The world’s greatest halfpipe snowboarder is a lanky webseries comedian from Warrandyte. Meet Winter Olympics superstar Scotty James.
“You almost have to have a few screws loose to be able to be good at it,” says Scotty James. He’s talking about halfpipe snowboarding, a discipline at which the charismatic, astute and deceptively lackadaisical 25-year-old dominates the world. An unconventional YouTube TV star, triple world champion and threetimes X Games gold medallist, Scotty James is Australia’s most recent Winter Olympics flag-bearer (he took bronze – more on that later).
In competition, “you have to be ready for things to be a little off; it could be snowing, it could be windy, the snow could be bad,” he says. “It could be all those things, but you’ve got to go, regardless. It’s almost like proving yourself wrong when you didn’t think you could do it.”
The arena that keeps on growing
If this sounds mad, a full appreciation of the Olympic halfpipe arena only deepens your respect for James’s skill… or your concern for his state of mind. Maybe both, because it is a sport for lunatics. When the event debuted at the 1998 Winter Games, each of the halfpipe’s sides stood 3.5 metres from trough to lip. But the arena has grown. A modern superpipe’s walls stand at 6.7 metres, the coping painted blue so riders can spot their landing, while spinning, off-axis, up to five metres in the air above it. Nearly 12 metres above its floor. These ballooning dimensions threaten the viability of the sport. So intimidating are modern halfpipes that almost no resorts even build them anymore.
Plus-sized pipes are almost too awesome to exist: too expensive to maintain, too scary for everyday punters, too extra for their parents. Even world- class athletes have been injured and killed; now, only a handful of full-size Olympic pipes exist worldwide. None are in Australia. This is a problem for the 188-centimetre, 75-kilogram bloke from Warrandyte, Victoria: his fiercest rivals, like the world’s most famous snowboarder, Shaun White, have had a far greater ability to log practice hours. And so James is on the road – a lot.
Living (and sharing) the dream
Part-Entourage, part athlete showcase, James’s clever, reliably hilarious Instagram account (195K followers) is a blur of alpine action (New York! Vail! Gstaad!), private jets and exotic escapades (his girlfriend, Chloe, is the daughter of Canadian billionaire and Formula 1 team owner Lawrence Stroll). James splits his time between the US, Europe and, er, Warrandyte, Victoria, with the adaptability of a seasoned traveller. He’s been on the road a good while.
“I started officially being professional when I was 13,” he explains. “Before that I was travelling away a lot to Canada; it was always a big passion of mine, but not a career. But at that age I took off and travelled to Europe and Japan and America and all of those places. It’s been a crazy journey.” James’s family remains close. Sister, Rebecca, works in his management, while one brother, Sean, travels full-time as Scotty’s filmer.
An unlikely YouTube star is born
Elder sibling Tim – a skier! – displays deft comic timing as inept athlete manager Quinton ‘Pecky’ Peck in Scotty’s genuinely hilarious mockumentary webseries All Day SJ. A self-described “passion project” that’s become one of Red Bull’s most successful webseries, All Day SJ has racked up a million views across YouTube and other platforms. Individual episodes run to eight or nine minutes; season one cameos included F1 champ Daniel Ricciardo, legendary surfer Mick Fanning and skateboarding god Tony Hawk.
“None of them really knew what they were getting themselves into – especially Daniel,” says James. “They were just kind of like, yeah, okay, but we’ll only do it because we’re your mate.” Season two, James hints, is about to be green- lit. “I was going to say ‘don’t quote me’, but otherwise we wouldn’t be doing an interview,” he grins. “It’s very exciting.”
A dream run
When he was pipped in the Olympic final in South Korea, Scotty James said, “I came out, did it the Australian way and gave it a real hard crack.” He sat in third place on the podium, openly eyeing the gold. “I can assure you I am just getting started,” he said.
And he was. With a hit webseries and unprecedented competitive dominance, 2019 was James’s annus mirabilis. Having taken bronze in PyeongChang, James responded with an undefeated two-year march of victories. It stretched until the FIS World Cup halfpipe season finale in Calgary, where the dream run ended. James came second. It wasn’t a bitter pill, but it was a reality check. But then again, so was PyeongChang.
“When you come down from a height of a 22-foot wall and you fall another 22 feet down to the icy ground and crash, it’s not… it’s not a great feeling,” he says. “But you’ve just got the keep chipping away at it. I’ve crashed many, many times. But I’m pretty calculated. There’s always fear. But if I wasn’t a bit scared then I would say that I’m not quite alive enough.” In Olympic halfpipe, you have to be a little mad.
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