The voice of freeskiing: Luke Van Valin
Luke Van Valin got his start in skiing as an athlete, competing in major contests like the U.S. Open and Gravity Games and starring in video parts with Level 1 Productions. In 2006, the Idaho native made the fateful decision to take a microphone in hand and start calling the action. Since then, Van Valin has become the most recognizable voice in freeskiing, calling competitions live and on television around the globe from the Winter X Games to the Jon Olsson Invitational. His versatility on the mic has also landed him commentating gigs at such non-skiing events as the summer Dew Tour and the Jose Cuervo Pro Beach Volleyball Tour, which he'll be traveling with throughout the summer. When I caught up with Van Valin this week, he had just finished doing voiceover with Jamie Bestwick for the U.S. BMX Olympic Trials, which will air on NBC this Saturday.
Do you have to do a bunch of homework on BMX trick names, since you're not a BMXer yourself?
Fortunately, there aren't any tricks to call in this particular Olympic trial because it was racing. But any time I'm dealing with something that I'm not completely familiar with, I either rely on my partner to give the majority of the information specific to the sport or I do a lot of homework on it beforehand. Sometimes both.
How did you get started in the announcing business?
I first got into announcing in 2006 at the U.S. Open in Vail. I hadn't made it into finals at that competition and they needed somebody to jump on the microphone and I volunteered. Later that season, I was in France at the Candide Invitational and everyone was hitting this humongous jump. I remember not really wanting to hit that, and then seeing a bunch of kids who were a lot younger than me hit it and do spectacular tricks. I realized that I was no longer going to be someone that was helping to push the sport with my own skiing. After that I started to pursue announcing in earnest. Uncle E, who was the main announcer in the business at the time, gave me the keys to the kingdom.
Were you conflicted at all about your decision to leave being an athlete for being an announcer?
I'd say that the biggest battle was a pride issue, facing the fact that maybe I wasn't good enough to ski professionally anymore. And it was tough initially to swallow that I'd be stepping away from a lot of the friends I'd made, who were then continuing as athletes. It was tough allowing my sponsors to drop me as an athlete. Although, that ended up not being an issue at all because most of them kept me on as a personality.
At what point did you recognize that announcing could become a fruitful career?
When I started paying my rent regularly, and on time. That happened the first year that I announced full time. I started having money and not really worrying where my next paycheck was coming from.
Today, you are more than just a ski announcer. Was it intimidating for you to go from skiing to the unfamiliar world of, say, the summer Dew Tour?
Absolutely. I wasn't just thrown into the booth and expected to keep the show rolling. I was thrown into the field as a highlight reporter and crowd hype man. So right off the bat I was interviewing the best in the summer Dew Tour sports, like Jamie Bestwick, Bucky Lasek, Ryan Sheckler. The difference for me was, in skiing, all the interviews I'd potentially be conducting would be with people I had known for a long time. It was very intimidating initially. But after the second stop, they started to know who I was, and that I wasn't trying to make my own show. I was trying to keep them in the spotlight, while having some fun at the same time.
Is there one interview that sticks out in your mind as having gone particularly well?
The one that pops out to me as going especially well was with Shaun White this last year at Winter X Games Europe in Tignes. I was able to have an absolute ball with that guy. He's a funny guy and he's done so many interviews that he's very polished and he's okay if you throw him a curveball while you're on the microphone.
What about an interview that went particularly bad?
I remember interviewing Sarah Burke at the Powder Video Awards years ago, before I really knew her personally. I remember she came up on stage and of all the people I've interviewed, due to the fact that she's such an amazing skier and so beautiful, I was starstruck. I did not, for the life of me, know what to say, so I asked her what her favorite color was. And I'll never forget that because it was the stupidest question in the entire world. It had nothing to do with how amazing of a skier she was, or what she'd done for skiing. I didn't get into that. I didn't say anything humorous. I didn't flatter her with my knowledge of her career. I asked her what her favorite color was. It was so stupid, I can't even believe I said it.
How did Sarah react?
Very professionally. I believe that she said her favorite color and then we swiftly moved past that. But I do recall it as being particularly embarrassing, and revealing, at that point, of how much of an amateur I was at this whole interviewing thing.
What are your long term goals? Do you see yourself being a voice in skiing for a long time coming?
I don't know. I'd like to stay in skiing for sure. But as far as long term goals, I definitely want to experiment in other avenues of entertainment that's not sports-specific. I've been kind of brewing some ideas right now and I'm still sort of waiting for my golden egg, so to speak, that I'm really going to be passionate about, that's going to be different from anything else out there.