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The Rebels Who Struck Gold

Often when you’re told you can’t do something, that’s all the motivation you need. The early days of New Zealand snowboarding are testament to the fact that sometimes you need to kick up a storm to make something happen…

In the 1980s, a new era of snow sports began. A bunch of surfers & skateboarders decided to take boards to the slopes, & snowboarding was born.

Snowboarders had a rough start to say the least. While they were busy experimenting with board, boot & binding systems, many ski areas decided the sport was altogether too reckless. Following a collision between one of New Zealand’s early snowboarders & a ski patroller, Cardrona became the only ski area in the country to ban snowboarding.

“That was more of a one season ‘take a breather’ to see what was going to happen with the sport,” says Kiwi snowboarding pioneer Ewan Straight.

Ewan Straight in Cardrona's first halfpipe circa 1990

It wasn’t until 1989, after a lot of campaigning, that an Austrian named Michael Bosch convinced operations manager Shaun Gilbertson to lift the ban after giving him a snowboard lesson. When Shaun finally experienced sliding sideways on a board, he was hooked. The ban was lifted & construction began on Cardrona’s first halfpipe the following year.

The pipe attracted some of New Zealand’s best snowboarders of the 90’s. Among them were Ewan Straight & Graham “Spy” Dunbar. The pair worked tirelessly for years to make snowboarding an accepted sport on Kiwi ski fields – forming the NZ Snowboard Instructors Association, & running snowboard competitions at Cardrona including the NZ Snowboard Nationals.

Ewan (left) & Spy (right)

“Spy & I came up with a logical progression that could be taught nation-wide. Not cloning people, but saying - incorporate these movements into your riding as a solid base to make your own style” says Ewan. “I’m proud to say that we were ahead of the rest of the world with our thinking.”

The steady growth of snowboarding in the 1990s had a direct impact on Cardrona. Along with continuous halfpipe development, the resort’s first terrain park was built in 1994. It’s been constant since then; Cardrona now boast the most extensive terrain park & pipe facilities in the Southern Hemisphere with four terrain parks, two halfpipes, a big air jump & a gravity cross course.

Ewan & Spy have seen a whole new generation of snowboarders come through Cardrona Parks – a direct flow-on result of their hard work almost 30 years ago, which made snowboarding at Cardrona what it is today. But their legacy isn’t just for snowboarders. In the late 1990s, they saw a natural comradery build between freestyle snowboard & ski athletes as they began competing side by side.

The impact of snowboarding on both Cardrona & the future of Kiwi freestyle snow sports is plain to see. It’s fair to say Cardrona’s freestyle facilities have been partly responsible for X Games medal wins, World Cup wins & development programmes to grow the sport. Cardrona Parks has come a long way from when its pioneers carved out the country’s first halfpipe with a chainsaw. The New Zealand contingent of freestyle athletes to next year’s Winter Olympics is likely to be the biggest the country has ever sent.

“The guys who were at the top of the game in the competitive scene, like Mitch Brown, are now coaching the next generation of competitive athletes. That’s so important for the continuing growth of the sport” says Spy. “Our vision has come full circle – we’re living vicariously through the next generation.”

These days you’ll find Ewan living the pirate’s life on his yacht in summer, & keeping the Cardrona lifts running as part of the maintenance team in winter. Spy is the Cardrona Sport Manager, running the GoldX Events division & witnessing the next generation of Kiwi athletes take on the world at home. When he’s not overseeing events, he’s out on the Beginners’ Area, passing on his love of snowboarding to his young son Dylan.

Spy, partner Laura & son Dylan

If you saw them at Cardrona, you’d have no idea that these men were instrumental in giving birth to snowboarding in NZ. They’re still up the mountain most days, working at the same place they used to pave the way for freestyle snow sports & snowboard instructing in Aotearoa. So what makes them stick around?

“Those mornings at the top of the mountain, watching everyone throw down in the park, seeing race training & everyone going hard down the gravity cross. It’s thousands of likeminded people with grins on their faces, all there to have fun.” says Spy.

This feature comes from our Heart of Gold magazine – you can pick one up on the mountain for free or read online here.

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