Our first encounter with professional skier, runner and storyteller Drew Petersen came after a bell-to-bell day of bottomless powder skiing at Alta Ski Area in Utah. Drew had wrapped up his skiing for the day with a mutual friend and a few others. As we gathered our posse at the Goldminer’s Daughter bar for some après ski action, we began to learn more about Drew’s path to ski stardom and why he’s always wearing a gigantic smile.
Drew exudes a passion for what he does, but also exemplifies what it takes to be a professional athlete in this day and age. The days of receiving money in action sports for only being one of the best athletes in the world are mostly gone and athletes must now also provide their sponsorship partners with an entire marketing + creative package.
Drew understands that the game has changed and has made the calculated decision to merge his skiing, storytelling and business acumen together to propel his career forward. And, of course, he never forgets to pack his burritos and gummy bears.
In our conversation, Drew shares:
- Why he operates his ski career “as a business”
- How being real has steadily grown his Instagram following
- Why well-aligned brand partnerships are the most organic & fruitful for everyone
Can you give us a brief overview of who you are and what you do?
I am a skier and lover of the mountains. I grew up in the mountains, spent my whole life in the mountains and that’s where it’ll always be home.
I call myself a skier because I don’t like to put too much of a label on it. I think pretty much every aspect of skiing is fun, whether it’s skiing deep powder or hard-pack bumps at the resort until the last chair. My primary focus in skiing is in the backcountry, and that’s mostly putting in big days walking up mountains and skiing back down them.
In addition to my skiing, I’m also a year-round athlete. In the summer my primary passion is running, but really anything that keeps me outdoors and in the mountains is what gets me excited.
I’m also a storyteller and that’s another aspect of my career that I’m known for, primarily writing for ski publications. I’m also branching out into the film world.
What kinds of film projects?
I put out a short a year and a half ago called Ski the Wild West, which chronicles my road trip to ski the highest peak in every state of the American West. For that film I wore all the hats and kinda did everything — I ski in it, but I was also producer/director, shot a little bit of it, wrote the script and came up with the distribution plan.
So filmmaking is something I definitely want to focus on more moving forward, but still staying in front of the camera as an athlete. I’m most interested in the production work because it’s hard to be in front and behind the camera at the same time.
Yeah, for sure. Do you see those projects being funded by sponsors that you currently have?
Yeah, definitely. The position that I’m in at Salomon is kind of neat because Salomon TV is one of the biggest media channels in the ski industry and in the outdoor industry as a whole. It’s a really cool way to kind of bring my perspective to it and also be able to learn how Salomon has made that work, especially with Switchback Entertainment and Mike Douglas. I’d also like to branch out outside of Salomon TV and there are limitless options because I’m an ideas guy.
Do you see yourself skiing for some of the film companies like Matchstick or TGR [Teton Gravity Research]? Is that a goal of yours?
When I was 14 that was probably my biggest goal, to film with Matchstick. Now, while that still is a goal in the back of my head, it’s not my primary focus. My primary focus is to ski as much as I can.
The past couple of years I’ve had some setbacks with injuries, so I’m trying to keep my body healthy and focusing on getting myself to a place where I know that I’m going to be able to do this for a long time. But if things line up, it would be awesome to be able to film with Matchstick one day or someone else too.
I grew up watching primarily Matchstick and TGR movies, but I think that the landscape in the media world is changing and the ski movies of old just aren’t quite the same package that they used to be. But I really want to film with Blank Collective [Films], so Alexi Godbout, if you’re reading this, I really want to film with you, man.
The Blank Collective is a group of skiers who are actually primarily Salomon skiers who just said, Ya know, just because we’re not filming with a big movie company right now doesn’t mean that we’re not doing movie-worthy stuff, so let’s make a ski movie. And their movies the past couple of years have been mind-blowing. Before Blank was one of the best films that came out. They’ve been filming some great stuff. It didn’t work out for me to film with them this year, but hopefully next year I’m filming with the Blank Collective guys.
What inspires you the most as a professional athlete and storyteller?
That’s a good question. [Pauses] I think the biggest inspiration that I have is the mountains themselves. Any day that I’m out in the mountains is when my imagination starts to run. From the skiing perspective, mountains are my biggest inspiration and if I look at a big face I just see the lines that I want to paint down it.
On the storyteller side, it’s being able to share my passion and the inspiration that I gain from these special places with others in a way that invites them in. I want to invite them to share my experiences and build their own connections with both the mountains and the outdoors with whatever vehicle they use to get there, whether it be skis or a pair of running shoes or a snowboard. Just the pure enjoyment of it.
What’s your creative process like for your skiing and storytelling?
I think with skis, the creative process is really a lifelong process. I started skiing when I was two, so I think even at a young age I was already developing my style and asking, How do I interpret the mountain? How am I going to bend the ski in the way that I would want to see it?
I think over time that creative process comes about through just constant analysis of how I’m skiing and what I’m skiing. It’s not like I sit down with an excel spreadsheet and be like, 50% of my turns today were okay, the other 50% not so much — which hopefully it’s not just lefts and rights like that, but I think it’s just kind of a constant analysis. Like, I want to work on my pole plant and pull my elbow in at the end of my pole plant, or I wanna get more power driving off of that downhill ski at the bottom of the turn.
What’s really fun about what I do now is I primarily ski in front of cameras so I get pretty instant feedback. If I’m shooting photos or if I’m filming, I’m able to look at those shots and be like, Oh, okay, I see how it worked for the shot.
But what I look at as a skier is, What was I doing with my skis at that moment in time? When I look at a photo that we shot and there’s this big powder cloud, I’m always looking at how I can make that powder cloud look prettier and how I can keep my body position in a smooth, technically sound and quiet style.
And what about the storytelling side?
Ultimately it has to start with an idea, and whenever I get an idea for a story I want to tell I write it down. I carry around a little notebook where I write all my ideas down or jot them down in the notes on my phone right when they come to me.
I have endless ideas that I’ll ultimately circle back on. If it’s strong enough of an idea, it’s not something that I even have to sit down at a desk and write out how I’m going to pursue it. Because it’s what I’m thinking about when I go to sleep, it’s what I think about when I wake up in the morning, it’s what I’m thinking about when I’m driving up to the mountains, it’s what I’m thinking about on the skin track.
When I have an idea for a story to tell, whether it be a trip or a magazine story or a film, I start to shape it in my head. Then ultimately I do sit down and write down everything that’s in my mind about it. If it’s a document on my computer, it’s just notes and ideas and what I call the “blah” of the idea. I just put it all out there and then organize everything into how I’m going to shape it into a story.
Once I know that I’m onto something and feel strongly that it’s a story I want to tell, then I approach it from, How am I going to tell this story, who am I going to tell it to and what do I need to do to make that happen?
If it ends up that the best way to tell that story is a magazine story, then I’m going to focus on writing the best pitch that I can to go to a publication with. And normally when I come up with a story, if it’s for a magazine, I know which publication I want to pursue because it’s a good fit for them.
If a film is the best way to tell a story, which is how my mind works more and more these days, it’s How can I tell this story through a film? Then I develop the story a little bit further in terms of turning that “blah” of ideas into something more cohesive. At the same time I’ll start working on a pitch deck for it and ask myself, Who do I need to work with to make this happen? The simplest answer, and what I think a lot of people probably say when they look at it from a business perspective, is finding who I can get behind this that has the dollars. That part’s important, but also the vision and being able to follow through is equally as important because there’s no use getting all the money unless you’re actually going to do justice to the idea.
So I look at, Who do I need to shoot this? Do I need to work with a production house? For instance, when I did Ski the Wild West, the biggest thing I needed were cinematographers — who was I gonna get to shoot this? I ended up having Adam Clark shoot most of it, and there could not have been a better fit than getting Adam Clark on board.
You have to pitch it to sponsors and potential brands to partner with, especially if it’s a film with any budget behind it, and I think that’s something that I’m still learning how to do. But the most important thing that I’ve found is just having good relationships with brands and the decision makers at those brands. If it’s a quality story idea and you know that you’re going to be able to tell it in a quality way, then it’s worth it to put in the time to communicate that really well. And when you go to a company who sees and shares your vision and you’re interested in their bottom line, they’re gonna listen to you. I think the the biggest piece is keeping the brand’s interests in mind when you’re pitching a new story, especially through film.
When it comes to your process, a lot of it is very business focused, which is cool. Where did that come from? From schooling, family, relationships?
I think my brain is wired in a marketing and business sense. I’m fortunate that that’s how my brain already works. At the same time, I’ve been pursuing a ski career since I was 15 and got my first ski sponsor a week before my 16th birthday.
I have been doing this for a little while and I think focusing on that side of things when I was 16 definitely made me see the bigger picture in terms of operating my business as a business, and that’s carried over to the storytelling and film side.
I also have a traditional education, a degree in marketing from the University of Utah, and I have work experience in a lot of different facets of the media and outdoor industries, ranging from an editorial internship focused on writing at POWDER Magazine, to PR and content marketing work in tourism, to web marketing for a ski company. And then most recently I had an internship with Sweetgrass Productions to learn the filmmaking side of things.
So that’s been a really neat way to approach it. Perhaps I wasn’t always focused on ending up right where I am now, but it totally makes sense in hindsight that putting all of those puzzle pieces together would get me to where I am now. I think there’s still a lot of puzzle pieces missing and that’s the really cool part about being in the position that I’m in and the career that I’m building for myself right now. It’s a constant learning process.
Going back to the question of how did I learn those lessons, I’m still learning them. I think it’s about having an open mind and looking around at the landscape that you’re in.
Nice. And then when it comes to the media you’re involved with, do you find that you have any say in how you’re portrayed or that you’re able to control part of the process?
That’s a tough one. In terms of the level of control I have over how I’m portrayed in videos or stories, I think it’s like half and half. It’s just being real, being me, that’s when it ends up being the accurate portrayal of me in the end. Every once in a while a video comes out where it’s not entirely me or entirely accurate about who I am, but I think that’s also a learning process about how to make sure things are portrayed in the right light.
You’ve developed a very strong Instagram following. How important is that channel to your career success and what have you done to increase and engage your followers?
We definitely live in the social media age and a major focus of mine has been on building a platform on Instagram. Part of that is because I think the great thing about social media, especially the way Instagram works, is that you’re in control of telling your own story. It’s not relying on a magazine writer wanting to write a profile on you and it’s not reliant on a filmmaker portraying you correctly. The beauty of the social media age is that you can be in control.
From a business perspective, the media landscape is always changing and Instagram will change, but the reason I put so much effort into Instagram is that there is longevity in it right now and at least for the foreseeable future.
What I’ve done on there to build that platform, build that following and build something that also creates value — not just for me but also for the brands that I partner with — goes back to that aspect of being real. I don’t think that being real always has to mean that you pour your heart out and write a novel on there. I think that being real is as simple as sharing the real passion you have and the real lens that you’re living through.
A lot of my stuff is serious and contemplative and that’s because that is a true side of my life, in terms of overcoming injuries and the deeper, more intimate connection that I feel when I’m in the mountains or when I’m on a pair of skis. But another very real side of me is the fun side and people definitely love the fun side too, and none of that is a gimmick. None of that is fake. I really do eat burritos and gummy bears on top of mountains damn near every day.
I think when it comes to Instagram, people just want to see something that makes them smile, makes them want to get outside, makes them feel something, whether it be because they laugh about gummy bears or because they resonate with a story about what it means to be on a pair of skis.
How much of what you post is strategic versus just something that you feel like posting at the time?
That’s a good question and a really good conversation to have because there’s obviously a push when social media is such a big part of what we all do and that you always have to be putting something out there.
For me, and this advice actually came partially from Cody Townsend, before I put something out there, even if it’s as simple as an Instagram post, I just check in with myself and be like, Is this me and is this in line with the story I want to tell and the direction that I want to go in, in my career and in my life? It seems like a lot to think about when you’re posting a photo on Instagram, and I definitely don’t think that deep every day, but it just goes back to the aspect of being real. I think that’s the best strategy.
But if you’re curious about how strategic it is in terms of the mix of content or timing of posts and all that stuff, that stuff’s definitely strategic. I think it’s cool to be good at your job and so I do put a lot of effort into that. I look at metrics. I look at timing of posts and how I can do everything better. And that goes back to the aspect of being in a position where you’re constantly learning. When I pull up my Instagram and follow a bunch of professional surfers or a bunch of runners, when I see somebody in a different sport doing something really well, I’m like, Whoa, nobody’s doing that in skiing right now, so I pull that in. I think that’s part of the strategy too.
As of January 1st 2018, you’ve been year-round on the Salomon Global Team. Can you give us some insights into how you made that happen and what that entails contractually?
Yeah, definitely. Being a four-season athlete at Salomon stems originally from the skiing — I’m a skier first, I always will be. But what kind of opened up that opportunity for me is that I’m spending all my time in the mountains and outdoors anyway, and being able to share stories in a manner that aligns with my skiing but also aligns with what I’m doing in the summer is a good way to connect with people and enthusiasts of multiple sports.
What’s cool about being at Salomon is that it is a full-package company and they view the outdoor world very comprehensively. So it’s incorporating outdoor elements in terms of hiking and adventures I can have in my backyard. Trail running and mountain running have been a growing passion and my focus for probably the past three summers, and moving forward they’ll definitely be a huge aspect.
Being a four-season athlete at Salomon means being aligned with the brand and sharing stories that resonate with the people that Salomon wants to connect with year-round. And that’s pretty simple to do because I’m really well aligned with Salomon in that we share a passion and a heritage of growing up in the mountains and we’re all about having fun.
Are there a certain number of social posts you need to do a year, or are there certain aspects of it where they kind of audit what you’re doing? Or do they just know that you’ll come through and continue on with the social presence that you have?
Yes, contractually I have to do x number of social media posts and stuff like that, but I don’t think we all just work straight off our contracts. Because what I’m doing, what I’m sharing and what I’m pushing out there from Salomon is what I’d just be doing organically. So there’ll be times when I’m like, Did I actually fulfill my contractual obligations? And I’ll look back at my contract and be like, Yeah, I totally did. I didn’t even have to think about that though. I think it’s really important to be well aligned with the brand for it to be a fruitful partnership down the line.
Everything that I do at Salomon is already what I would be doing and they have that faith in me that I’m going to keep doing what made them like me in the first place. Salomon’s very supportive and very loyal to me and the rest of the athlete team and that doesn’t go unappreciated, so I make sure that I come through for them.
Are you 100% supported as a professional athlete or do you also have side gigs and things you need to do to keep the lights on?
Right now I’m a full-time professional athlete, which is pretty crazy to say. I have to pinch myself about that.
I definitely used to have to work quite a bit in the off season to make ends meet and to make it all happen. Salomon’s support has helped me kind of change that mix a little bit.
But ultimately, I don’t see anything wrong with having to work a little bit on the side. I am very fortunate and grateful that right now I’m making a living as a professional athlete.
When it comes to your winter schedule versus your summer schedule, are you pretty consistent with how you structure each day when you’re not traveling?
When there’re injuries, yes, I just follow a routine. When I’m not injured, life’s fun. [Laughs]
In the winter every day is different because of weather and snow. If it’s snowing, I wake up at 5 AM, I go skiing, I come home, I eat a really good dinner and I go to bed at 9 PM. But things change with weather and with travels so it’s definitely important to just be able to adapt to that and just focus on being able to make sure that I’m in the right place on the right days.
If I’m staying put at home in Salt Lake City, especially in the summer or in the fall, it’s really nice to fall into a bit more of a routine and focus on eating healthy and then working out in the gym more than I’m able to when I’m busy and when I’m skiing and bouncing around and traveling.
So are you eating the burritos and gummy bears in the summer too?
Oh yeah, yeah. I mean, burritos and gummy bears are part of a healthy balanced diet. [Laughter]
Oh yes, part of your real image. Since professional skiing can be quite dangerous, especially with injuries like the rock fall incident in Mt. Hood and the pinball incident in Telluride, how do you handle the health insurance side of things?
Good question. To any young kids out there who want to be a professional athlete, get good health insurance. That’ll go a long way.
I could be under a huge weight of debt right now, but fortunately I’m very grateful my mom got me my own health insurance policy when I was 12 years old because she saw that I was on this track. So I’m not connected to my family’s health insurance policy and that’s really good — being able to have confidence on that side of things is important.
I’m still young and figuring out my way in all of this. I’m 24 years old and haven’t had a smooth ride of it and I don’t think it would be fair to ever expect to have a smooth ride because there are a lot of risks in what I do. I think more than anything it’s about having the mindset to be able to roll with the punches and keep moving forward.
What do you wish you knew about being a professional athlete when you started out?
I think one of the sides of being a professional athlete in the ski and outdoor industry is that you get to learn as you go. There’s no set path and I really appreciate that about what I do. I’m not following a formula for how to build a career, how to make money or anything like that. I make it up as I go and I really like that. It doesn’t sound too professional, but that’s what it is. It’s figuring it all out for myself and what works for me.
If I could go back 10 years, I wish that I could have approached building a professional skiing career in a more traditional and responsible sense. I wish that I ate better when I was younger, when I was like 15 to 19. And I wish that I spent more time in the gym working out a lot more. So that’s what I do now. But lesson learned.
For the business side, with things like marketing and writing, do you do anything regularly to stay up on those skills and keep them strong?
I think the biggest thing that’s gone well for me in terms of business and creating this career has just been staying curious, humble and asking questions. We’re pretty fortunate that we’re in this landscape with a bunch of brilliant minds and when I look around at what everybody else is doing, I think about it in terms of, Well, why did they do it that way? And I think one of the lessons I learned on the writing side of things is whenever I read something I ask myself, Why did they put that sentence there? Why did they open with that? Why didn’t that fall in further into the story?
I think if you go about it with a humble and open mind, whether you’re reading an article or looking at how somebody runs their business, you can learn a lot without necessarily having a traditional education or learning the lessons the hard way.
Is that mainly by observation or do you reach out to some of these people and actually ask them questions directly?
It’s definitely both. I think a lot of what I do is just observation in terms of looking around and paying attention to what’s going on, what people are doing.
But I’m also not really afraid to ask people. I’m the biggest fan of skiing and I’m just a total 14-year-old fanboy still. I ask a lot of people a lot of questions and people in this world and sphere are really nice, humble and open. It’s really cool I get to meet my heroes and ask them questions and ask them for advice. I’m definitely very grateful and appreciative for the guidance and kind of help that I’ve gotten.
Recently it’s been Cody Townsend, Pep Fujas and Todd Ligare. Ligare helped me improve on big back flips off natural cliff take-offs. And Cody helped me figure out how to build a brand and go about content marketing with a more refined focus.
I think there’s something to learn from everyone.
What about Pep?
Pep is just the fucking best. Biggest thing I’ve learned from Pep is to get strong. He’s the strongest dude I’ve ever seen. It’s ridiculous. When he takes his shirt off, he’s like a fucking tree trunk. [Laughter]
What are some of your biggest struggles and challenges from the business standpoint?
The biggest struggle and challenge of all of it is time, and I think that’s true for everyone in every industry no matter what you do. You are never gonna see my 10 bullets of “How to have a productive day,” because I’m not that good at time management.
I really like that I’m in control and I wear all these different hats to make this career possible, but at the end of the day there are a lot of times where I’m like, You know, I just wish I could pour myself into making a pitch deck for 20 hours right now, but I don’t have 20 hours this week or next week.
So the biggest thing about how to sort of combat that struggle and what I’m teaching myself is to chip away at things. It doesn’t always have to be all or nothing.
And then on the flip side, what do you find most rewarding?
Without a doubt the most rewarding part of all of this is the skiing itself. If there’s a better feeling than skiing in this world, congratulations to anyone who’s found that. Those moments where I get to ski untouched powder in the mountains with my best friends, nothing can beat that. It’s pretty damn cool that I’ve been able to build a life that’s centered around those moments.
So what are your hopes and dreams for the future?
I’m still figuring that out. I really love what I do right now and want to stay on this track. I’ve got a lot of goals in terms of where I want to take my skiing and where in the world I want to visit.
I also want to give back to this community and give back to this sport. I want to provide accessible avalanche education in a humble and conscious way for young people, because when I was a teenager getting into skiing in the backcountry, there wasn’t a lot of access to quality education that went about it in the right way. There are a lot of young kids who are going to ski in the backcountry and it would be awesome for them to be able to learn lessons at a young age about how to do that safely that will keep them alive and able to enjoy that passion for the rest of their lives.
Moving forward I also really wanna keep telling stories that resonate with people. I’m not curing cancer or changing the world overnight, but hopefully I make some people smile along the way by sharing my passion for skiing and the mountains.
Interview edited for length, content and clarity. Artist’s work (images, audio and/or video) courtesy of the artist unless otherwise noted. All other photographs by Kim Olson.
- Salomon + Salomon TV
- Hestra Gloves
- Alta Ski Area
- Switchback Entertainment
- Mike Douglas – skier, filmmaker
- Matchstick Productions – films
- TGR (Teton Gravity Research) – films + forums
- Blank Collective Films
- Alexi Godbout – skier, director
- Adam Clark – photographer/videographer
- POWDER Magazine
- Sweetgrass Productions – films
- Jackson Hole Mountain Resort
- Cody Townsend – skier + entrepreneur
- Pep Fujas – skier
- Todd Ligare – skier
- John Bowers
- Sam Watson – photographer
- The Ski Journal
- Skis: “I ski on the Salomon QST 106 and Salomon QST 118. Those are pretty much the two skis that I use.”
- Bindings: “I ski a Shift binding damn near every day. I’ll also ski the MTN pin binding when I want a lightweight tech binding, basically just big missions in the spring.”
- Boots: “I skied the S/Lab, MTN boot. Basically just the classic mountain lab boot and I ski that boot every single day.”
- Outerwear: “I wear the S/Lab QST Gore-Tex outerwear pants and jacket, and that’s just a Gore-Tex Pro line.”
- Helmet: Salomon Mountain Lab helmet
- Goggles: Salomon Lo-Fi goggles
- Gloves: “My favorite glove is the Hestra Falt Guide glove and I wear that pretty much 80% of the days.”
- Shoes: “My favorite shoe to run in is the Salomon Ultra Pro. That’s probably what I run in the most.”