Through high school and college, Mike Jennings never went snowboarding or skiing. He was a standout football player and couldn’t risk getting injured.
“That’s kind of a no-no for football players,” Jennings said. “I didn’t really know how amazing skiing and snowboarding was until … after my senior year in college and just sort of fell in love with it.”
Fast forward more than two decades, and the now 45-year-old Jennings finds himself in his second season as an assistant coach with the U.S. Paralympics Snowboarding Team.
“I love it. It’s my dream job,” Jennings said. “I get to travel the world, snowboarding and teaching snowboarding with a high-caliber group of people, just quality people — both athletes and staff. I feel like everybody’s on top of their game, and everybody’s serious about what they’re doing, which was refreshing because that’s the way I am.”
Jennings took a circuitous route to reach this point. After an outstanding football career at Riverside (California) Polytechnic High School, he went on to become an All-Ivy League defensive end at Columbia University, where he majored in political science and minored in economics.
After briefly considering a professional football career, Jennings instead entered the business world and took jobs that would help him pay down his college debt. A snowboarding trip to the Arapahoe Basin in Colorado changed the course of his professional life, however.
While there, Jennings saw a group of people who were struggling on their snowboards. He approached them and offered some advice. They were quite grateful for the help.
“It just felt good.It felt really fun,” Jennings said. “That kind of planted the seed.”
Soon, Jennings quit his day job and began his journey as a snowboarding instructor.
“I didn’t know that it was going to be a lifelong pursuit,” said Jennings, “but I knew that was what I was going to do in the short term.”
Jennings became the first Level 3 instructor at Camelback Mountain Resort in Tannersville, Pennsylvania, and rose to the position of training director and terrain park manager. By then, he was hooked on the sport.
“I understood that this was what I was going to do,” Jennings recalled. “I was completely, head-over-heels in love with snowboarding and coaching snowboarding.”
The only problem was the short season at Camelback. Jennings decided to head west to extend it. He eventually settled in at Mount Hood, Oregon, which offers essentially year-round riding.
“For the most part, the world comes through Mount Hood, Timberline, during those summer months,” Jennings said. “It’s lift access from the parking lot.”
Contacts he made while working at Mount Hood led to his current position with Team USA.
“It’s just been amazing,” Jennings said. “In a certain way, it was also a nice challenge for me.”
Jennings explained that working with Para athletes has made him an even better coach.
“If I thought that the technical aspects of snowboarding were basic before,” said Jennings, “after having to delve into them and then rework them and create kind of work-arounds and patches and things that would help compensate for an individual’s impairment … (that) made the baseline even so much (simpler) to me.”
Doing all of this amid the COVID-19 pandemic added another layer of challenges for Jennings.
“It’s been forced to become slightly more remote,” Jennings said. “At this point, it’s more distant. It presents more challenges, but we have adopted some steps that are helping us to do it the best that we can.
“A lot of information (normally) gets shared during video review. Well, that’s not something we do anymore. What we’ve kind of gone to now is … we’ll do it through a Zoom meetingand then do screen shares and try to watch video.”
As Jennings pointed out, everyone in the Para community is facing similar obstacles.
“If we can do it better than the other people are doing it,” said Jennings, “then we’re doing it right.”
Now that he has his dream job, Jennings plans on hanging onto it well into the future.
“I feel like it fulfills a lot of the goals that I’ve had for a long time,” Jennings said. “The better I get at it, and the better that I can make the riders on the team, the more enjoyment I think I’ll get out of it.”