Opinion » Alta States

Sam Rees - making the Whistler leap

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"Passion isn't something that lives way up in the sky, in abstract dreams and hopes. It lives at ground level, in the specific details of what you're doing every day."

- Author Marcus Buckingham

It was ugly the afternoon we met. A slushy rain was falling in the valley and the air felt a lot chillier than what the thermostat showed. But it didn't seem to bother the 23-year old one bit. He came bouncing into the coffee shop like it was a sunny afternoon in August. Smiling eyes and guileless grin, easy lope and happy greetings. Only his garb hinted at anything different.

Hmm... how could I put this? With his scuffed rubber boots and tatty rain pants, his floppy hat and flappy rain-cheater (all in black), the kid looked more like a Commercial Drive hipster than a Whistler local. I mean, the stuff he was wearing had "Value Village" written all over it. What kind of statement was he trying to make? It was only then that I realized that Sam Rees had ridden his bike across town — in the mucky rain and slush — to meet with me.

I know. I know. It's no big deal anymore. We're all supposed to be riding our bikes... all the time. And yet I'm still impressed when I meet people (mostly young) who actually live that way.

Sam Rees is one such young man. "I don't have a cell phone and I don't have a car," the Brit transplant told me in one of our first conversations. "I'm consciously trying to simplify my life." And then he laughed, acknowledging the irony of his situation. "I know it's a bit of a contradiction living and working in Whistler, but I'm trying to not get too caught up in the consumer 'I need things' world."

A worthy goal, of course. But how does he square that with working at Fanatyk Co, a place where customers routinely drop serious coin on the latest-and-greatest in high-performance sports toys? Doesn't it feel weird, I ask, to be counselling clients on purchasing such big-ticket items? Not really, he says. He likes helping people, he explains, especially people who are passionate about what they do.

We hear a lot of talk in this town about the importance of our frontline staff. And they are important. For the majority of Whistler guests, frontline workers are all they're ever going to see. How these two groups interact — in the stores, in the restaurants, on the hill — is how most visitors are going to define their holiday experience. And yet we don't do all that great a job training our young people. It's still pretty much a hit-and-miss affair — you hire whomever you can, you pay the least amount possible, and you hope the best of them will hang in for the season.

I guess that's why it's so refreshing to meet someone in that role who actually takes his responsibilities to heart. "It really kills me," Sam confesses, "if I can't help a customer in the proper way." He sighs. "It's one of the rare things in life that can get me really stressed."

Maybe it's because he's been doing the retail thing since he was a 14-year old mad-to-bike teenager. Maybe it's simply because he's hard-wired that way. Whatever. Sam Rees care. And he cares a lot.

But I've leapfrogged ahead again. Forgive me. We need to travel back to Bristol, on England's southwest coast in the early years of the 21st century. That's where Sam got his biking start, "hanging out in the local woods," he says, "building ramps and jumps and going for big air. I could spend hours there..."

He smiles ruefully. "As a prep school student, I was exposed to all the usual team sports, you know, (field) hockey, football, rugby... that kind of stuff. "He sighs. "But I preferred doing things on my own. That's why riding bikes suited me so well."

Jumping, he says, was always his first love. "I guess it was around 2004 when I bought my first bike — a Specialized P1 — a true jump bike. My friends couldn't figure it out. 'Why only one speed,' they wanted to know..."

His passion for cycling also got him his first job. "I worked in the local bike shop for free that first year," he says. "And I just loved it. I wanted to learn as much as I could. Every single Sunday I'd be there, building bikes."

By the time he'd celebrated his 16th birthday, Sam was a regular on the shop floor. "School, riding, building jumps in the woods, working at the shop... I was a busy guy." He laughs. Suddenly going to university didn't seem all that appealing a deal...

"I graduated from high school in 2008," he recounts. And though his parents fully expected him to continue his post-secondary studies, Sam had other plans. "I'd never been to Australia before, knew no one there, and had no special contacts or anything. I just went."

And promptly landed a job at a high-end bike store in a popular surf town north of Sidney. "What an amazing experience," he says. "They had every thing so well dialled at that store. It was a real lesson in the culture of retail."

What about his biking? "I surfed just about every day," he says. Laughs. "And I rode my mountain bike maybe three times..." He returned home the next summer. Australia had been great, he says, but it wasn't really what he was looking for.

Neither, alas, was Bristol. "I spent a couple of 'stagnant' years there," he admits. "I was back working at the old shop and spending a lot of money on new bikes." He also had a girlfriend. "My first 'real' one," he says with a sheepish grin.

When they broke up in early 2012, Sam realized it was time for a change. "Whistler, I'd heard from buddies, was the mecca of riding. So I told myself: 'Time to pull the finger out, get a work visa, and move to Canada's west coast.'"

He arrived here in May of that year. "There wasn't as much snow as I'd thought there'd be," he says with a straight face. A non-skier, poor Sam was worried that he wouldn't fit in, especially given what he'd heard about the place. "My friends in England had all told me 'Don't go to Whistler. It's way too cliquey. You'll never get accepted there.' But that's where I wanted to go. I wanted a taste of mountain life!"

But first he had to get a job. "So I wandered around the village and handed out my CVs." He stops. Smiles. "I handed out five in one week... which, I know now, is nothing for Whistler. But at the time I thought it was a lot..."

Nobody bit in the beginning. "Which was fine with me," says Sam. "I mean, there were dudes on bikes everywhere I looked. I could see lifts that would take me up into the mountains anytime I wanted..." He grabs a breath. Lets a few more beats go by. "And then the bike park opened. Oh my God! I lived one minute from the lift. Suddenly I wasn't all that bummed about not having a job."

When the guys at Fanatyk Co. finally called him in for an interview, Sam definitely had mixed feelings. "I wasn't sure I wanted to work anymore. But the more I thought about it, the more it became clear: this is what I do. This is what I'm good at. And besides — I really enjoy it." So he went to the interview, showed them his stuff — "They pointed to the back of the bike and said 'what's this?' and I said 'a derailleur.'" — and promptly got the job. He laughs. "Later they told me that if I'd answered with a fancy technical term they would have hired somebody else."

The crux of Sam's story turns on what happened next. "I really enjoyed my first season at the shop," he recounts. "There's a whole crew of experienced people there and I learned a lot." But when summer came to an end, the bike shop returned to its skiing roots and Sam realized he had to make new plans. "I really wasn't sure what to do," he says. "Originally the idea was to stay in Whistler just for the summer..."

But then his boss approached him with surprising proposal. "He asked me 'Do you wanna stick around for the winter?' and I said 'You know I've never skied before, right?' and he said 'Yeah. Yeah. Whatever, it's no problem. You wanna stick around?' And I said 'Sure.'"

Hang on a second. The owner of a shop reputed for its insider knowledge and "core" skier credentials was offering a job to a 22-year old biker from Bristol with absolutely no skiing experience? Clearly there was more to this kid than what was written on his resume. "At first I felt like a bit of an imposter," Sam admits. "I mean, it's all pretty intimidating when you're new to it. But it got easier with time."

Indeed — he's still here a year later, living his mountain dreams. Although not yet fully converted to the sliding-on-snow thing (he had surgery on his hand last year, so didn't start skiing until March), Sam understands its potential. "If I can learn to look forward to winter as much as I look forward to summer," he says with a grin, "well, that's when I'll be able to say I'm a real Whistlerite."