In 1970 I was a high school student in Seattle when I first saw Dick Barrymore’s The Performers, a film about five skiers traveling the country in a van on the edge of a new style of skiing. It made such a huge impression on me that in 1972 I schemed my way to Sun Valley, and turned my college education upside down by taking winters off. All I wanted to do was live that vagabond life in front of the camera.
Three years later, through a bit of luck and good timing, I was living the dream as a member of the K2 Team. Along with Jim Stelling, Stan Larsen, Jim Garrison, Mike Grazier, and Wayne Wong, I strutted my stuff in Assignment K2, Barrymore’s sequel to The Performers.
We toured Europe for a month with Jean Claude Killy, an experience I would re-live in a heartbeat.
Stelling, Bob Burns, and Corky Fowler were my heroes back then, but no one made an impression on me like Wayne Wong.
On April 16, 2009, Wong was inducted into the Canadian Ski Hall of Fame for his impact on skiing culture. Not too shabby for a kid from Vancouver, BC who loved to ski but had no idea what he wanted to do with his life.
GORDY: So you're actually Canadian...
Wong: It's true. I think a lot of people don't know that. My parents were born in Vancouver, and I was born and raised in Vancouver. I'm second generation Chinese. My wife, Karen, is American. My children were born in Canada.
GORDY: Today you live in Reno, but you grew up far from there in a strict and tight family unit. What was that like?
Wong: My father was very traditional.
GORDY: Did your whole family ski?
Wong: My Dad didn't ski until he was 42. The reason he and my mom started skiing was because they came to the Boston Ski Show to watch me perform. They met a lot of my sponsors, who said to them, “you’ve got to try skiing.” They skied for nine years after that. My youngest sister, Rhonda, never skied and
my younger brother, Mark, skied for a while.
GORDY: In this traditional, non-skiing family, how did you find your way to the hill?
Wong: When I was in seventh grade one of my friends went skiing every weekend at Mt. Baker. He would come back on Mondays and I would talk to him about it. That winter I signed up for the Parks and Recreation Program for eight weeks at Mt. Seymour. In '61 at age eleven, I got my first pair of skis, and was hooked. You'd never send your 11 year old all by themselves on a mountain today…
GORDY: And then you got the ski instructor bug at an early age.
Wong: It was a situation of not having a lot of money and wanting to ski. To get a free lift ticket you had two options: patrol or instruct. I thought, well, the ski patrol is always busy, and ski instructors get paid to ski. That's not a bad deal. So at 16 that's what I did at Mt Seymour. I really didn't get into the freestyle until I was 21.
GORDY: Who inspired you during your instructor years?
Wong: Art Furrer was one of the most inspirational guys because he could do Royal Christies and crossovers, and then Rudy Wirsch; he skied on stilts and competed the first few years. They were all part of the Hart Team back then. And then of course watching Bobbie Burns doing his 'Wheelies' and [Jean Claude] Killy doing 'Jet Turns'; they had a big impact on me. Burns was in a league of his own. Burns was even at the first event.
GORDY: The first event, at Waterville Valley, New Hampshire... You were in college in Vancouver. What gave you the idea to cross the continent for that?
Wong: I saw an ad in Skiing magazine, and I wanted to show people what could be done on skis.
GORDY: So when you went to that first ski exhibition, as we called the events back then, you were like, Hey, I'm a ski instructor and I know a few tricks?
Wong: Yes, I'm a ski instructor, and I have a whole bunch of tricks.
GORDY: Your tricks…the Wong Banger, and Wongmill…did you consciously learn them, or where you playing around, bored?
Wong: Well, we started playing around when we were bored. I had a routine that I could do already, where I put all these tricks together.
GORDY: You were way ahead of the curve. Nobody I can think of was doing routines then.
Wong: I knew I had something that nobody had ever seen before. But let's back up a bit. The whole concept of hot dog skiing, freestyle skiing, really came from Doug Pfeifer, editor of Skiing Magazine who was also one of the founders of PSIA (Professional Ski Instructors of America). He was a rebel and always pushed the limits. He was really well known for his attitude. That's what he wanted to push. He really wanted to see who was the best skier on the mountain; the racer, or the hot-dogger skiing bumps and getting air?
GORDY: Who were the hot-doggers that Pfeifer was referring to? Where did they come from?
Wong: If you go back to the days of just prior to its breakout there where groups like the Sunny Side Sliders from Crystal Mtn., and we had our local group called the Mt. Seymour Hot Doggers. We had patches made up for the locals and ski instructors that joined - we all skied together. And I'm sure at the time Airborne (Eddie Ferguson) was doing the same thing at Bogus Basin and everywhere across the country there was a group of guys banding together and pushing each other to elevate their skiing.
GORDY: You’ve said that Freestyle is not so much a competition as a showcase, entertainment.
Wong: It was about what could be done on skis. That was my whole motivation when I got involved with it. For me I wasn't going out there to beat Scottie Brooksbank, or John Clendenin. It was never about that. My thing was to just go out there and have fun while doing what I could do on skis. Winning money and cars—free skiing, free skis, free glasses—all that was a bonus.
GORDY: So what were the first competitions like?
Wong: it was man against the mountain, using the terrain – it was not boring because everybody skied it differently. It was so cool. If you go back to day one to references like Sid Erikson's run on Exhibition, or the Performers on Ridged Bell, Mike Williams at Heavenly, Squirel O'Callaghan at Aspen, and Eddie's classic on Look Ma those were pretty exciting runs; totally spontaneous, like inspiration pulled out of a hat.
GORDY: Do you think that the current International format, that is more ridged and uniform than the early days, came around so that it was easier for the judges to judge?
Wong: Absolutely! Otherwise is was just too subjective, and often decided by crazy and exciting recoveries.
GORDY: It seems like everything just kind of fell into place for you to become a skiing icon.
Wong: Absolutely! Being in the right place at the right time was key. You know when I did that Pepsi commercial I was with Skiing magazine in Mammoth in '72 testing skis for next year. And this advertising company came up from Los Angeles and was wandering the lodge asking people if they'd do some skiing for this ad, they didn't know what freestyle skiing was.
GORDY: They didn’t go looking for someone representing that skiing style?
Wong: No, no they had no idea. I went out with a bunch of local guys throwing themselves down the hill, and I did my tricks, and they said, “Here's the deal: we'll pay you $75 for the day, there is no guarantee that we'll use you, but if you're in the ad you'll get a royalty.” In September a friend called and said, "Hey Wayne, you're in this commercial!"
GORDY: There are things about you that are very marketable. Certainly, the name “Wayne Wong” doesn't hurt. It's very sing-song and catchy…
Wong: Yeah, Clendenin (jokingly) has always wanted to be called John Wong. It drives Clendenin crazy. I think if my name was "John Wong" it would be a lot different. I'm quite serious, you know. Look at Greg Louie. Imagine if my name was Greg, it wouldn't have worked. It's funny, even in that vein people don't say “Hi, Wayne.” They say, “Hi, Wayne Wong” all the time.
GORDY: How did notoriety change you—your ethics or views on life?
Wong: It gave me a lot self confidence in my skills and in the things I could do. It helped me know what I wanted to do, and recognize that hey, I can do this—get in front of people.
GORDY: What lessons did you learn?
Wong: I think the opportunity to influence and touch people was really a big part. It's about recognizing your status and knowing that you wouldn't be there without the fans. So for me, all my life, I've always tried to recognize people and put them at par, try to include them in whatever I'm doing. I still get people asking for autographs all the time, which is really cool!
GORDY: Was race ever and issue for you?
Wong: No, it never became an issue. I had no barriers. It was positive in that the Asian community finally had somebody to look up to, I guess you could say. I remember years ago doing interviews with Asian ski clubs and magazines; that was a big deal for them. I thought it was really cool there were a lot of Asian kids that went out and practiced ballet skiing. They all wanted to be Wayne Wong.
GORDY: And now you're settled in Reno...
Wong: My wife’s family is from San Jose and her father was a builder. And when we were touring around competing I always thought Tahoe was a great place. Her father had built a place in Truckee and we went there to visit. He was building a house on the golf course. He said, “Wayne why don't you come over and see what I'm doing?” I thought, man this is great. Then he said, "Well if you ever want to move here I'll build you one." We packed up in '88 and moved to Truckee and ended up moving to Reno for the kids and the schools. It’s been 20 years.
GORDY: You’ll be 60 in October. How did that happen?
Wong: I don't know (laughing)! All I know is that my kids are making me dye my hair.
GORDY: They want to preserve your image...
Wong: Here's another deal, my hair is part of my trademark—and the white-rim glasses and neckerchief around the knee. But there's been a lot of pressure lately to wear a helmet. I wholeheartedly agree that I should wear a helmet. So I go and get a helmet last year, I'm kind of obligated to wear it. I went out skiing at the Yellowstone Club and I'm talking to Warren [Miller]. Just shooting the breeze, and then it dons on him after a few minutes that it’s me. He didn't even know it. So I bought a bunch of black wigs and I'm gluing them to the helmet. The girls still like the long hair.
GORDY: You've had an amazing run. There are a lot of people still interested in the imagery that surrounds you.
Wong: I run into people all the time who remember me and how I influenced them in their younger years. In fact, at our summer ski camp one of the coaches came up and told me that my name was mentioned in a cycling magazine. It was an interview with Greg Lemond, three-time Tour de France Champion. Greg was recalling how he had come up as a kid to the summer ski camp at Whistler and wanted to be a freestyle skier, a competitor. That summer Greg asked me what I did in the off season for training, and at that time I was riding my 10-speed bike a lot. So he went home and started riding his bike. That's how he got involved in cycling. I've run into Greg at the Yellowstone Club and, he says, "Wayne, you are my only hero in sports. You're the one that I tell people how you’ve had an influence on my life." That's pretty cool.
GORDY: Your charity work is impressive. How did you get started doing that?
Wong: Well it was 26 years ago I went to my first American Airlines Celebrity Ski event. This six-year-old girl was sitting on my lap who had cystic fibrosis and a life expectancy of 18 years, and it struck me that she could be one of my little girls. It made me think, what would I do as a parent? So I've dedicated the years since then to helping raise money for children and families in need. Charity is bigger than having won the World Championship. Now the life expectancy for CF has doubled to 36 years old. So for me that's my biggest win.
GORDY: What else have you been up to recently?
Wong: I got hooked up with a new ski technology called Anton Gliders. It pressurizes the tip and the tail of the ski so there is no chattering. It undulates over the terrain; the suspension pushes the ski down on the snow. I'm helping develop the product and bring it to market.
GORDY: Are they going to make a bump ski?
Wong: That's the next deal. They want me to develop a Wayne Wong signature series and build a bump ski. The suspension will push the tip down on the back side of the bump, so the tip doesn't go up in the air.
GORDY: So you don't do a Wheelie, you mean… Is there anything you would go back and change?
Wong: You know, I wouldn't change a thing. It was pretty incredible from the beginning to grab a piece of time and history, to be recognized as one of the forefathers and being part of a historical movement. We paved the way for a bunch of these younger guys to come along and make a lot more money.
GORDY: Some guys, such as Glen Plake, are trying to keep the history alive…
Wong: I know him, and he learned a lot of my tricks when he was growing up. We need more guys like him around. I talk to [fellow freestyle skier] Bobby Howard all the time about needing to do a video on the old-school ballet. There's nobody out there doing it and it will have to be relearned. When I ski with my clients and do some simple tricks, they think it’s cool. That’s a big part that’s missing right now. Plake is the only one out there that is still doing this stuff.
GORDY: So you're a guest at the Yellowstone Club, a member of the Canadian Ski Hall of Fame, and spokesperson for products and organizations. What's next on the horizon for you?
Wong: I'm big time into fly fishing. I like catch and release fly fishing in lakes in a float tube. I don’t fish rivers. Growing up in British Columbia we had all the Kamloops area to go fishing and that's all lake fishing, and world class trout. So that's where I learned and where I honed my skills. That's my other passion, my alternate season. The most difficult part for me is the fall and early spring. Late fall the fishing gets really, really good…when the fishing is hot and the snow starts to fall I'm really conflicted. Last fall I had the most incredible season. I fished every weekend and probably caught 4-500 trout.
But beyond fishing, Anton Skis, and corporate clients, give me a foot of powder, or perfectly groomed hard-pack corduroy, every day. I'm so much into this carving thing right now; I'm a junkie.
With daughters mostly out of the nest, Venessa in her 2nd year of Medical School as a Pediatric Cardiologist and youngest at UC Davis in Economics with a Music minor, wife Karen keeps the home front running like a top affording Wayne more time these days to perfect his 720 carves at his home base Alpine Meadows. Setting aside house building some 5 years ago, Wayne sits on a number of pieces of property in the Reno area waiting for the market to return, while perfecting his wig-on-a-helmet invention. Look for the 'coming home' of Wong during the Vancouver Winter Olympics. "Hot Doggers never die they just ski the sides."
*For more on Wayne Wong check out the Ski Journal, November Issue.