Photos: Matt Petricone (@mattpetricone)
In an era where stardom can find the most undeserving of subjects, it's refreshing to know that -- in the world of professional snowboarding at least -- it’s still that rare blend of actual talent, skill, style, & hard work over the long haul that pays the bills. Take Coal ambassador Johnny O’Connor, who has long since established himself as an exciting up-and-coming young rider, for example. After toiling in the trenches for years, JOC just leveled-up his snowboarding career, having been named to Capita’s elite roster of pro riders.
To honor the occasion, we recently cornered Johnny and photog Matt Petricone to harass them about an interesting photo mission we caught wind of, and to just talk about life in general. Keep reading to learn more...
What’s up with Kaaterskill Falls, where it is, what it’s all about?
JOC: Kaaterskill is one of the tallest waterfalls in the Eastern US. It’s located near my hometown in the Catskill Mountains of Upstate New York. As a kid my parents brought me there for hikes.
MP: I’ve visited the falls a few times a year ever since I first learned about it years ago. It’s always on my list of places to bring people when they come visit me in the Catskills. It had snowed a bunch here last winter, so I took a hike up in late December. While I was there I saw the ice had built a natural transition at the bottom of the falls and immediately thought about shooting photos there. I texted Johnny a couple pics of the spot. He was literally on board overnight -- I met him in parking lot the very next morning.
Were there tourists around? What was their reaction?
JOC: Funny thing is, we see four younger people up there hiking in regular shoes and jeans, completely unprepared for the conditions, while Matt and I are booting in with studded straps. We watched them head down in single file, every one of them slipping and falling down on the exact same rock step, as if it was staged. It was pretty hilarious and helped set the tone for our mission of having a good time capturing a cool experience.
MP: The place is actually pretty gnarly though. People die there every year sliding off the upper cliffs. There’s a story of an ice climber who got to the top of the falls and unhooked out of his gear only to watch the entire thing come crashing down right after! The run-in was the craziest part of our mission. It took us all morning to fill in the gaps in these big pointy boulders, just to make a single track-of-death to get up enough speed for the tranny. I kept giving Johnny little bits of encouragement, but internally I was terrified for him. Any sort of edge catch and he would’ve been destroyed on those rocks.
Johnny, how long have you been working with Coal now & how did that relationship come about?
JOC: I’ve been rocking Coal for almost ten years now. Dan Broadwell of Flour City Distribution made the connection, but Coal had been my favorite headwear since long before getting involved as an ambassador!
What are your favorite Coal hat styles & why?
JOC: I always loved The Edward (RIP), complete comfort in the coldest temperatures and it also looks damn good! For caps, I love rocking The Davis SE. That old-school look and style is timeless, like you accidentally found your dad’s old ballcap in the attic.
Do you have any big plans for the upcoming season?
JOC: Right now I’m working on a video concept that’s all about riding resorts in the preseason. The idea is to make a full edit on whale-tails, those mounds made by snow makers before they get flattened and groomed out. The snow is always uniquely shaped into natural jumps and quarter-pipes that can open up opportunities beyond imagination. I’m really excited to see how it all turns out.
So then where do you spend most of your time riding?
JOC: Mostly between my home resorts, Windham Mountain in New York and Loon Mountain in New Hampshire, and then I spend a lot of time in the streets looking for anywhere good to strap in!
And what about in the off-season, what kind of stuff are you getting into then?
JOC: You can find me working at Seaport Fish Market serving you up the freshest fish in New England, or skating my local park in Hampton, NH! If I’m not at either of those places I’m probably off wandering around with my girlfriend and our pup Luna.
Injuries are a constant job hazard for someone in your line of work, and it seems like most pros have some serious war stories. It’s been a couple years since you exploded your leg filming for your part in Stronger. How do you come back, uh, stronger from a potentially career-ending injury like that?
JOC: For the first year, the recovery process was as traumatizing mentally as it was physically. Injuries have a way of getting in your head, and then it still took a full year after getting back on board before I could ride without feeling any pain. But these days I feel great both mentally and physically! For me, sometimes it takes learning the hard way, and I think that was my big wake-up call to take a step back and realize how serious this work can be. For a while I thought I’d never be able to film another good video part again, but this past season I got invited on a few trips where I found I was able to ride like I used to. That was such a great feeling to realize that I still had it in me, that I could push myself and explore my limits, but now in a more calculated and intentional way.
So you’ve been with Coal for 10 solid years and in that time the whole game has changed in terms of how brands and their ambassadors reach fans. Coal has undergone some changes internally too. We’re talking to a broader outdoor lifestyle audience and working with our snow ambassadors in some fun/weird new ways, as well as partnering with new types of ambassadors.
JOC: Well I think that broader outdoor audience is the the most natural place for Coal to be. I’ve always seen Coal as essential products to getting outside and enjoying yourself no matter where you’re going or what you’re doing. And as an ambassador, I see a lot of benefits to cross-pollinating different activities and interests on social media, whether that’s my own brand, or any brand, really. I’ve thought about expanding my own social media presence around food’s role in a healthy lifestyle, and trying to inspire people to cook for themselves more and eat healthier than what they may be doing. I still have a lot to learn before I get too far into that, but for now it’s definitely an interest of mine.
Your turn, Matt! Is photography a hobby or a job for you? How long have you been shooting?
MP: I’ve been shooting professionally for years now. I started by stealing my Dads 35mm camera from his closet and just taking it out shooting the things I enjoyed most. I recently realized I’ve come full circle in my career and I’m finally getting paid to photograph the things I enjoy most in life, snowboarding being one of them.
What are your plans for the upcoming season?
MP: Nothing set in stone yet, but lots of ideas stirring around. I’m coming off a big year last winter. I made it a goal in March 2017 to have an “endless winter,” to basically ride at least once a month for a full year, which isn’t easy being from NY. I was able to ride in Vermont until April, hike Tuckerman’s on June 15th, then to Chile in July, Mt. Hood in August when all the camp kids go home, and then I kicked off Winter 17 out in CO at A-basin! The highlight of 2018 Season was a first time acceptance bid for the LBS, and then my endless winter turned into my dream winter, because after LBS I headed down to Seattle to catch a flight to Japan to experience the snowboarding holy land that is Niseko, Hokkaido. That changed everything for me. It was a pinnacle year and I’m looking forward to what comes in 2019. February in Japan is now a yearly must though!
As a snowboarder/photographer it hard to leave your own shred priorities behind to focus on someone else’s riding when you’re shooting?
MP: I’ve been snowboarding for most of my life and shooting photos for about half of that. Honestly, it was always really hard for me to stop riding and go to the car and get the camera. Living in the moment was always my priority when I was younger, but not so much anymore. I’ve come to really appreciate the documentation side of the thing I’ve always loved so much. Being surrounded by such talent here in NY and VT, it was just a natural transition the past few years. I started going to the car more and with each trip to grab the camera bag, finding myself just as satisfied with those results and efforts. Now it’s become even more the priority and I rarely ever go a day without taking the camera out.
So what’s it really like working with a guy like Johnny?
MP: Working with Johnny is the best! Watching John ride a snowboard is always inspiring no matter what the spot is. I always talk about his dynamic board control and how you can see him use literally every part of his setup, from the bindings to the deck, like it's actually part of his own body. Whether he’s on a super sketchy drop-in or just a little weird rail in the park, he's just a true style master, making the most difficult stuff look so effortless and easy. His sheer talent is one thing, but it's also his work ethic and his professionalism. He’s super aware of the difference between what's good enough and what's really good. He’ll throw himself at something a thousand times to make sure his board is in the exact right spot, even if it’s just a centimeter off. I’ve taken countless photos that any of us would think are incredible, but to him are unusable because something is a little off. And he’s just as humble as he is talented!