This article was published on February 11 and updated on March 3 to reflect a charitable auction
Though it can't be understated how important Russell Winfield is in the history of snowboarding for becoming was the first Black pro snowboarder, he's quick to tell you that he's not singularly defined by that legacy. Uncle Russ ain't some remnant of the past: he remains larger than life to this day.
It's crazy that this guy doesn't have his own Wikipedia entry: Winfield's been a pillar in pushing snowboarding forward since the late '80s, advancing the sport through top-level competition. Even beyond the sport, Winfield impacted street culture in the decades that followed through his laidback personal style and blunt charm.
Winfield's cold weather career began when the New York-born rider picked up hockey at a young age for fun and quickly turned serious. A quick learner and hard player, he could've fought his way to the NHL.
Instead, Winfield hopped on a snowboard and never looked back. He moved to Vermont, doubled down on his technique, eventually turned pro, and toured the world.
Now, a maturing Winfield is settled in at K2 Sports in Seattle, overseeing the company’s “cultural innovation” while still riding for Ride Snowboards. His role at these companies means Winfield often ends up in the orbit of other industrious creatives.
I spoke with Uncle Russ shortly before the release of the collaborative board, which sold out immediately but is currently being auctioned off for Black-led youth-serving charities.
Was it a big pivot to go from hockey to snowboarding?
I was good. I don't like to talk about myself like this, but I was good at hockey. Like going to the league good. But I got to a point where just the creative side of me took over.
I fell in love with snowboarding. I had this thing going on in my head where it's like, "Yeah, hockey's cool, but it ain't as cool as this. This is brand new, and I know this shit is going to jump off. So I'm going to put myself over here."
When did you first get into snowboarding?
I got into it in fifth grade. I remember I was on a school ski trip and everybody was skiing and I was snowboarding, and I did a backside 360, and this kid I was with was like, "What?" and he was like "You should probably pursue that."
That's when I was like, "I can do this." Until somebody confirms what you're thinking, you're always little bit skeptical, or at least that's how I feel.
You've said there was a commonality between you and other snowboarders, because it was a fringe sport at the time.
Exactly. And it's horrible to say that that was my comfort zone. At least, I had a bunch of other people getting looks instead me being the one who's getting in trouble if something goes down.
What was it like navigating the space on the way to becoming pro?
I remember I went to a contest, nationals. I took my runs, didn't crash, rode good, and they didn't score me. But I knew up in Whistler, the next weekend, there was a pro contest. I was done being an amateur.
Went there, entered the contest, and luck would have it that the dude who made the best movie that year was there and I ran into him. And he were like, "You should come film with us." That was it. When you're filming with this dude, if you get a part, you're Gucci.
Did the pros you were hanging with push you to be better?
Yeah. They were all cool too. They were like, "You got this. Why don't you just do this? Go. You can do this."
I don't know if they're trying to make me kill myself or whatever, but them pushing me worked.
What was it like making your second pro model? I remember you saying the company weren't really stoked on it.
It was Russell from Fat Albert. And no, they weren't.
Snowboard graphics before that were just crazy colors, neon, and weird shit. We just weren't about it. We were wearing big baggy drawers, jeans, and hoodies, big all coats and jackets, and skateboarding on the snow. We wanted our stuff to reflect that.
Do you think that it represented a pivot in snowboard culture?
Yeah, absolutely. I think it made snowboard pivot to what we called the new school, which was street-style, sliding on rails, doing tricks, looking like skateboarders, and stuff like that.
It's not just about doing the trick, it's about having your own flair. That really seems like something you really pushed for.
Yeah. To me, that's the most important. It's how you do it. Not what you do.
I mean, these kids in the Olympics these days, it's a video game and I'm hyped watching. But for me, it's more just about what Virgil calls "the sauce." It's the sauce.
Your on-slope style, was that the sauce?
Everything we did was completely intentional. Were we rebelling against the tight ski pants? Probably. But it was just we didn't want to look whack and nobody made good snowboard shit yet.
I know that one of those iconic pictures of you, you're doing a grab-over or something; you have your tongue out, looking at the camera. To me, that's like Michael Jordan.
It's subconscious. It was completely unconscious.
I mean, that's what everybody used to say, "What's up, Jordan?" I'm like, "I don't know what you're talking about, bro." I was concentrating so hard, that's just what happened, I guess.
Can you pick out a high and low moment from your professional career?
Well, the low was when I was in the late '90s. The sport changed from being punk rock to being an energy drink. I was like, "Fuck this. Fuck you guys. You guys are horseshit."
Honestly, one of the highs, for me, is this new board. It's un-fuck-with-able. The fact that I came back 30 years after that board came out, and hit them with this, with Virgil? That's it, bro. That's it.
Speaking of horseshit, you mentioned that at some point you got a fax from a certain company calling you the N-word.
That was a company that faxed RIDE. When RIDE started, it was pretty much just the dudes that I rode with. We all just left our other companies. And so, those companies were pissed.
They sent this fax calling me whatever. It is what it is. It's not the first time I've been called that, probably not the last time either, unfortunately. But I don't let that shit phase me. Nobody should.
I want to talk about your relationship with Virgil. How'd he get tapped in with you in the first place?
He hit me up. He searched me out and started following me. I was like, "Damn." We just started talking.
When you don't know somebody personally, everybody's got something to say about that person. They're like, "He's stealing the skate and snowboard culture. He's not into it," And so, I started talking to him, and he's been snowboarding, skateboarding since he was 13 years old.
I was like, "I don't know how you feel, Virgil, but I would love to do a project with you. I have this board coming out and I would love to do the graphic with you." And he was like, "Let's go."
He came as a fan of the culture first, not just trying to sell it out.
No, not at all. He was trying to lift up the Black people in our cultures. So if anybody's got something to say about that, well, then you got to take a look at yourself.
Having that design background, I'm sure it was pretty easy for you guys to talk from that shared perspective.
Yeah, it was crazy. When I was done snowboarding, I was like, "I'm just going to go study" and I studied apparel design.
My whole life, I'd want to design one way but they said that you have to do it the other way. When I worked on this project with Virgil, he was designing the way that I wanted to design, really organically.
It was validating working with him, selfishly validating on so many levels. Because I was like, "I knew I was right. Because if he's doing it like this, look what he's done. I can do it like that."
I don't know if it's true but it seems like this board might've been one of Virgil's last projects before his passing. Does that weigh on you?
It could be. It's fucking brutal to know. He had 30 days to live and he flew from Paris for me, to do a photo shoot.
But I'm so proud that he chose me. He could have chosen anybody to work with.
But is it a heavy weight? Absolutely not, because he validated my thought process. Is it going to be a lot of work? Absolutely. But I'm not afraid of it.
He helped me start ... Well, I'll probably be launching it within the next year. I scratched out some logo ideas, and he took a picture of them, and sent them to his design firm, and a couple days later, I got all these logos back.
How was the actual design process?
Halfway through it, I was like, "I don't know if this is going to work. I don't know." I'm panicking, because that's just who I am as a human. If it doesn't start out exactly the way I want it, I'm like, "This is huge for me. This can't fail. I'm fucked."
But Virgil was like, "No, no. We got it. Don't worry." I learned that from him, too: sometimes you just got to just trust the process.
Where did the give-back element come from for that?
Well, it was originally just Hoods To Woods.
When he passed, I had to do something for him. I think that you have to give to be able to get. I know a lot of people that just get, get, get, get, get, and they don't give, and it works for them. But I'm trying to change stuff. I'm trying to be more like V. Let's bring more people up.
I don't know if any of these kids that's in this Hood To Woods is ever going to be a pro snowboarder and that's not even the point. It's just showing them something different, that it ain't all fucking brick. You don't have to be on that path that's so accessible from the projects.
I also wanted to talk about the mental barrier to entry from a Black community perspective. From a young age, if you're a Black athlete, it's easy to just fall in with football or basketball and that could be it.
Yeah. The more things you can see, the more opportunity you have to be a more intelligent and understanding human. A lot of closed-minded people are closed-minded because they don't want to explore anything.
For me, it was like, "I'm from New York. So I want to do something in New York." Hoods to Woods is like a mentoring thing and also they bring them to the hill. It's just etiquette and how to just be cool.
I think really the underlying thing is how to move when you're outside of your element. You don't got to worry about gunshots ringing when you're at the mountain. You don't got to have to have your guard up. You can just be out there laughing and having fun.
What are the things that are really bright spots to you going forward for snowboarding?
Bright spots are the kids who are now in it that are ripping but are about the culture.
The first person that comes to mind for me is Zeb Powell. Zeb is a real, genuine athlete. Just crazy.
Yeah. Zeb is an athlete. He's just got fucking air awareness and body control. He's on a different level with that shit.
There's a bunch of good kids. There's this kid Lucas, from Switzerland. He's just all about the sauce.
What about the worst parts about snowboarding right now?
The worst part about snowboarding right now is probably just how expensive the tickets are. It's bananas. But we're working on it.
You once said, "I’m the Jackie Robinson of this shit." How does that feel, looking back now?
Like we were talking about earlier, you can think something, but if nobody ever says it, then you're like, "Am I being selfish about this? Am I wrong?"
Again, when the [Snowboarder Magazine] cover came out, I was like, "Ha! I knew I was ready." It's like, did they not say anything because then they knew they'd have to pay me? Or did they not care? But it's an honor, and there's a lot of work to be done.
I know there's a lot more to come. How important is authenticity with future collaborators?
Well, I think with me being me, anybody I collaborate with here moving forward, it'll be authentic. If I collaborated with a big fashion house, I'd make sure it's authentic and accessible because it's me, I'm authentic.