Remembering Tom Sims
Pioneer. Inventor. Innovator. Artist. Entertainer. Idolized by some. Villainized by others. A legend.
One year ago today we lost snowboard pioneer Tom Sims. Take a moment to look back on everything that Tom gave to snowboarding.
Words: Gerhard Gross
On September 12, 2012, Tom Sims passed away at a hospital near his home in Santa Barbara, California, following a sudden heart attack. One of snowboarding's founding fathers was forever lost that day, but the mad, raw spirit of creativity that he brought to everything from board design to how he carved a slope remains woven into fabric of what snowboarding is today.
Tom's contributions to the sport are often measured in the physical: the first board with a kicked-up tail, the first pro model (Terry Kidwell), and the first boards built for women. He commissioned the first halfpipe—a ragged thing with four-foot walls scraped together at Tahoe's Soda Springs in 1983 for the first halfpipe competition.
Less tangible is Tom's influence on the culture of snowboarding. Drawing on his surf and skateboarding roots and aided by like-minded riders such as Chuck Barfoot, Mike Chantry, and Terry Kidwell, he helped usher in the era of freestyle at a time when the focus was locked on carving and bashing race gates. Tom and his team took it off the ground and into the air, opening the door to a new type of riding where anything was possible. From this sprung all the other ideals—self-expression, rebellion, the pursuit of fun and freedom at any cost—that have shaped snowboarding and set it on its own path. Tom's emphasis on both riding style and lifestyle was further projected in the late '80s and early '90s through team riders like Chris Roach, Craig Kelly, Noah Salasnek, Shaun Palmer, and Alan Clark.
While Tom's laid-back, open-minded approach to life made him well suited to life on snow, business didn't come as naturally. "What I do regret is not having a big interest in money," he said in an interview. "It worked against me. If I had been interested in money instead of just having fun snowboarding, surfing, and longboarding, then I probably would have found the money to run my enterprise."
As the Sims brand grew, Tom was soured as friends he had employed left to start their own brands and riders moved on to other teams and opportunities. One of the most cutting losses came when Craig Kelly, Tom's right-hand man, who he assumed would eventually become president of Sims, left for Burton. The competitive nature that led Tom to win both world and national downhill championships stayed with him off-slope and played a role in many broken bonds and strained relationships over the years. Eventually he licensed Sims Snowboards to Brad Dorfman in 1985, and although the brand continued to change owners over the years, Tom always stayed involved. He continued to surf, skate, and ride until his death.
From those early days of making boards in a backyard woodshop in Santa Barbara, when pioneers like Tom had to fight for the right to ride a lift, to the growth of snowboarding into an Olympic sport that tops TV ratings, what remains constant is Tom's influence on the culture. His spirit—never being satisfied with the status quo, the constant push to create and innovate, and most importantly, the fire to get loose and have fun while sliding sideways—endures.
"Riding with and for Tom was one of the most joyous experiences. We were one big family back then, riding together, traveling together, getting in trouble together. We were setting the tone for the sport, especially from the freestyle side. We all came from a skate and surf background, so that was brought into the style and combined. Tom's style was more surf than anything. You could really see it when he carved."—Mike Chantry, Sims team captain 1983/84
"Tom would cut his business meetings short so he could do something he loved—fishing. I would put the boat in the water, gas it up, get the live bait, and have the boat running so we could make a quick getaway to Sand Bass City! Tom was dealing with a lot of newfound pressures because the business was growing so quickly. He would run ideas and questions by me in private because he knew I'd give him my simple common-sense answers. This was some of my most precious time with him, just fishing and shooting the bull." —Chuck Barfoot
"Riding for Sims was a dream come true even though the dream hadn't been alive that long. He was a legend already. When I first got on the team I stayed at Tom's place in Santa Barbara in his tree house with Jeff Grell. It was amazing. It gave me insight into the sense of whimsy and experimental lightness with which Tom took life." —Bud Keene
"It was a huge honor to ride for the original inventor of the snowboard and a huge skateboard OG. Meeting him and getting to know him was even more of an honor, because he was a super nice, humble, smart, and positive person. I don't even want to picture what snowboarding would be like today if it wasn't for that man. Thank God for you, Tom, for helping change and mold my life and others'. There are so many lives you have blessed. I am aiming to be like you." —Marc Frank Montoya
"So many of my favorite riders who influenced me growing up rode for Sims. Tom helped pioneer snowboarding's free spirit, so it was rad to be a part of the company after looking up to those who built it." —John Jackson
"Even though it wasn't the same since the new owners, I felt the name was still strong and I was honored to represent it and be a part of such dope team. Tom was such a huge influence and a name in snowboarding, I hope that never fades. Tom Sims was the man! RIP." —Iikka Backstrom
"Tom invented the snowboarder." —Brad Steward, founder of Bonfire Snowboarding
Tom Sims Powder & Rails Part 1
Tom Sims Powder & Rails Part 2
Click to the next page to see a timeline of Tom’s life.
Tom Sims Timeline
1950 Born in Los Angeles, December 6.
1952 Moves to the East Coast. Family settles in Haddonfield, New Jersey.
1960 Starts skating after seeing skateboarders on a family trip back to LA.
1963 Builds a prototype snowboard he calls a "ski board" in wood shop class because he can't skate in winter.
1970 Builds his first longboards out of water skis, roller-skate wheels, and surfboard resin with sand thrown on it for grip.
1971 Drives across the country to Santa Barbara where he makes his new home.
1974/75 Starts Sims Skateboards.
1976 Makes the first snowboard under the Sims name, a plastic ski-board licensed from Bob Webber with Skyhook bungee-cord bindings.
1978 Tom designs a board with a foam core and fiberglass bottom and top that is built by Chuck Barfoot.
1980 Tom and Chuck hire San Diego-based Ken Watson to build a custom snowboard press. These boards are made of maple, fiberglass, and epoxy, and are the first pressed in a skateboard-style sandwich construction. Max length is 140 centimeters.
1980 Tom and Chuck split their first ad in Action Now magazine for Sims Ski-Boards/Barfoot Snoboards.
1981 Tom licenses Sims Skateboards to Brad Dorfman of Vision Skateboards so he can focus on growing snowboarding.
1981 Rocky Mountain Slalom Champion.
1982 National Downhill Champion.
1983 Four-inch-wide rolls of P-tex are bought from a ski material factory and patched together to make a base.
1983 Rides a Tahoe City dump quarterpipe session with Mike Chantry and Terry Kidwell.
1983 Builds first halfpipe at Soda Springs, California, and hosts first halfpipe competition fueling freestyle competitions. This is the start of the World Snowboard Championships.
1983 Riding on groomed runs for the first time forces Tom and his team to rethink board design. Fins on the base for turning in powder are removed, and the search begins for a new binding system.
1983 World and National Champion.
1984 Edges are removed from skis and screwed onto snowboards. This year Sims has the only board at World Snowboard Championships with metal edges.
1984 Prototype boards with full wood cores, molded inserts, and pre-bent steel edges are made in a cross-country ski press in Quebec, Canada, with Louis Fournier. These boards become the Blade, Switch Blade, and Pocket Knife.
1984/85 This Is Snowboarding With Team Sims video is released.
1984/85 The distribution and manufacturing rights for Sims Snowboards are licensed to Brad Dorfman.
1985 Pulling from designs and prototypes done by Jeff Grell and Louis Fournier, Sims brings to market the first highback, folding binding.
1985 Appears as a stunt double in the James Bond film A View To Kill.
1985 The world's first pro model snowboard, the Terry Kidwell.
1992/93 Sims is licensed to Umbro North America distribution.
1994 The first women-specific board design.
2006 Sims is licensed to Collective Licensing.
2007–2012 Tom works with Louis Fournier on an E-Board prototype, a board with embedded canting.
Thanks to Chuck Barfoot, Mike Chantry, and Louis Fournier for their help in researching this story.