People in Your Neighborhood: U.S. Snowboard Team member Judd Henkes looks ahead to new slopes to surmount

La Jollan and U.S. Snowboard Team member Judd Henkes (pictured in Austria in 2019)
La Jollan and U.S. Snowboard Team member Judd Henkes (pictured in Austria in 2019) says slopestyle snowboarding, which involves obstacles and tricks, is a creative outlet for him.

The one thing La Jollan Judd Henkes loves the most is the one thing he can’t do here: snowboard. The 19-year-old member of the 2020-21 U.S. Snowboard Team called the La Jolla Light from Mammoth Mountain to talk about snow, training in a pandemic and life on a board.

Henkes, who went to Muirlands Middle School and La Jolla High School but graduated from an online high school to better facilitate his training, said he considers La Jolla his home, despite spending most of his time practicing his snowboarding craft hundreds or thousands of miles away.

And he’s not just racing down a mountain on a board; he’s practicing tricks in his preferred method of snowboarding: slopestyle.

“Within the freestyle category of snowboarding, there are two disciplines,” Henkes said: “Halfpipe and slopestyle.” The former is performing tricks on a U-shaped ramp; the latter is “jumps and rails” and other obstacles. Henkes said he gravitates towards slopestyle, as there are “more options for creativity.”

Henkes has been on the U.S. Snowboard Team since he was 15, first on the halfpipe team. He switched to slopestyle when he was 16. He was a rookie rider the first two years and is now entering his third as a professional.

He’s looking to qualify to compete in the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.

Dave Reynolds, the slopestyle and big-air pro team coach for the U.S. Snowboard Team, said Henkes “is one of our strongest riders currently, ranked No. 5 in the world.”

“He’s a super-hard worker,” said Reynolds, who as a ski camp instructor watched Henkes grow up on the slopes of Mammoth before coaching him on the team. “He’s determined and focused when he’s got a trick in mind.”

Being from Southern California, Henkes is “a unique piece of the puzzle,” Reynolds said. “He’s an incredible surfer and incredible skateboarder, so he’s a super-high-end athlete at all three board sports. La Jolla is a breeding ground for surfing and skateboarding, which is neat.”

The U.S. Snowboard Team, made up of 32 pro-level and 16 rookie riders, is “like one big family, especially our slopestyle team,” Henkes said. “All of the kids on the team are around the same age, and we’ve all grown up snowboarding together. It’s a great vibe.”

Henkes calls Mammoth Mountain his “home mountain.”

“It’s where I grew up snowboarding; all my formative years were spent here,” he said.

With several parks for training, one of which Henkes said is “world-class” with larger jumps and rails, Mammoth is “a great place to learn, practice and have fun.”

Judd Henkes rides a rail at the Burton U.S. Open in Vail, Colo., in February.

In a normal year, Henkes said, he trains for nine months, taking a total of three months off in spurts. “I snowboard pretty much all year,” he said, heading to the Southern Hemisphere or Mount Hood, Ore., when the snow season in California ends.

Henkes said training for the team consists of repeated snowboard rides, during which “coaches stand at the top and at the knuckle,” the curved section between the flat top and steeper bottom of a jump, to help riders work through a trick.

“Off hill, we train in the gym and do all sorts of conditioning to keep our bodies in good shape,” he said.

Mike Ramirez, a slopestyle and big-air coach for the U.S. team, said Henkes “has a very casual style from the outside but is a fierce competitor within.”

“It’s been a pleasure seeing him grow up, work hard, continuously check off his goals and achieve his dreams in snowboarding,” said Ramirez, who said he’s been working with Henkes since Henkes was 8 years old on the Mammoth snowboarding team.

This year, the coronavirus pandemic “put a damper on the fun at the beginning,” Henkes said. “Training definitely shifted. … We had those months of lockdown where we weren’t doing anything. That was definitely hard to get through. I’m used to just going all the time.”

“Now,” he said, “we’re able to adapt. Mount Hood opened this summer; I was able to go the month of July. We adapted to [public health] guidelines,” wearing masks during workouts and getting coronavirus testing before working with personal trainers.

“Being up on hill kind of feels the same,” he said. “I always wear a face mask to protect myself from the sun and wind, so it hasn’t made too much of a difference. It feels pretty normal right now.”

The competition season, which usually starts in August in New Zealand before moving to Europe in November or December, has had many events canceled so far, with nothing scheduled until January, Henkes said. “Everything’s in limbo.”

Henkes said he’s grown up “around the beach and boards, jumping off the couch onto skateboards. It’s always been part of my life.”

When he was 4, he said, “my parents tried to put me on skis, but I wanted to snowboard. It snowballed from there.”

His parents have always supported his snowboarding dreams, Henkes said, with his mother spending winters with him in Mammoth during middle and high school and his father and sister Lilly, currently a senior at La Jolla High, visiting on weekends. “I was very lucky to have supportive parents,” he said.

When he’s not on the mountain, Henkes is “either surfing or skateboarding.”

“When I’m home, I try to surf every day,” he said. “It’s a nice mental reset to come from a sport that you love but it’s also your job.”

He said his favorite surf spot is Windansea, where riding the waves “is purely for fun, to get back into the groove.”

Snowboarding is a physically demanding sport, Henkes said. “There are times when I don’t like it. I have to reel myself back in and go back to the place where I fell in love with snowboarding. It wasn’t to become this professional athlete; it came from a place of innocence, pure joy, being able to express myself on a board.”

Being part of the U.S. team has given Henkes “more appreciation for the world and different cultures. Being able to see the world from my snowboard is a very cool opportunity. It’s given me gratitude to be able to do what I do.”

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