Interview: Sammy Carlson on ‘The Sammy C Project’

Contact CU Independent News Staff Writer Isaac Siegel at isaac.siegel@colorado.edu.

Sammy Carlson is a skiing legend. His name is often mentioned among the ranks of Glen Plake, Tanner Hall and Eric Pollard — all of whom are considered visionaries and pioneers in the freeskiing realm.

Carlson’s new film, The Sammy C Project, is a representation of his fervent passion for skiing. Once known solely for competitive freestyle, Carlson now finds himself primarily skiing the backcountry. He views backcountry areas as his creative haven, free from the institutional restrictions of the normalized, competitive freestyle arena. The creativity and freedom by which Sammy C lives his life is a prevalent theme in his new film. For those who didn’t make it to the premiere at the Boulder Theater on Dec. 1, it’s definitely worth a view.

After the premiere, I had the opportunity to sit down with Carlson and pick his brain about the film, his evolving relationship with skiing, fear, women and how his short physical stature plays a role in his ability to get face shots.

CUI: Over the past few years, you’ve transitioned entirely from traditional, competitive freestyle skiing to solely backcountry skiing. What is the thought process behind that change and what message are you trying to send, if any?

Carlson: Honestly, it’s just the feeling. Competitions just started feeling stale and really repetitive to me. As I grew older and my skiing progressed, the courses remained the same. I wasn’t getting the same feeling I used to get when I showed up at contests. At the beginning it was always some of the gnarliest rail set ups and jump set ups you’d ever ride.

As I got older, the courses kind of digressed in a way as they started accommodating for the female riders and started making sure the jumps were safe. Nothing against the female riders — mad love for the female riders. But in general, competitions weren’t doing it for me. As I got older, I realized life is not about competition. The more I got exposed to backcountry skiing, the more I couldn’t stop thinking about it. That’s where I really wanted to push my skiing. It came to the point where I was literally watching backcountry edits the morning of competitions to get me stoked to go up and ride this icy park.

Progression just became adding another 180 to a trick that I already knew; it didn’t feel like progression to me. It was starting to ruin the feeling that you get in the air — the jumps are smaller and I’m adding more rotations. I just decided, fuck it. It was a hard decision for sure because I was worried about losing my sponsors but I don’t ski for the fame. I love skiing and that’s why I do it. Even my dad was telling me this was a bad decision, and a lot of people thought my career would end when I stopped competing, and I just had this different vision in my head where I thought I was about to tap into the potential of being able to push the sport. After a lot of conscious thinking, I said screw it, I’m just going to go for this. I made the decision and I don’t regret it one bit. Best decision I ever made.

CUI: Do you think competitive freestyle skiing can progress further or do you think it has hit its limits?

Carlson: I think kids will definitely continue to progress that side of the sport. But for me, that’s just not where I’m feeling it. I’m psyched for all those kids that are doing it and are just stepping into basically where I was when I was 16 and 17 because the level is already there. Where they’re going to take it is far beyond where I took it. For myself, I wanted to take a different route and follow my heart.

So I guess the message I’m trying to send with that is to stay true to yourself and don’t be afraid to really follow your passion, and pursue your dreams because you’re definitely going to find people that share the same feelings. When you surround yourself with like-minded people, the sky is the limit. But I would like to see freestyle competition… for me it’s hard to watch the contests these days because it’s so repetitive — it would sweet to see the courses get a little more progressive so athletes can stand out and be individuals instead of just the standard four- or three-jump course straight down the run.

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CUI: Ski movie music is always interesting to me. I find myself listening to the soundtracks of films I watched four years ago because they make me nostalgic of the inspiration I found in those films. Do you choose the music in the segments you’re in?

Carlson: Yeah, a lot of the time. Personally, I’m really into reggae and hip-hop music, that’s what I’m into. For this film, it was really cool working with [sports media company] TGR [Teton Gravity Research] and one of my goals was to stray from a strictly reggae and hip-hop playlist. In skiing these days, all you hear is some super gangster — some straight up wanna-be shit. I’m definitely influenced by that type of music but I’m not trying to be in the band; I’m just inspired by the feeling that music gives me.

But I wanted this movie to be different and speak to people in all walks of life, keep the music diverse. I definitely stay super involved in the editing and the music behind it. The music is a voice — it’s just as important as the tricks that are happening. It’s important for me stay involved and make sure the movie comes out the way I want it.

CUI: This film is very independent, it seems, considering that it’s self-titled and features mainly you. Was this film your idea or was it something that was pitched to you?

Carlson: It was a collaboration between Todd Jones from TGR and myself. We connected back in 2007 and instantly had a strong bond. Todd Jones is like Dr. Seuss to me: If you dream it, Todd will make it a reality. He’s believed in me since day one. I always talk to him telling him there’s more we can be doing, and he’s never doubted me from the beginning.

Right before the Olympics, everything lined up where my sponsors were down for me to film this movie. It was weird timing for myself with the Olympics coming into the sport because people thought that was ‘the ultimate.’ But for me, making it to the Olympics was never a goal of mine growing up. It was always about the X Games. So when I won the X Games, that was a childhood dream come true.

After that, I started thinking about making ski videos because growing up that was always the most important thing. I would try and hide it from my mom and dad; every day I’d be watching ski videos instead of doing my homework. I’ve always thought filming videos would be important, so after I won X, I started transitioning more into becoming a film skier. This film is definitely a collaboration between TGR and myself and it wouldn’t be possible without them. We worked together the whole time.

CUI: What kind of diet do you maintain to keep your athleticism?

Carlson: Definitely try to keep a good diet, especially in the winter. Lots of smoothies. Rice and meat.

CUI: Do you eat organic?

Carlson: Yeah, for sure. I avoid all GMOs. Fuck GMOs. I try and buy local and avoid all GMOs. I think it’s super important.

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CUI: Who was the most inspiring skier for you growing up and who is your favorite skier right now?

Carlson: There were definitely a few skiers I looked up to growing up. Eric Pollard was one of my biggest influences — he’s from Mount Hood, my home mountain. I saw him riding when I was 12 and I was racing at the time; I literally quit racing the day after I saw him ski. I thought to myself, that is exactly what I want to start doing. Tanner Hall was definitely a big influence of mine as well. Right now, I don’t watch as much skiing. I’m motivated by different things: different artists, musicians, surfers, snowboarders, people outside of the sport – even some philosophers like Alan Watts. Skiing is more than what you think. To me, it’s an escape.

CUI: What are your goals for this season?

Carlson: This season, I’m trying to take a little break and enjoy all the hard work we’ve put in on this project. I’ve got some big ideas for a couple short edits, some shorter movies. I’m going to be working with TGR more. I’m trying to use this season as a building block to continue progressing my riding and take the time to get into bigger terrain. At the end of the year, I want to end up in AK and that’s where I want to spend a majority of my time this season. I’m going to be in Alaska for two months and really try to take the time needed to progress in a safe way. Hopefully, going into next year, we’re going to start working on another movie.

CUI: Do you think there’s anything that would ever make you reconsider skiing in general?

Carlson: Maybe the level that I’m pushing at but… this fire — I’ve got burning inside. I’ve had some close friends pass away so I know, I know skiing is super dangerous. I’ve also had some super close friends have some big health issues and they’re not skiers at all. We can’t take life for granted. I don’t know if I’ll ever step away from skiing, maybe as a professional, but right now I’m definitely stoked to continue. I feel a lot of fire — more and more every year. This year is no different; I’m super stoked, more than ever, to get out there and keep pushing my riding.

CUI: Yeah, I don’t think you should consider stepping away. Danger is an inherent fact of this sport but the reward is enormous for those who can feel what the skiing gives them.

Carlson: Definitely. I’ll always be skiing or in the mountains. I’m sure at some point I’ll look forward to other things; I see, life is beautiful. There’s tons of different directions you can push your life where it’s amazing. I see tons of friends and family — I’m super grateful to be close to my family and lots of cool friends I’ve met along the way who aren’t skiers and are people that are living different lifestyles. That shows me that if skiing were to fall off tomorrow — if I lost all of my sponsors — I’d be stoked on all the experiences I’ve had and would look forward to the next thing.

I’d hope to have the same enthusiasm and dedication I had towards skiing to move forward in life. It’s been super cool to meet my childhood heros: some lived up to it, some didn’t. Skiing has showed me we’re all humans and everybody has the fire. The difference between people is that some people are less afraid to go and get it. I don’t think I’ll ever stop skiing; I definitely recognize there is more to life than skiing but at the same time, that’s what makes what I’m doing so special to me — I get to experience this and it’s amazing.

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CUI: Any lucky ladies in your life right now?

Carlson: Yeah. But, to any guys out there that are having problems with girls, just forget about it and find another one. There’s so many beautiful girls out there. I’ve been through some crazy relationships and it’s just not worth it. There’s so many cool people out there. If you’re having problems with your girl, time to upgrade, find a new one. You meet new girls and life moves on.

That’s the biggest challenge, even for myself, trying not to be afraid. I looked up to Steve Jobs when I started not wanting to do the Olympics because my parents, everyone was telling me I was making the wrong decision. Steve Jobs has the best quote: He says that whenever he has to make a difficult decision, he thinks that if he were going to be dead tomorrow, is this what he would really want to be doing with his life. When you take fear out of the equation, you really find out what you want to do. We’re so lucky to be growing up in this time — anything is possible. The sky is the limit, and it really is. For real, life is whatever you make it. I know tons of guys that do what I do and they’re not stoked on it. Life is what you make it.

CUI: Do you feel that you have an unfair advantage at getting face shots because of your height?

Carlson: (Laughs) maybe. I don’t really think about it like that. Spriggs would definitely think about it like that. John Spriggs would definitely say I have an unfair advantage. I think I just know how to throw up some snow.

Keep up with Sammy C this season on Instagram @sammycski.

Isaac Siegel

Isaac is a Sociology and EBIO major with a personal emphasis in the human-driven aspects of ecological degradation. He loves to ski, backpack, hike, bike, travel, and explore.

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