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Australian snowboarding export Scotty James spends most days thundering down dangerous hairpin circuits. In a competition halfpipe run, Olympic-standard athletes will have 20 to 30 seconds to perform five tricks. Judged on a series of disciplines including altitude, difficulty and execution, it can be a matter of milliseconds between gold and silver – or, in some cases, life and death. For James, sub-zero temperatures and a seven-metre-high slope are just another day in the office, but to understand the audacity of competitive snowboarding is to watch the man in action.

At the 2019 X Games in Aspen, Colorado, James impressed judges as he completed a series of notable manoeuvres: A switch backside 1080, a backside double 1260, a double cab 10, and a frontside double 1260, to be precise. At the time, a commentator described the snowboarder’s completion as “mind melting”. Naturally, he stuck each landing and won gold for Australia, but the celebrated sport is not without risk. Despite common misconceptions, halfpipe snowboarding can, quite literally, be death-defying, and after signing with Tag Heuer last year, the brand’s apt motto “Don’t Crack Under Pressure” applies to all areas of his life.

“I think a huge element of not cracking is trusting the people around me,” James explains to ICON. “I make sure they have the same like-minded approach to what I’m trying to achieve in my life and in snowboarding. Thinking too much and the fear of what’s going to happen are definitely two things that cross my mind. I use fear as a way to make sure I’m aware of what I’m doing. I know that when I feel fear, it’s like my nerves are waking me up.”

Every time James stares down the barrel of the icy slopes, he is just one run away from further cementing his prolific international standing. At just 25 years of age, the accomplished athlete is regarded as one of the world’s best snowboarders, and despite what he describes as a “target” on his back, the real buzzword you hear him repeat is “grateful”. While he counts another Aussie icon, Torah Bright, as a “sister figure”, James is carving – or, more fittingly, shredding – his own rise to the top, and it all started when he could barely walk.

“The memory of my first snowboard is very vivid,” recalls James. At three years old, his father returned home from a holiday to Canada with a gift that would ultimately define the rest of his son’s life. “I was at the airport and Dad said, ‘I’ve got you a present.’ I was very excited. He had brought home a $10 snowboard. The rest is history.”

Despite being an avid motorbike enthusiast growing up, James was also into winter sports, which ran in the family. While his older brother, Tim, would race in skiing competitions on the mountains of Canada, James would tag along to ride the snowboarding slopes during his brother’s heats. At 13, the promising young star slid into the unknown – literally – and travelled with his coach at the time to Switzerland, with the hope of making the dream of professional snowboarding a tangible reality.

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“I left my family to help make the decision about whether I was going to pursue snowboarding professionally or not,” explains James. “I remember being nervous and unsure of what I was getting myself into. But I’m very grateful for it because if I didn’t do that and make that commitment, I wouldn’t be where I am now.”

At 15, James had entered the men’s age division and was “dropping in” against guys who were his “heroes”, most notably the likes of American title defendants Kevin Pearce and Danny Davis. For Pearce, his story is the unfortunate example of the high stakes that halfpipe carries. After competing from 2007 to 2009, his career on the snow ended after he suffered a devastating brain injury, the tragedy now serving as a fervent reminder of the danger of the discipline.

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“Timing and precision are two key elements in halfpipe,” James states. “You have maybe 0.2 of a second to know whether you’re going to get it exactly right or if it’s going to go completely wrong. Timing is everything and you find that a lot with the trampolining training.”

“You have maybe 0.2 of a second to know whether you’re going to get it exactly right or if it’s going to go completely wrong.”

James’s training schedule is rigorous and, for much of the year, he is globetrotting in an endless cycle of travel as he follows the winter seasons. The competition circuit begins from the end of November and travels through to March, jumping from Japan, America, Canada and Europe. To prepare for the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, James has predicted a lot of his preparation will be done from the Asian continent, while March through to July serves as a reboot for regular training. While he follows the falling snow, the foundation of his training is done indoors and, according to James, is “quite extensive”. Spending six to seven days a week in the gym as well as working on air awareness on the trampoline, it’s
important the 188-centimetre snowboarder stays in shape. But what are the advantages of being a shorter snowboarder? “It’s being able to flip with a smaller centre of gravity,” says James.

While James’ physical stature is paramount for speed, strength and throwing flips, it’s his mental preparation that will help him stick the landing after leaving the frozen ‘lip’ of the pipe. Like many athletes who participate in extreme sports, visualisation is just as important as slogging away on
the treadmill.

“Snowboarding, halfpipe in particular, is easily 75 to 80 per cent mental and the rest is a combination of physicality and talent,” he explains. “You can sometimes get a little bit lost in the air and there’s so much spinning, but the mental preparation for me is nearly the most important part.

Travelling and all those things play a really big role on your mental health. “I use visualisation and I think a lot of snowboarders do,” he continues. “There are a lot of aerial manoeuvres and a lot of blind spots we try to mimic as much as possible. Different coaches have different theories and different thoughts, but my coach in particular is a very big believer in visualisation, especially on the day [of competition]. I need to be really prepared for anything.”

Now after a decade in the professional division, the sporting vanguard has compiled an impressive résumé of achievements. In 2010, James stood in for fellow Australian snowboarder Nate Johnstone after an injury forced him to pull out of the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada. And last year, James was presented the honour of flying the flag for Australia at the opening of the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

“Growing up, I would watch the Australian team walk in and think how cool it would be to walk the team in with the flag,” he reminisces. “When I finally got to do it, it was a pretty patriotic moment. I was worried about the wind. There was a big headwind so sometimes the flag didn’t fly the way I wanted.” He counts that experience as one of his top career highlights along with nabbing bronze during the Games and winning a second gold medal at the most recent X Games.

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While James says he is “on the plane probably more than I am on the ground”, there is nothing he regrets – particularly the sacrifice of a ‘normal’ childhood.

“When I was younger, I probably took it for granted a lot, and I didn’t realise how fortunate I was to be travelling the world,” he says. “By about 18, 19, I started to become more grateful for what I was doing, but now I just really enjoy it. I don’t think I’ve missed out on anything. I remember when I was younger I would get a little bit sad having to leave home and school and that bit of normality in my life. In a way, I feel like I’ve been able to maximise my life and my opportunities, and when I am home, I make sure I see my friends and I enjoy everything that I felt like I missed out on.”

As for the next big Australian athlete in snowboarding, James predicts the likes of Tess Coady, Valentino Guseli and Jesse Parkinson. “I mean, the world is at their feet,” he says with a smile. But, in the meantime, we will watch Scotty James prepare for Olympic glory.

Creative Direction: Marne Schwartz
Photography: Nicholas Tsindos
Fashion Direction: Kim Payne
Grooming: Annabel Barton
Interview: Jessica Bailey