Sammy Swanson has goals that reach as high as the mountains he has shredded on his trusty snowboard, including one day becoming a Winter Olympian and X Games competitor.
So far, as he's proven himself as among the nation's elite in the sport, it appears he is on track toward possibly reaching those goals.
"I definitely have goals to get to the Olympics and the Winter X Games," Swanson said. "I want to get these smaller competitions done and get to the bigger ones later. It's hard now, because every kid sees what's possible, and then they're doing more difficult tricks."
The 13-year-old eighth-grader, who attends Costa Mesa Middle School, will compete in the 23rd annual United States Amateur Snowboarding Assn. National Championships April 2-4 at Copper Mountain, Colo. It will be his sixth Nationals competition. Last year, Swanson earned a $100 scholarship awarded by the USASA.
Swanson is one of the only snowboarders from Southern California — and among two Orange County natives — who is competing at the national level.
"It makes me unique because I'm one of the only ones from Orange County at the national level," Swanson said. "Everyone here [in Orange County] does surfing, football, soccer, baseball. Some go snowboarding for fun. I try to do competitions. I think it's really cool, it shows you're up to par with the best in the nation."
The 5-foot-5 snowboarder has certainly been up in rarefied air among his fellow elite riders. Two years ago, Swanson qualified again for Nationals. But two weeks before the competition, he broke his collarbone. But he later returned. Last year, as a 12-year-old at the national level, Swanson's best finish was sixth in the slopestyle event, in which judges look at how difficult snowboarders perform their jumps, how they spin and how they land their jumps. Competitors can perform three jumps of nearly 45 to 55 feet, plus there are five long rails they must ride their snowboard across.
And again, he has proven himself this year. Swanson is ranked No. 40 in this year's slopestyle rankings, with 2,910 points, out of 290 overall competitors.
In the half-pipe at last year's Nationals, he finished 11th out of 67 12- and-13-year-old competitors, scoring 1,305 points. Chandler Hunt finished 24th, making them the only two Californians in the top 30.
That performance was Swanson's best, according to his mother, Katrina Foley, in part because the top competitors get to practice during the entire season. Swanson does not get to practice or train in any half-pipe area until March.
Swanson has been competing in snowboarding since he was 4.
"He kept saying he'd want a snowboard for Christmas," said Foley, a local attorney who serves on the Newport-Mesa Unified School District board. "He got one, and my husband, Casey Swanson, took him to Big Bear. He went with another family, the Tanbaras, placed high in a competition at Big Bear and it snowballed from there. It's his passion, he loves it."
Swanson's experience and skills has helped him become a top-10 snowboarder, as he is ranked No. 7 nationally in the half-pipe event out of 151 snowboarders, with 3,405 points. The snowboarder in third place has 3,810 points, so Swanson looks to have a good shot at finishing among the top three in that event after Nationals. He is also 46th nationally out of 210 boarders, in snowboardercross — in which riders race against each other side-by-side — with 2,685 points. It should be noted that Swanson has competed in at least three competitions in all three events, while some of his competitors have only competed in one or two.
"My goal for the slopestyle is to get into the top three," Swanson said. "My goal for half-pipe is to get into the top 10."
In January, during a competition at Bear Mountain, Swanson won gold medals in half-pipe, snowboardercross and he picked up another gold medal and silver medal in slopestyle events.
Swanson has made plenty of friends from around the country, from New York to Colorado, where many of the top snowboarders come from.
"They were kind of shocked that I live so far away from snow," Swanson said. "I live at least two hours away from Big Bear Mountain. Most of the kids at Nationals live [nearly] five minutes away from snow. The thing I like about Nationals is I've met friends that I would have never met if it wasn't for that. As a competitor, I see what the new tricks are and what I need to improve."
One of Swanson's signature moves is a frontside 720-degree spin, where he grabs the backside of his board with his front hand and does two full rotations. He says he is working on improving a backside spin, a fairly difficult move in which his back is facing the landing.
Swanson said he's also met Shaun White, one of his favorite snowboarders, and the top celebrities in the post-Tony Hawk era, while practicing in California. He said he's also met Danny Kass, Louie Vito and Luke Mitrani.
But it's not all about snowboarding 24/7 for Swanson. He's a team captain who plays for Costa Mesa Pop Warner, as the squad's middle linebacker and fullback. He could compete for a starting job on next season's Costa Mesa High freshman football team. He's on the honor roll — despite having to do homework during the weekend during his snowboard competitions — and wants to attend the University of Oregon. He's also an avid skateboarder.
"It snows all year and it's near Mount Hood," Swanson said of the University of Oregon. "They have a club snowboarding team."
On March 19, Swanson will train at Lake Tahoe, where he'll join his coach, Scott Harris, who's coached him for three years.
"I expect him to get no less than Top 10 [in each event]," Harris said. "He could get to the podium. He's progressed from amateur to beginner pro real well. It's very natural for him and easy the past few years."
Swanson is always looking to improve on an already impressive skill set.
"I've been going up to the mountain [in Big Bear] on weekends to learn new tricks," Swanson said. "I'm working on 900-degree spins, where I'll do 2½ turns. I did that last year in slopestyle in Nationals. I'm working on getting more height on my jumps."
Bear Mountain Coach Sean Moughan has guided Swanson for four out of his 11 years.
"He's among the top kids that I've coached," Moughan said. "He's a natural rider. I can't say enough about the kid, he's fun to be around. He's a really humble kid. It's a big thing to be invited to Nationals. We don't have as big a half-pipe; we don't have the same jump lines. He's good at adapting to that [in Colorado]. You can tell the younger kids totally look up to him."
Foley said the work has been nothing but wonderful for her son.
"I'm proud he maintains a positive attitude and makes new friends," Foley said. "It takes a lot of confidence to take on a mountain and to be vulnerable, not knowing what his competitors are going to do. They all encourage and push each other. I'm trying not to let him miss school for competitions. He has a hard course load, and there are times where he'll come off a busy weekend, then turn around and take a biology class at 6:40 a.m. on Monday."
Swanson has already garnered a few sponsors, including Signal Snowboards, which are made in Huntington Beach.
On April 21 in Mammoth, Swanson is set to compete in the Volcom Peanut Butter and Rail Jam, an amateur contest with competitors from around the world, which has payouts. The winner in one competition will win a $20,000 cash prize, and another competition Swanson could win a cash prize, if he finishes at least seventh. Foley said the $20,000 prize goes straight to the snowboarder.