King of Fun: Sean Pettit keeps an industry in check
Words by Mike Berard
I’m waiting for Sean Pettit outside El Furniture Warehouse on a sunny summer day, thinking of the night before, a blur of a party at the successful new whistler hotspot. Opened a mere three weeks before, in early august, the bar has become a mainstay in the trendy Whistler nightlife scene. Part of the success stems from the very un-Whistler-like affordable food and the laid back atmosphere that comes with the young clientele who eats that food. But more likely it’s the names behind the business that pull in the partygoers.
El Furniture is owned by pro snowboarders Devun Walsh, Mark Sollors, Mikey Rencz, JF Pelchat and Kevin Sansalone. However, the bar also has a sole skier investor—Pettit. That Pettit was invited to come on board with the all-snowboard crew might seem surprising at first, but when put in context, it all makes sense. He’s made a career out of being accepted by every faction of the mountain sports community. Park skiers respect him. Big-mountain skiers hold him in the highest esteem. The ladies love him. Moms love him. Even the most combative of snowboarders cite him as a stylish skier. Filmmakers and photographers battle over the right to bring him on trips. It seems everyone wants a piece of Pettit. It’s been this way for 10 years, which is amazing. You see, Sean Pettit was born in 1992. Stop and let that number sink in. 1992. He’s only two decades young and has already accomplished more than most skiers do in a lifetime. It’s no wonder the kid is so damn happy.
Born in Ottawa, Ontario and raised across the bridge in neighboring Chelsea, Quebec, Sean and his brother Callum cut their first set of teeth on the slopes of Camp Fortune, a tiny ski hill they had both mastered before their mother, Deb Hillary, moved them to Whistler in 1999. Deb had globetrotted as a professional alpine skier herself in the ’80s. She raced on courses worldwide, spent time freeskiing in Chamonix and lived a gypsy lifestyle in the early days of Whistler, back when a $5 meal wasn’t an affordable anomaly but a luxurious treat. When she arrived out West, she took a job teaching and coaching with Blackcomb Ski School, and made sure her sons continued their mountain education, albeit on a much larger mountain and surrounded by the influence of a burgeoning freeski community.
“My first ski movie was [Heavy Hitting Film’s] Parental Advisory,” says Pettit, as he sips an iced tea and waves at various girls entering El Furniture. “I still watch it, and I still think it’s a sickass movie. They were such badass dudes. They didn’t give a shit. They were skiing for fun. That’s where freeskiing was first opened up to me.”
Pettit’s access to both a world-class park and the kind of inbounds, off-piste terrain that rivals most regions’ best backcountry seasoned him with an all-around flavor. “I would see [Chris] Turpin and follow him around the mountain,” he says. “I always loved how he skied. I liked shredding with him.” The skills he learned chasing Whistler Blackcomb’s best skiers—combined with a seemingly natural talent for speed and air—started to attract attention when Pettit was just a little kid. “I first saw him ripping the park. He was, maybe, seven or eight,” says Guilluame Tessier, a long-time cinematographer with Matchstick Productions (MSP). “He was so tiny… a freak show, going so fast and taking air everywhere. He was as good or better than most other skiers of all ages.”
That style would become a Pettit signature and would bring attention from people and places that Pettit didn’t even know existed. Oakley signed him at age 11, K2 at 12, and Red Bull at 13, making him the youngest athlete to ever wear the red and blue helmet. Through fellow Whistlerite Kye Petersen, Pettit was introduced to filmmaker Eric Iberg and Tanner Hall. He didn’t know who Hall was. “I had no idea before I shook his hand,” says Pettit. “I was 10. I lived in the Whistler bubble.” Hall put Sean and Callum in the 2005 film Pop Yer Bottlez, which they followed with an appearance in Believe.
The opportunity gave Sean a chance to showcase what he was capable of. MSP founder and director, Steve Winter, was soon calling. “We thought he had huge potential when he was a little kid,” Winter says. “But we didn’t know just how great he would become. He has such a spring to his style. He bounces when he lands and boosts off features like no one else.”
During the winter of 2007-08, Pettit would go on the road full time to shoot with Matchstick. The result was the coveted closing segment in Claim, an unheralded feat for such a young skier. In it, Pettit treats the big-mountain landscape of the Coast Range like a backyard minishred park. The style that Believe and Show & Prove had hinted at were exposed full force. That same winter, Pettit would take a second-place finish at Red Bull Cold Rush, appear alongside Shane McConkey on the Today show and take home best breakthrough performance at the Powder Video Awards. He started to realize that skiing could become something much bigger than he had ever imagined.
“For the first while, I was treating each winter like just another ski season,” he says. “But then I started to notice the checks were getting bigger and more frequent, and that’s when I realized I was a professional skier. I remember one day I was at school, and I thought ‘I don’t think I am ever coming back here.’” With his decision to leave high school in grade 10, the transformation to professional skier was complete and to those who were watching, it had happened as effortlessly as Pettit made skiing look.
Following the attention that his first full-fledged winter of shooting brought, Pettit’s unique fingerprint started to take form, not only in the way he skied—fast and loose with frequent, smooth airs—but in how he approached skiing. He was back shooting with MSP, producing an Alaskan segment for In Deep that now stands as one of the most groundbreaking in ski history, and he was doing it with confidence and a huge smile on his face.
“Sean’s attitude is his greatest attribute,” says Tyler Hamlet, one of the creative powerhouses behind Poor Boyz Productions who shot part of Pettit’s closing segment for PBP’s new movie, WE. “Even when things aren’t going well, he’s able to lighten the mood and lift everybody’s spirits around him.”
The only attribute that matches his geniality seems to be his tenacity. “Despite his easy-going ways, he’s super competitive,” says Tessier. “He has the mental power of a champion, and the balls and toughness of a warrior. It’s hard to believe all that character is inside that little man.”
In 2010, the impossibly accelerated evolution of Sean Pettit continued. After winning more magazine awards, he took the win at Red Bull Cold Rush. His list of sponsors included the biggest hitters in the game. But skiing was just a means to an end, the end consisting of simply having a better time than everyone else. The skill was merely a side effect of good times. “I’ve always realized that skiing is a leisurely sport,” says Pettit. “Obviously I push myself, but me pushing myself is me having more fun. You’re supposed to have fun. It’s not a serious sport. The minute it becomes a chore, then why are you doing it?”
On-screen, the character that Pettit plays is goofy, often joking around with the omnipresent smile that has become his trademark. It’s easy to believe it must be an act, but if it is, Pettit is quite the actor. “I don’t need to fake it,” he says. “I am always having fun out there.”
Hamlet confirms, “Sean reminds you what you’re doing at that very moment—not by telling you but by simply being there at that point in time enjoying every minute of it.”
From the tiny kid ripping the icy bumps of Québec, to the teenager whose only option was to heli-ski the first time he worked with MSP because he was too small to handle a snowmobile, to the seasoned pro signing big contracts and endless autographs at age 20, Sean Pettit has put in one of the most impressive decades of skiing in the history of the sport. His ability to do it without attitude continues to be one of the more impressive feats in skiing.
“There have only been a few times in my career I’ve seen pure talent,” says Tessier, a man respected industry wide for his keen eye for talent and cinematography. “There’s Candide [Thovex], Hugo [Harrison], Tanner [Hall] and then Sean. He’s going to be one of the biggest legends in the ski business.”
Maybe so, but Pettit might achieve this only because he doesn’t believe in the very industry of which he has become king. “Skiing is not a business,” he says, with a tinge of passion in his voice. “Yes, a career can be made out of skiing, but you’re not a businessman first. I understand what I have to do and be to make a career out of skiing, but the people who have the most fun go the furthest. People are attracted to the people who are shining, and I want to make sure that I always remember the reason I am doing what I am doing, and that is having a good time.