Professional snowboarder Louie Vito is many things: a Red Bull athlete, an Olympian, and even a former competitor on Dancing With the Stars. It may seem like a full plate for most, but Vito's constant dedication to self-improvement makes his decorated background seem like a necessity; even if you wanted him to slow down, he wouldn't. In conversation with Vito, you notice how often he speaks about bettering himself, and how attuned he is to where he grew up, and just how far he has come since then.
Though he's only 26 years old, Vito is a veteran on the professional snowboarding circuit. A four-time U.S. Grand Prix Champion, a two-time medalist at the Winter X Games in Aspen, and a member of Team USA's 2010 snowboarding squad, Vito has less to prove in his career than most pro boarders. However, so long as there remains any small gap between himself and the no. 1 spot, no matter how slight, you can be sure that Vito will be working to bridge it.
In company with New Orleans Pelicans center Anthony Davis and fellow Olympian Lolo Jones at a recent event hosted by Red Bull, Vito sat down with Complex to discuss his background, his passion, and what exactly keeps him going as a professional snowboarder.
So, just to start things off, where did you grow up? How did you get involved with snowboarding?
I grew up outside Columbus, OH in a town called Bellefontaine, right near a 300 ft. hill. My dad and I learned snowboarding together from Day 1. I lucked out because he developed a passion for snowboarding before I knew what having a passion for a sport really was. He started driving me all over the Midwest; we just loved to go snowboarding. We would stay in hotels that charged by the hour and gave you a jug of water to brush your teeth because you couldn’t use the water from the sink. We would pack the car up, throw the stuff in the room, and sleep on top of the bed sheets. Then we would wake up and go snowboarding all day and all night.
This is all around the Midwest?
Yeah, we would go from Pennsylvania to Northern Michigan.
Where in Northern Michigan?
Boyne Highlands, Nubs Nob. We'd go up to Crystal Mountain and Mount Brighton; I think one of them was a landfill that they turned into a slope. Anything that involved me snowboarding, I was down for, no matter how big or how small. If I got to go snowboarding at a new place, I was super stoked. I went to a snowboard boarding school in Vermont when I was 13 for eighth grade and all of high school. I got to snowboard in the morning, and go to school in the afternoon. They allowed you to travel as long as your grades were good. In Ohio, I was really smart in school, but if I missed more than five days in nine weeks then they would try to fail me. You know, in Ohio, if it’s stick and ball, football and baseball, they get it. Snowboarding: they didn’t really get at the time.
So, my parents definitely held it above my head about how much of a privilege and opportunity I had by going to this boarding school. My dad used to tell me, "I can easily make you the best snowboarder in Ohio." Which meant he would take me out of Vermont in a heartbeat. I had to keep my head on straight. It was good for me. It kept me in line. I think getting out of Ohio was a good thing for me too. It kept me focused.
It was kind of cool if you think about it, because I started in the Midwest, which isn’t best known for snowboarding. Then, you go to the East Coast which is a step up, then the West Coast, which is another step up. It’s been great. I’m so lucky to have my parents, who really made the sacrifices to let me go to the boarding school when they could have done a lot of other stuff. But they did it for me and I’m truly blessed for that.
So, when you were getting out to Vermont and Utah from Ohio, what was the transition like?
I was traveling to Vermont and my dad said, "We’re going to find out if you really like the sport or not." That year they also had the 2002 Olympics and I actually went with one of my friends. The guy who won the gold in half pipe was competing in his second Olympics and had graduated from the school I was going to in Vermont. So, I was like, "Shit, man. This can work out for me. This guy is in the Olympics. He went to the school I went to. Holy cow."
The hardest part was coming back for Christmas. You see your friends and then you get back to school and you feel homesick. I was living in a dorm, but all the people who you’re going to school were like your brothers and sisters and family. You’re traveling together, going to school, study hall. At night, everyday, you’re with these people. I started traveling when I was 13, especially on my own with school, and then when I was going out West. I bought my first house when I was 18 years old. I’m in the same house now. It's crazy because I was just a kid in Ohio and then I just started traveling, started snowboarding, and started seeing the world. And then I’m buying my house at 18 years old. It’s pretty surreal to even think about now.
Do you ever feel like you grew up too fast then?
I don’t think I grew up too fast. I think it’s hard when you want to go back on things. Everything is a little different. I didn’t go to college, so when you have friends in the college scene, they're used to going to college bars and getting blackout drunk. Meanwhile, I have friends who own some of the biggest clubs in Vegas, so I’ve been doing that. And my “big brothers” have been showing me the ropes. I’d go to some of the hottest spots with them when I was young. It’s kind of hard to talk about the things you experience with friends, because I’ve never been the type to gloat about anything. I’m pretty down-to-earth. I never changed, even my family would slap me around real quick. But I think that was the hardest thing: relating when you come back home. Because they don’t understand what you deal with. You have to learn more about being aware of what’s going on around you because you have a lot to lose. I still deal with that now, but I’m older and more mature than I used to be so I'm more aware.
How often do you return to Ohio?
I always try to go back for an Ohio State game or two during the football season, and then I do a charity snowboard contest in Ohio. We have over 300 people and everything is 100 percent donation and for charity. I do that at Mad River Mountain every year right after Christmas.
What’s the name of the event?
It’s the Louie Vito Rail Jam. You just need a canned food or paper product to enter. Snowboarding is expensive as it is, so I don’t want to charge anybody. I just want as many people to do it as possible. Right after Christmas, the food pantries are bone-dry, so we restock those and then some. I want to give back to the community, because I’m not the person I would be without my community. I’m not the person I would be without the mountain that helped raise me and the people around me. That’s who I am. That’s why I’m very passionate and proud to be from Ohio. We don't have a half pipe or big mountains and the seasons are short, but I’ve made it as an Olympic snowboarder, representing the USA for half-pipe. Everything I want to do is for the community. I’d like to get involved more, but it’s hard with my schedule and everything I’m doing. But I definitely go back like four or five times a year to make sure I do what I can do.
What’s your involvement with Red Bull and how long have you been with them?
I snowboard for Red Bull. I’ve been with Red Bull for a little while. I had a hiatus, but this time around, I'd say it's been three or four years. It’s been a while.
So, when I was growing up in Northern Michigan, my friends were skiing a lot. In middle school, a couple of them were able to do 900s, and that was a huge deal for everyone. Did you have a similar moment growing up? What was the moment when you realized you'd be able to compete professionally?
In Ohio, we had amateur nationals to qualify for. But our season would end so early, so I’d be off-snow for awhile and I was middle of the pack. The year before I went to boarding school, I placed third for nationals and I was happy with that. People would tell my dad that I was going to make it and that I was really good. Compared to their kids, though, I still felt middle of the pack. Then, my first year at boarding school, I won nationals in my age group. That was a moment for me when I was like, ‘Okay, this is working out for me.’ But, I've always been hungry and have always wanted to be better. I’m really hard on myself. I remember, multiple times, when I would win a major contest and be out at night, and people would be say, "Aren’t you stoked?" I’m stoked about winning, but I’m always on to the next contest. I always want to get better, but I think that’s why I am where I am.
But, yeah, I’d say after I made nationals in my first year in eighth grade I was like, "Ok, maybe I have something with this." It was hard, because I always felt like an underdog. I went to snowboarding school with other kids that were just as good. I never had that big sponsor that said I was the next one that they were going to help blow up. I had a friend like that and I would beat him at contests, but they still decided that he was going to be the next dude. For me, it was baby steps, baby steps, baby steps. It’s still like that to this day. I’ll do something that’s never been done and people will say, "Yeah, that was cool, whatever." Then, someone else will do something that's half of that and those same people will say, “Oh, that’s the sickest thing ever done." Anything I do will be because I want to do it, not because it’s supposed to be done or this or that. Snowboarding is supposed to be like that. You do it because you want to do it.
Now, I’m at a point where I can do that with all my sponsors and everything. Now, I’m at a point where I can pick and choose my sponsors. I see eye-to-eye with them and they understand what I want to do. I want it to be like a partnership, not like a sponsorship. My dad told me a quote that I live by: “If you are good enough, they can’t ignore you.” You can have someone who wants to pump another kid up, but if you keep doing well and keep doing well, it’s going to come to a point where they can’t do anything except acknowledge and applaud for what you did because you are too good. They can’t do it.
Gus Turner is a News Editor for Complex Sports. He tweets here.