner to try and make it better next time.
Absolutely. As it was, Iouri put down a great run in a sub-par pipe, but Shaun was the last rider to drop and he’s not in medal contention. The NBC execs were probably sitting in their booth salivating, because here comes the gold medal moment. What do you say to Shaun right before he drops in for that final run?
Um, nothing in particular. It’s not a script that I follow. I don’t remember saying anything different than what I might normally say. I don’t think I say a lot really. It’s more of just a fist bump and a, “You got it. Nail it.” That type of stuff. I mean, I don’t really remember specifically.
You know, I don’t really remember in that type of situation. But yeah, I have been in a situation like that with Shaun before and more often than not, Shaun is taking a victory lap on that second one. But that wasn’t the case and I had seen it before, most notably last year at the Park City World Cup where he had achieved his Olympic qualification result, he fell on his first qualifying run and then everybody was like, “Holy shit.” And then he nailed his second qualification run to make it into the finals. And then in the finals, he fell on his first run, and you only get two runs, and everybody is like, “Holy shit!” And then he nailed his second run to win the competition. That was one of the few times where I had been in that situation with Shaun, and it happened a few times, you know, he is pretty much always come through in those situations. Of course anything can happen, and the condition of the pipe you know, definitely gave every rider out there a bit of a challenge, so I would say there were more variables than your normal situation and unfortunately those variables had an affect.
We all know Shaun is such a competitor and he is so driven to succeed, and I think I know the answer to this question before I even ask it, but how did Shaun take the forth place finish.
Well, you know, it’s never any fun to not achieve what you set out to achieve. Obviously, Shaun wanted to win and he didn’t. I can’t say personally how he took it but I just will say we wanted to win. But I was just as proud as the way he handled himself in defeat. He was gracious, he was genuine, he was happy for Iouri. And he gave him due respect. I thought he handled it very well. He showed good sportsmanship, congratulated the victors, and he did every interview that was asked of him even though it was probably a tough time.
And that’s part of the game of competitive sports. Sometimes you’re the champ and sometimes you come up a little short but like you said, you can blame the pipe or you can blame the event organizers but really, the main goal here is to use this lesson to make the next one better. And the next one better, so on and so forth.
Exactly, exactly. And you know T. Bird, for me, the story here is that even the best have their bad days. There is no question in my mind that Shaun is by far the best. Had he landed a relatively simple run he planned for that evening, he would have won. You know, you can’t win ’em all. Even Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan lose sometimes, and we’re certainly not coming out of it with any complaints about anything or anybody. Of course it was a tough loss but going forward, it’s all positive for us.
Is Shaun going to be riding at the Open?
I don’t know. I think he’s making that decision by the moment. You know he does other stuff. He’s got the music obligations and I don’t exactly know what his schedule really is. I will be out there so if he chooses to do it, I’ll be out there and ready for him if he feels like it.
What’s next for Bud Keene? What are your summer plans?
Yeah, yeah. I’ll be working on camps. BK Pro Camps are alive and well. Now with the Olympics over, throwing myself into that new stuff. I got things scheduled for this spring into the summer, and then summer into the fall. So basically our mission of bringing world-class training facilities, features, pipes, airbags, and just really shining the light of progression onto the subject for any athlete, no matter what level they are at, is what the BK Pro is all about, and that is what we will be taking forward.
Where can people learn more about BK Pro Camps? We’ll give it a little bit of plug here.
The website is just a placeholder site right now, so you can view the placeholder page at budkeene.com, and then the website itself which I’m super stoked about, is going to be up and running in probably a little more than a week.
Awesome well this will go up in a couple of days so hopefully people can check it out as soon as this goes live. Thanks for taking the time to talk with me, Bud.
Sounds good, T. Bird. Awesome, man.