Chasing Winter: Olympic Snowboarder Matías Schmitt Talks Training in Mammoth Lakes
Olympic snowboarder Matías Schmitt knows the one park builder at the Catedral Alta Patagonia, Argentina’s largest ski resort, by name—it’s Filou. “He’s from France, he’s a really good builder… but it’s a battle” trying to keep a snow park running with a team of one (plus a couple of shapers).
The 1,500-acre Catedral, Schmitt says, is “a sick mountain, a really big mountain, and when we have snow, it’s great to go up there, but we are fighting a lot to get good places to train.”
Which is why Schmitt, a slopestyle rider, has spent five of the last six winters training in Mammoth Lakes (where he and the other members of the Argentinian snowboard team just competed in the Grand Prix in March).
The Argentinian Snowboard Team at the Mammoth Lakes Crib
Before he scored a sweet spot at the Mammoth Lakes Crib this season with his teammates and coach, Schmitt used to sleep on a literal mattress under the stairs in a house full of Argentinians (and a couple of Chileans). How many people stayed in that house? “Too many,” laughs Schmitt, who rocks a shaggy haircut and goatee and is often seen clutching a gourd of yerba mate. The Crib, he said, “has been a big upgrade!”
Schmitt is one of a contingent of snowboarders from South America who travel overseas to hone their skills on the slopes—like his friend Federico Romano, who is featured in Schmitt’s “Argentos in Mammoth Lakes” videos and who stopped by The Crib in late February while the Argentinian snowboard team was training for the Grand Prix.
“He’s in love with snowboarding,” Schmitt says of Fede. “Every day of his life. He works so hard in Argentina, and then he goes half of the year to Mammoth Lakes to ride.”
Snowboarding in the Southern Hemisphere
That kind of dedication is de rigueur for aspiring snowboarders from the southern hemisphere, Schmitt says. “Everyone knows what snowboarding is” in California. “If you go to [the Argentinian capital of] Buenos Aires and you say, ‘I’m a snowboarder,’ they say, ‘What is that?’”
“You must remember, in Argentina, the season lasts three months, and most people live in Buenos Aires,” says Martin Jaure, Schmitt’s coach during his time in Mammoth. “They have to travel quite a bit to go to the mountains.”
“It’s hard to keep growing,” says Schmitt, “because one year the season may be really good, but maybe the next year we don’t have snow, and we don’t have snowmaking in the park.”
Schmitt, who grew up in Bariloche, about 17 kilometers (half an hour’s drive) from the Catedral Alta Patagonia, used to hitchhike to the resort with his cousin when he was eight years old. His pass was free then, but he says money can be a big object for the younger generation trying to compete on the world stage.
“To travel, you need money, so there are not that many kids from Argentina who can follow the winter,” says Schmitt, speaking from Livigno, Italy, where, for the rest of the 2019 season, he’s swapped his role as a competitor for that of a coach.
“We don’t have the snow parks that they have [in the U.S. and Europe], so the kids don’t grow up watching triples, watching the best of the sport. That’s for sure a big difficulty.”
The Solution: Training in Mammoth Lakes
Compare the Catedral’s park builder Filou to the 16-man team at Mammoth Mountain (for the Grand Prix, there were three dedicated park builders for the halfpipe alone, according to Mammoth Mountain’s PR guru, Lauren Burke), and it’s obvious why Schmitt would make a pilgrimage to the Eastern Sierra each year.
His favorite part about Mammoth Lakes? Spring conditions. Argentinian resorts don’t have the same snowpack Mammoth Lakes does, so it’s a huge luxury for Schmitt to be riding in warm temps.
“The springtime here, it’s the best place to be,” says Schmitt. “Riding in t-shirts, being outside after the mountain, drying all your gear in the sun—it’s a different vibe.” Riding on the mountain in the morning and then cruising down to a snow-free Volcom Brothers Skate Park at the Eastern edge of town is Schmitt’s dream day.
Making a Career of Snowboarding as an Argentine
“I wish snowboarding was bigger in our country, just because I love it so much,” says Schmitt, though the sport’s relative lack of popularity in Argentina does have its benefits—Schmitt scored an extremely last-minute entry into the PyeongChang Olympic Games in 2018. He was the first Argentinian to ever compete in snowboard slopestyle at the Olympics, and he didn’t know he was in until the day before the opening ceremonies.
“The days were passing, and [the Olympic officials] weren’t telling us what was happening,” said Schmitt, who traveled to South Korea with his coach, Santiago, on the chance that he might squeak into a qualifying slot. “Then the last possible day, it happened. We went to visit the village, and at that moment they told us, ‘Okay, you’re in.’ I don’t have words to describe it, it was crazy, something that I was dreaming of, and it came true.”
Okay, he didn’t take the gold (Schmitt finished 24th among the world’s most elite snowboarders) but he was thrilled to learn that he had his own Wikipedia page (“Wow, that’s big!”) after holding his own in the competition. In photos of Schmitt wearing his Olympic jersey, he sports the same smile that his 8-year-old self, hitchhiking to go snowboarding in the mountains of Patagonia, must have worn.
And what does the 27-year-old competitor-turned-coach want to be when he grows up?
“I’ve grown up already!” he laughs.
“I want to stay near to the mountains and keep snowboarding,” he says. “If I can stay around the mountains, it’s going to be a good life.”