To those who follow competitive snowboarding, Bud Keene is a familiar name. Going on 20 years of coaching experience, Keene has a knack for plucking the right riders out of their comfort zones and helping them maximize their talent. From 1990 to 2002, Keene coached the Mount Mansfield (Vt.) Ski Club Snowboard Team, building up the skills of young riders, including many who went on to make a serious impact -- Kyle Clancy, Jake Blauvelt, Travis Kennedy, Colin Langlois, Zach Leach, Jeff Kramer and even Cole Barash are all MMSC alums. In 2002, Keene was invited to coach the Salt Lake City Olympic halfpipe forerunners, and by 2006 he was the head coach of the U.S. Olympic halfpipe team, a group of riders that took home four medals between men and women.
After a two-year break back home in Stowe, Vt., Keene has re-upped his commitment to the U.S. national team as the national freestyle development coach, scouring the slopes for the next Shaun White or Danny Kass. With the first Grand Prix contest qualifier for the 2010 Games complete, we sat down with the most decorated coach in snowboarding to talk about training, finding talent and democratizing foam pits -- plus we really just wanted to find out what it's like giving Shaun White shred advice.
How did your involvement in the national team get started?
As Clancy and those guys came up, I began to take them to the Grand Prix events, Vans Triple Crowns, X Games, etc. As they became more successful, I started to get noticed by the national team coaching staff. At some point, they decided that I might have something to offer the national team.
How did you come to be the U.S. Snowboarding national freestyle development coach?
I was invited to join the national team coaching staff at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games. I assisted the staff when needed, but my primary responsibility was to serve as the coach for the eight forerunners (riders who go before the riders in the competition). The forerunners, four men and four women, were the most accomplished juniors in the U.S. It was basically a tryout for the national team for me. After the 2002 Games, they invited me to apply for a job. I applied and was hired as the assistant coach for the halfpipe team. A year later, I was promoted to head coach.
How did the level of snowboarding differ between SLC in 2002 and Turin in 2006?
Ross[ Powers]' run in 2002 was sick, but he won with nothing more than a 720. The most futuristic riding at the 2002 Games was by Danny Kass, with 1080s and such. In 2006, everybody had 1080s, and several had back-to-backs, so yes, the level had gone way up.
You cannot be successful at this game anymore if you don't train, so getting people to train is not a problem. They want to succeed, they want to make money, they want to be rich and famous. I am aligned with those goals for them, as well, so we are all moving in the same direction.
How did your role with the national team change after Italy?
After the 2006 Games, I retired from the team based on a desire to be home more. After two years away from the elite level, and with Lucie [Keene's then-wife] and myself splitting up, I opted to go back to the team. But Mike Jankowski, my old assistant coach, had succeeded me as head coach. Having a meaningful development program was something we have always pushed for at USSA, so when they had an opportunity to hire me back, they created the national freestyle development coach job. I now coach the 11-rider U.S. Snowboarding "rookie" team.
In an unusual twist, I also coach Shaun [White], and will be with him during the qualifiers leading up to the Games, and (assuming he makes the team) the 2010 Games themselves. The reason for this is simple: We have developed a coach-rider bond that began years ago, escalated in New Zealand prior to the 2006 Games, and was solidified and even fire-hardened at the 2006 Games. That bond has value to all going forward, so we have decided to team up again to try and win another gold medal. We have been training together quite a bit throughout 2009.
Back to the '06 Games -- obviously there has got to be a ton of pressure on that event, even for a dude that competes so regularly like Shaun. How much of your coaching with him was mental, and how much was physical?
I'm not really sure because once I start doing my thing it all just becomes a blur. I think and act instinctively. I coach Shaun technically, for sure, and I am not shy in that regard. I don't tell him what to do, but I give him a straightforward opinion, and he decides if that opinion has value. I would say, though, that the mental game that I have with Shaun is the strongest part of our relationship.
What was the biggest stumbling block you guys had to overcome to take gold in 2006? I imagine that was a pretty stressful contest.
That's an easy one. He fell (or really just sketched out badly) on his first qualification run and missed qualifying for the finals by one spot. That meant that not only did he have to take a second qual run but, because the second qual runs go in reverse order, he would have to wait until everybody else went and go last. That was heavy, and meant that we had almost two hours to wait at the top of the pipe before his second run. An eternity. He was rattled.
I suggested that we take some runs to stay loose, but at first he declined. As I watched him stand and stare into the pipe at the top, and saw smoke coming out of his ears, I got more aggressive about my suggestion. He finally relented, and we went freeriding, taking six or seven runs until it was almost time for him to go. We rode the chairlift together, and talked openly about the situation, and I did what I do naturally to get him into a frame of mind to win. We pulled up to the top of the pipe after our last free-run, and with about 10 minutes to spare, handed his board to our wax tech to get buffed out. When it was time, he dropped and nailed it, making it into the final. I was actually a lot less worried about him winning in the final than I was about him making it through the qualifier.
On the switch of positions, are you disappointed to not be working with all the national athletes like you were in 2006?
No, not at all bummed. The work that we did together, and the power within each rider that I helped them to unlock for themselves, still exists. It always did, of course, but once I help them to get it out into the open, it doesn't just go away. It continues, and so does our relationship. In a way, once I get with somebody, they are on my team, and I am on theirs, forever. I see those riders out there all the time. They are still pushing forward, and they know that I am always watching, caring and rooting for them.
So it was an even trade-off to start looking for and encouraging the next generation of halfpipe killers?
Absolutely. The rookies are rad as hell. They are really good, and will become great. Half of them (or more) are in the X Games already, and we travel to exactly the same contests as the "A" team. The rookies beat riders on the A team often, and the line between the two groups gets blurred at times. It is every bit as fulfilling for me to work with the rookies as it was to work with the A team, and for the same reasons: I am helping people to move forward in their lives, and my involvement always accelerates that process. It is hugely rewarding.
You say this is a new position -- how important do you see it being to recognize these kids early on and groom them even sooner than usual?
The better they get as teenagers, the higher their eventual career peak will be. That's the way we look at it.
What's your strategy like when you're looking for new riders that you want to develop into Olympic athletes? What are you looking for in particular?
I get asked that a lot, and it's funny -- most of the people that ask me the question don't really like my answer, but here it is: I have no idea what I am looking for in a rider, but I know it when I see it. I am really just looking for flashes of genius in someone's riding, or exceptional ability in one area. I trust my intuition -- and act on it -- on a regular basis. Contest results are easy to look at, but a machine can do that. I just watch, and when I'm feeling it, I tap a kid on the shoulder. It's worked out pretty well so far.
What about working with pro athletes? How do you get them to "train"? How do you get them to identify strengths and weaknesses?
You cannot be successful at this game anymore if you don't train, so getting people to train is not a problem. They want to succeed, they want to make money, they want to be rich and famous. I am aligned with those goals for them, as well, so we are all moving in the same direction. They know what their strengths and weaknesses are, and if they need reminding, I hold the mirror up to their faces. That's part of my role. That sounds negative, but I talk to and work with their strengths way more than their weaknesses.
What did you think of Vito's dance career? Good or bad for his snowboarding? Or is it a just a totally "snowboard" thing to do on an Olympic year?
On doing "Dancing with the Stars" -- Awesome. Rad as hell. Go Louie. I am pumped for him, and for us. He opened up a lot of doors for pro snowboarders on that one. Was it good for his snowboarding? No, not really. He could have been down in N.Z. learning a new trick instead.
Do you do any intelligence snooping on foreign halfpipe comps and athletes?
Of course we do. We want it to be as little of a roll of the dice as possible, so we need to know. We all go to the same places in the summer (New Zealand), so it's easy to keep tabs on other nations that way. But this Olympic cycle is different. People have been inspired by Shaun's private training ground last winter, and so have been working to get their own special situations set up. We know about most of those situations, and what was accomplished at each, but I can't help feeling that we don't know about all of them. We'll see.
What country is on the U.S. team's radar, in terms of competition? Last time, it was Finland and Norway. Do they even have foam pits over there?
There are some new faces that have identified themselves as threats. Some of the nations have changed, many the same. The Finns are an ever-present threat. In addition to the Finns in power in '06, they now have the young Peetu Piiroinen -- so they have not gone away. The Japanese have likewise not gone away, and their youth brigade has come of age: Kazu [Kokubo], Kohhei [Kudoh], Ryoh [Aono] and Kohdai [Watanabe]. Those dudes are gnarly. The Canadians have some good riders, and the home-field advantage can be powerful. Jeff Batchelor and Charles Reid, especially Reid. Finally, the Swiss have an ace -- Iouri Podladtchikov. Serious podium potential there.
Shaun White's secret halfpipe with a foam pit sounds like it's been a great way to learn new tricks, with safety and a competitive anonymity. It seems like the stakes have been significantly upped this year -- is it now necessary to have these resources? Does that actually limit the diversity of talent the Olympics could showcase?
The foam-pit thing has been around for long enough. Shaun and Red Bull just did what a lot of people had thought about doing and integrated it into an actual pipe. I'm not trivializing what they did -- it was sick. But now that the seal has been broken, so to speak, on that concept, I think we will see more of it, and it will become accessible to a wider group. So I guess I am saying that no, it will not become necessary to have the resources to do that because it will become increasingly available. And to the final question I would say also no -- it will not actually limit the diversity of talent at the Olympics, and for the same reasons. By this kind of training being made available to a large and diverse group of riders, no one will be "left out" because they couldn't afford it. We will get to see a large talent pool throw themselves at a new training/learning situation. The results are going to be dramatic.
On that note, what is it going to take to even win a Grand Prix now, let alone the Olympics? How many double corks is it realistic to see in one run?
The doubles have added a new dimension, and are difficult and rad if done with style, but remember -- the rest of the run counts, too. Anyway, I would say at least one, probably two, and if it gets heavy out there, expect to see three in a run from at least two riders.
White seems to be a shoo-in for the Olympic team, but who else has a good chance? Can you comment about which riders to be looking out for in the Grand Prix lead-up to Vancouver?
There are no shoo-ins, but Shaun alone is the front-runner. After that, [Kevin] Pearce, Vito, [Jack and Luke] Mitrani, [Mason] Aguirre, Kass, [Scotty] Lago, [Danny] Davis, [Steve] Fisher, [Greg] Bretz, [Matt] Ladley, [JJ] Thomas, and so on.
Even though halfpipe snowboarding had a bumpy start in 1998, it seems to have grown into a crowd favorite. What's your take on how the Olympic Games have represented the sport?
Halfpipe showed itself to be a premier event in 2002 in Salt Lake, especially with the sweep. In 2006, they knew it was popular and it had momentum. As of 2006, and especially with Shaun's win and celebrity, and U.S. dominance re-asserted, it firmly established itself as a major event.
My take on how the Olympics have represented the sport? I guess I don't think that the Olympics are representing the sport. I mean, the Games are on the tour now every 4 years, but the Olympics really just represent the Olympics themselves, which is fine. It's a very mainstream venue, but that's the rad thing about it. The coreness of snowboarding is great, and I love it and live it, but it's cool to see that stripped away every now and then. The Olympics are not all about snowboarding, and that's kinda fresh. Millions of people watch it and decide if they think it is rad or not. So far, they've given it a big thumbs-up.
Do you see that changing for 2010?
In 2010, the ball just keeps rolling and getting bigger.
What will your strategy be with Shaun leading up to Vancouver? Any different than before?
Strategy will be the same. I felt that we nailed it leading up to the Games before, and we will again this time.
This will be your third time at the Games and Shaun's second. Do you see it being a notch less crazy in that regard?
We will have a higher degree of familiarity this time around, both of us. That is a positive, for sure. But it won't be any less crazy!