By David Rogers. January 5, 2019. BLOWING ROCK, NC — When a gaggle of giggling teenage girls flock to the head of a line, it’s a good bet that there is a cute teenage boy somewhere to be found. But it wasn’t just love-struck lasses pushing their way into the Pro Shop at Appalachian Ski Mountain on Saturday.
“Kids” of all ages and both genders lined up for over an hour to get Blowing Rock native Luke Winkelmann’s autograph. Still only 18 years old and one of the budding stars on the professional snowboarding circuit, Winkelmann returned to his roots on Saturday.
Blowing Rock News first met the young winter sports star when he was a standout 8th grade basketball player for Blowing Rock School, about four years ago. He led the team in scoring, rebounding, long shots, fast breaks, passing the ball, free throw shooting — you name it, he was pretty much head and shoulders above everyone else in terms of athletic talent both on his team as well as on the teams they played against.
And then…well, he disappeared in the middle of the basketball season. When we inquired what happened to him, whether he was injured, school officials explained, “No, no injuries. He’s in Colorado for a few months. He is a professional snowboarder.”
To “go pro” at 13 or 14 years old is quite an accomplishment. On Saturday at App Ski Mountain in Blowing Rock — where the winter sports magic all started for Winkelmann — we had an opportunity to sit down with one of the newer members of the U.S. Ski and Snowboarding team. He is officially listed on the organization’s website as in his first year and a member of the “Rookie Slopestyle — Snowboarding” team.
Winkelmann’s Blowing Rock and High Country pedigrees are decisive. His immediate family includes Eric and Ashley Winkelmann (parents) and sister Kylie. Extended family members include Dianne Davant Moffitt of Banner Elk (grandmother); Melanie and Wink Winkelmann (grandparents), Boone; Duff Armfield (grandfather) of Lenoir; and great-grandmother Harriet Davant, of Blowing Rock.
Saturday’s autograph signing session was Winkelmann’s first ever where fans lined up to get a souvenir signature on posters, lift tickets, helmets…and he was loving every minute of it, sharing a big smile with every single person and willingly mugging for the camera, when asked.
Blowing Rock News (BRN): Your grandfather, Wink Winkelmann, just shared with me a photo of you here at App Ski Mountain, perhaps one of the earliest times you competed here. How old were you?
Luke Winkelmann (LW): Oh boy, that was back in the day. I was five years old.
BRN: Five years old. Back then, did you ever think in your wildest dreams that you would reach this level, of making a professional career out of snowboarding?
LW: No. Obviously, it was a dream of mine early on, but I never actually thought of it that way back then or that I could (pull it off).
My “moment,” I guess was when I was 14 or 15.
BRN: Were you excited about the opportunity to go skiing or snowboarding at five years old?
LW: Oh yeah. At least that is what my dad said. I skied a bit first, but then I saw my Dad snowboarding and I said, “Ah, I want to be like him.”
BRN: How long did it take before you really began to feel it? To feel like you were really pretty good at this thing?
LW: My “moment”, I guess, was when I was 14 or 15 and first contacted Burton, the snowboard manufacturer. It was at the time that I thought, “Whoa. I can actually do this for a living.” That is when I really started thinking that I could make a job out of it.
BRN: When did you win your first competition?
LW: I am pretty sure it was here, at App Ski Mountain. I was nine or ten years old, competing as a beginner. I won a few of those events in the series and ended up winning a big trophy at the end of the year, which was awesome. I was pretty young.
BRN: You were in 8th grade, playing basketball for Blowing Rock School when we first met you.
LW (laughing): Yeah, I remember!
I love basketball, so that was a tough choice.
BRN: It looked like you had future basketball star written all over you. What happened?
LW (smiling): Oh boy…I love basketball and that was a tough choice. During that coming transition from middle school to high school, I had to make a choice between the two sports I l loved most. It really sucked, because I love basketball. I just stuck with snowboarding. I still play basketball every week, usually at Varsity Gym at Appalachian State with everyone I played with in middle school: Wiley Speckmann, Bryce Satterfield, all of those guys.
BRN: During the snowboarding season, where are you based?
BRN: I’ll give you some useless personal trivia. When I was in college one of my best friend’s father was a principal developer of Breckenridge!
LW: Oh wow, that is crazy!
BRN: So how old were you when you actually turned pro?
LW: Well, amateur-pro, I had just turned 15 I think. That’s when I signed my first contract, my first big deal.
BRN: What has it been like, turning pro at such an early age? Girls flocking all over you…
LW (laughing): A little bit, but I try to keep all of that to the side and focus. I try not to be different (just because I became a professional). I’m just a normal person who got lucky doing this, I guess.
I’m just a normal person who got lucky doing this.
BRN: What are your goals now?
LW: My main goal, obviously, is to qualify for the Olympics, probably in 2022. That’s my main goal, but a couple of others are to film a full part in a snowboarding movie or video, of me snowboarding and going to the X Games, for sure.
BRN: So would one of your role models be Shaun White?
LW: He’s pretty cool, and when I was young, for sure. But now I wouldn’t say role model because he does half pipe and I do slope style, which are really two different snowboarding disciplines. But I have met him a couple of times.
BRN: What is it about snowboarding that really gets your motor running?
LW: I think it is because I have the ability to be really creative and do just about everything I want. It is cool to be in control of all these tricks, making the tricks different.
BRN: How much time do you spend training? You know, physical fitness type of stuff?
LW: I pretty much snowboard all year-round now, but we train mostly in the fall. We go up to Utah where they have this huge airbag and fake snow. You run down the fake snow and literally the landing is in this big bag of air. It’s crazy.
BRN: I would think from a fitness standpoint you would do a lot of ab work. True?
LW: Oh yeah. I do a lot of crossfit training, which works your whole body. We do a lot of “core” training (ab work), for sure, and a lot of work for our legs, like squats.
App Ski Mountain has literally been my home since I was little…my mom was pregnant with me in her belly, on the snow here.
BRN: How long are you in town?
LW: I actually go back to Colorado tomorrow. I was home for the holidays, about a week and a half.
BRN: I don’t want to take up too much more of your time because there might be a few more teenage girls out there wanting your autograph…but how important has App Ski Mountain and Blowing Rock been to your career development and fueling your passion for snowboarding?
LW (big smile): App Ski Mountain has literally been my home since I was little, and really even before I was little! My mom was pregnant with me when she was on the slopes here, with me in her belly. I started skiing a little bit when I was two or three years old. I really started liking it. EVERYTHING I have learned has started here at App Ski Mountain. We lived in Blowing Rock, just about five minutes down the road from here.
BRN: How special was it to grow up in Blowing Rock?
LW: Being in Blowing Rock, just five minutes from The Mountain, it has made it so easy. I would literally die without it. I have been loving being here every single day, growing up.
BRN: How many different countries have you been to now? Do you have a special place other than the U.S.?
LW: I’ve been to (counting in his head) eight or nine countries now. I would say Switzerland is my favorite other than the U.S. The scenery there is so insane. The Alps are something else. Yeah, that was probably one of the coolest trips I have been on.
BRN: Do you have a favorite ski resort in the States, other than App Ski Mountain?
LW: Out west, it is Mammoth Mountain in California. I love it there. I go there a lot in the spring. They have a really good (terrain) park there and a huge mountain. It is amazing, but kind of out in the middle of nowhere.
You can get seriously injured at any moment.
BRN: Being from California, I am pretty familiar with the geography there. When I was out covering the Super Bowl in 2016, they had a severe drought. I looked at some satellite images and there was no snow pack at all at the top of Mt. Whitney.
LW: Oh gosh, yeah. They had a really bad drought. They had a lot of fires that year, not really in Mammoth around the area. It was crazy. Fortunately, it changes every season and it is a lot better now.
BRN: Have you thought much about life beyond snowboarding? Is Shaun White an indication of how long you can go?
LW: Oh, he IS the indication. The max is probably 40 (years old) or so, but Shaun has made it into a career where he can live off of his passion, probably for the rest of his life.
As far as a career in snowboarding, you really have to play it by ear. You can get injured at any second.
BRN: What is the biggest source of income? Sponsorships?
BRN: What kind of money can you make?
LW: My parents handle all of that. It is good enough right now that I can travel all year and be supplied pretty well. I have a budget. It’s not a lot for me, yet, but the top dudes, easily in the millions. Like Red Gerard, Chloe Kim…easily in the millions. I am working my way up there. I have a bunch of stuff going on now, but it is going good.
BRN: Well, thanks for talking with us and good luck on your career. We’ll follow closely!