Remembering a ‘Ripp’ing snowboard legend
December 23, 2011
The legend whose very name embodies the sport of snowboarding walked away from his niche about as abruptly as he happened upon it.
Jim Rippey, one of the world’s elite snowboarding talents throughout the 1990s and beyond, knew in an instant that he was done, his star-studded career a thing of the past. And he didn’t try to fight it.
“I felt like the Lord spoke to my heart,” said Rippey, a Truckee resident who was working in the Tahoe backcountry with Standard Films at the time of his decision.
“There were these younger kids who were trying to film some lines, and I was sitting there watching them and I remember the Lord spoke to my heart and said, ‘Jim, you’ve been there, you’ve done that and you’ve done it at the highest level, and now it’s time to let go of it. I’ve got something else for you to do.’
“And I was just like, ‘Wow, OK.'”
The message from Rippey’s personal Lord and savior was clear: The time had come to hang up his board and boots and pursue another passion.
“So I went out to dinner with my wife that night and remember telling her I was done snowboarding professionally. And I started to cry, just hearing myself say that. Snowboarding had been my identity for 15 years of my life,” Rippey said.
Fast forward more than a half decade, and Rippey has answered his second calling. The kid from Quincy who stumbled upon snowboarding at age 19 now makes his living at Grace Church in Reno, where he’s worked as a pastor the past 2 1/2 years.
But he hasn’t abandoned snowboarding completely.
“I’m actually the chaplain for the winter and summer X Games,” said Rippey, who, at 40, still rides on occasion. “I go there and pray with the athletes who are believers, and those who aren’t, and I’m also there in case something bad happens to support the families and the athletes.”
Ministry is actually the third profession at which Rippey tried his hand, after professional snowboarding and, believe it or not, professional football.
“I had this dream before I ever got into snowboarding to be an NFL punter, and I had never fully pursued it,” he said.
Rippey, who was born and raised in Quincy, Calif., went straight to Cabrillo College in Santa Cruz out of high school to become a punter on the football team. But after being plugged in at cornerback, and not being allowed to just punt, he quickly realized it wasn’t for him.
“They had me playing cornerback and I knew I wasn’t going to make it to the NFL playing cornerback. So I practiced with them for a few weeks and before the first game I said, ‘You know what, this is not the school for me,'” he said.
Rippey returned to Quincy with plans to enroll the following year at Butte College in Chico, where he still hoped to be a punter on the football team. But after running into an old friend – and the only snowboarder he knew – he decided to put college on hold.
“He said he was going to Tahoe to work as a lift operator and that it was a real chill job, that you got to ski or snowboard on your time off,” Rippey recalled. “And I said, ‘Man, that sounds perfect.’ So I ended up going to Tahoe for the ’89-90 season and just fell in love with snowboarding. I put the skis in the closet and started snowboarding the first night I went there.”
Rippey’s natural talent transferred well to the relatively new sport, which was gaining steam following a decade of obscurity. His first season he met a Burton rep and saw an entire Burton team snowboarding for a living, spawning an idea that maybe he could do the same. After all, he had already mastered how to spin and even flip after only a few months of riding.
“I never even really knew you could be a professional snowboarder. I didn’t know that was something that existed,” said Rippey, who asked the Burton rep what he needed to do to get sponsored.
“He said to go out and do some contests and then come and see me at the end of the year. So I told my dad I was going to take another year off school and pursue this snowboard thing and see what happens.”
Rippey entered four contests his first year snowboarding, winning three and placing third in the other. He won the Cal Series the next year and turned pro his third season (’91-’92).
After Donner Ski Ranch his first year, Rippey went to work at Boreal as a night lift operator so he could ride during the day, oftentimes at Sugar Bowl, he said. It wasn’t long before he began carving out a name for himself in the industry, amazing judges and snowboard fans alike with large, stylish airs and signature tricks that bear his name to this day – such as the Rippey flip.
“Jim Rippey was a pioneer, for sure, whether it was backflips on a snowmobile or the Rippey flip, the double back – he was doing a lot of stuff early on that other people weren’t,” said professional snowboarder Andy Finch of Truckee, who was still a preteen when Rippey began making a name for himself. “He had the backflip on lock and he’d do it off whatever – an 80-foot rope swing, whatever.”
“I like doing big flips,” Rippey confirmed. “Those are fun.”
Rippey – who shocked the adventure sports world in 2001 by landing the first-ever backflip on a snowmobile, earning him ESPN’s Feat of the Year – had a pro model for seven years, which was the longest-running pro model in the history of Burton Snowboards until Shaun White. Five out of those seven years it was the best-selling board in the world, Rippey said.
The popular snowboarder continued to excel in the sport, starring for years in Standard Films’ Totally Board videos while earning prize money in some of the world’s most prestigious snowboard events. He recalls winning the Air & Style contest in 1997 using his Rippey flip – a backflip combined with a frontside 360 and a method grab – then tying Terje Haakonsen in a quarterpipe contest doing the same trick, only modified. He won the Vans Triple Crown the same year for the third time.
“Rippey is a legend,” said professional snowboarder Chas Guldemond of Reno. “I always looked up to his raw approach to snowboarding. He just went for it and made it look so easy. He made a huge impact on me and the sport of snowboarding, and I am grateful for that.”
But times changed. And while Rippey continued to film and compete at a high level, a new wave of young riders was rising through the ranks. Burton, his longtime sponsor, dropped Rippey from its team in 2003.
“They got a new marketing manager and new team manager, and they fired half the team. So I was one of the people who got the ax,” Rippey said.
After parting ways with Burton, Rippey continued to ride professionally for about another year.
“The snowboard industry for the first time started leveling off, so when Burton let me go I tried to get on with other teams, and no one was adding to their team. Everyone was cutting their team back,” he said. “The timing was just horrible.”
A short time later, Rippey, who had devoted his life to Christianity at Sierra Bible Church in Truckee in 2000, found himself crying over dinner after telling his wife he was through with snowboarding. Then one Sunday at church he met Gary Cook, a former Truckee High football player who had just signed free agent contract with the Oakland Raiders as a punter.
“I asked him if I could come down to training camp and just kick the ball around a little bit with him,” Rippey said. “So I did, and I was kicking the ball really far, so I decided I was going to give it two years and see what I could do.”
Rippey advanced past all the cuts at the NFL free-agent camp until reaching the final day, when he got to punt in front of all the NFL coaches. While he punted for a good NFL average, Rippey said, he did not receive a call from a team. He repeated the process the following year, with the same result.
Knowing he had given football his best shot, Rippey gave up that dream and left Truckee in 2008 to attend Bible school in San Diego.
And the rest is history.
“It’s pretty amazing to see the changes that have gone on in his life,” said Finch, who is also a Christian. “But he still has that little kid in him. He still wants to go huck off cliffs. He just has this raw talent that’s scary. He has this energy and confidence that allow him to be so good.
“But as I’m starting to find out, our bodies don’t allow us to do what our brains are imagining. It’s a tough thing to accept, but I know his identity in Christ has really given him strength and comfort and peace, and it’s pretty awesome to hang out with Rippey any time I get the chance to.”