Matija Milenković – ‘We’re not competing against each other, that’s the beauty of snowboarding’

Words: Miljan Milekić

At 21 years old, Matija Milenković is already the best freestyle snowboarder Serbia ever had, and while that fact says more about the small country in the southeast of Europe than his level of riding, there’s one thing nobody can take away from him – Matija is damn good on his board. Already securing two Europa Cup wins and a few podiums, along with some noticeable World Cup results, Matija is carving his own path and earning the reputation of “one to watch.” We were lucky enough to sit down with him and discuss his snowboard beginnings, various obstacles he had to overcome, the recently finished season, as well as his plans for the future.

First of all, how are you? Did you get to catch some rest after the long season?
Matija: Well, now that you’re asking, I don’t know. I’ve spent a month or so home in Kragujevac, so I got to catch some rest, but mentally, I’m not there yet. I need like ten days of surfing somewhere – that would be perfect. (laughs) I’m going to Hintertux in Austria with a friend for a few days. We’re just going to ride casually with no pressure of any kind, so that will be the real rest. 

How happy are you with your accomplishments this season? It may not have been your most successful ever, but you still had some great results.
Well, to be completely honest, I’ve written this season off before it even started. I had absolutely no expectations since the last year was the worst in my life. I had lots of stuff going on. There were some changes on the Kopaonik mountain, and I couldn’t train so much there, but more importantly, I’ve split up with my coach. I didn’t know who I would be working with or where I would be, and my only goal this season was to sort that out so I could keep riding. However, after a while, I got in touch with a coach from Slovenia, and a couple of months later, I started working with him. I still hadn’t expected much, as I was slowly joining the team and adapting to their system, but from this perspective, I’m more than happy with what we accomplished.

I’m just sorry that I had a little bit of bad luck or had some bad rides when I was in the best shape and had the best chance to win medals in Europa Cup stops. But in general, I think this was one of my best seasons so far, and I expect that I’ll see the real results in the next one. I went back to basics, I worked a lot on technical stuff, rotations, and thing like that. I’ve spent a lot of time correcting some things that I was doing wrong, and I feel like I had really grown mentally as well. And it already shows – I have doubled or even tripled the percentage of the runs I have landed. In previous years, I went all-in, without any thinking or tactics, and I landed maybe 50% of contests, and I had been lucky that some of those were good enough for some great results. This year, I landed over 90%, which is a massive difference. But like I said, next season is when I expect to see some real progress.

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In the past three years, the Covid-19 pandemic made life harder for everyone, but how challenging was it for you? How hard was it to balance between travels, contest cancellations, and training sessions, knowing that for the most part, you had to travel abroad to train?
Matija: It was hard. I was lucky that, when it all started, I was still working with my former coach, who was arranging everything. If it was up to me to schedule all the tests and everything, I wouldn’t go to half of the events I went to. (laughs) I believe we had more than 30 tests in one season, and I was positive three times – two times just before travels and the third time before the Europa Cup at Kopaonik, where I ended up on a podium. So yeah, it was hard, but I don’t think I had it worse than anyone else. We were all in it together, and I don’t think I have missed any more than the other guys. For me, the biggest setback was the financial one.

Yeah, that is also something I wanted to ask you – how hard is it to spend enough days on the snow, knowing that the conditions in Serbia are far from perfect, and you pretty much have to travel to other countries if you want to progress and catch up with the world’s best?
Matija: I think that we, well, actually me, as I’m the only one from Serbia that rides the World Cup events, but I believe that together with Slovenian riders, we are at the top two places in how many days of training we manage to get with the budgets we have. The ways we manage to catch around 150 days of training with our budgets, really require some serious math. (laughs) I literally moved to Vogel this season, and that helped me a lot. I’ve spent two months there, and it was a huge step up for me. Until now, I was always traveling back and forth and combining it with some time at Kopaonik, so there were lots of days in the season that could have been better used. So this year I’ve made this step up, and I think it’s paid off. I already see the difference – I feel much better on the board, and I’ve made some real progress.

So, let’s go back in time a bit – how long do you ride, and how did you get into snowboarding in the first place, knowing that, especially freestyle, isn’t very popular in Serbia? I mean, I can’t remember if we ever had the professional freestyle snowboarder.
Matija: Yeah, I can’t remember if we ever had a professional freestyle snowboarder. We had some good guys who were riding some international contests, but I don’t think we ever had anyone riding full-time. So it was hard because there was hardly anyone I could ask for advice in terms of what to do, how to train, and what should be my next step. It was all up to my coach and me, and we both learned as we went. But on the other hand, I haven’t entered snowboarding with any particular goals in mind.

Back when I was seven, or even before that, I was in love with extreme sports, and it was just a matter of time before I’ll get involved in any of them. I was skiing a little, and then, totally by accident, I stepped on a snowboard one day and never looked back. It was the only thing on my mind. My mother was working at a hotel at Kopaonik, and I could stay there for free with her,  so when the season comes, I was there every single day I could. I was really lucky because if it wasn’t for her and that job, I could’ve never afforded to spend so much time on snow. So, I would get up, and start looking for my next “victim” – a person I would bug to ride with me. I was such a menace that people would avoid me after a while (laughs), but they also liked me as I was good. So I would be on the track from nine to five, come back to grab a bite and be back on the snow until ten. I was so in love with it, but if someone had told me that in 10 or 15 years I would be doing double-corks or triple corks, I wouldn’t believe them. So it was all step by step.

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We had some exchanges on Instagram where we both mentioned how much we love Max Parrot, his riding, and how much respect his life journey in the last few years. So I guess it’s fair to say he is one of your role models? Who would you say were the riders that inspired you, and influenced your riding style the most since there weren’t many riders in Serbia you could learn from.
Matija: Actually, in the beginning, there were lots of people who were helping me, supporting me, and teaching me. Even after I exceeded their level and there wasn’t anything I could learn from them anymore, I still had the support of the whole Serbian snowboard community. But at the time, I already had access to the internet, and I started drawing inspiration from there, and the first snowboarder that influenced me, and I still love him, is Torstein Horgmo. I kept telling myself that I was going to be a filmmaker and had no interest in riding contests. (laughs.)

I also loved Mark McMorris who was starting to kill it at the X Games around that time. And, since you mentioned Max Parrot – I had a chance to rise some contests with him. I wouldn’t really say he’s my favorite rider, but he’s certainly someone that any snowboarder can learn a lot. As a matter of fact, everyone can draw so much inspiration from him – beating cancer and then taking two Olympic medals, including one gold – that’s really something else. Shaun White also has to be up there – he’s done some things that maybe no one ever will be able to repeat. He carved his own path in the world of snowboarding, and that’s something I can only hope to do – to be myself and continue making my own way.

But then, I came to the point where I ride the same contests as the best snowboarders in the world. There were a few ones where I was dropping in just before, or just after McMorris for example, and when you see those guys in person and realize that there are so many amazing riders, but there are still two or three of them in a league of their own, you just have to wonder how do they do it. You see him or Parrot doing the straight air, and the next run he’s already dropping triple corks. It’s one thing what you see on the TV, but when you’re there, and you spend some time with them and see their work ethics, it’s just incredible. Oh yeah – Marcus Kleavlend! Mark McMorris and Marcus Kleveland are probably two riders that inspire me the most right now.

Matija Milenković / Photo: GEPA pictures/ Christian Walgram

You made a name for yourself as a Big Air and Slopestyle rider. Where do you feel more comfortable, and what do you like more? How different is the mindset in those two disciplines?
Matija: I’m a Big Air rider. That’s what I ride the most, and where I had the best results. But lately, I’m starting to like Slopestyle even more, and I feel more comfortable riding it than I did before. It’s a different experience. Both disciplines require you to be fully focused, but on slightly different things. Big Air generally means bigger tricks, but Slopestyle is a bit more tactical.
For example, in my last contest in Switzerland, I had a chance to qualify for the finals in both disciplines. It was by far the strongest Europa Cup stop I was riding, and I managed to qualify for the finals in Big Air.

With the Slopestyle – the practice was awful, the wind was too strong, and I couldn’t do the run I had planned. So when the eliminations started, there were no calculations. I went with three double corks – cab 900, front 1080, and back 1080, and I believed I was in tenth place, with the top eight progressing to the finals. So I knew I had to step up my second run. I had planned cab double 900, front double 1080, and back double 1260. And for the rail, I had planned a switch blunt to 720 out. I was so focused on my jumps, I was visualizing them, analyzing every potential mistake. I was twice as good as on my first run, but I completely forgot that I was supposed to be in switch for the rail part. I got so confused, that I got numb a couple of meters before the rail, and just fell in the middle of it. So I ended up in tenth place. But yeah, I guess that’s how you learn.

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A big part of the snowboarding culture is filming video parts, which you already mentioned. Do you still have any ambition on maybe doing a street part sometime in the future, and do you find any inspiration in urban surroundings at all?
Matija: A bit earlier, when we were talking about my role models, I somehow forgot to mention the guy who may be my favorite rider at the moment – Seb Toots. Whenever I see any of his street edits, I want to take my board and go outside. (laughs) So, I would really love to try, but in the past few years, I shifted my focus to the contests. I feel like I have unconsciously moved away from the creative side of snowboarding, which was why I got into it in the first place. So, that’s something I will definitely look forward to doing in the future. I would love to just go on a trip and be Zeb Powell for a week. (laughs)

It’s hard to do it here, as we don’t really have the right conditions or even enough snow in our cities. But it’s definitely something I would love to do. And it’s also hard to do it during the contest season. You have so much going on, you’re constantly on the road, and there’s simply not enough time. Hopefully starting next season I will get a manager, or someone to help me out with all this stuff – travel arrangements, talking to sponsors, because I do all that by myself right now. On one side it’s cool because I meet so many people, but on the other, it takes away my focus from the snowboarding itself.

Over the years, snowboarding was always associated with adrenaline, energy, and all things creative, which has also translated to the music that was popular in the riders’ community. Do you listen to music while you ride, and what’s in your headphones when you do?
Matija: That depends on an individual, but I would agree that everyone in snowboarding has some kind of creative outlet. And almost everyone loves music. And I don’t feel I’m any different. But I never listen to music in contests. I listen to it when I’m at Vogel, and ride for my own pleasure, with no one else around me. And then, I usually listen to some chill hip hop playlists on Spotify, stuff from Jay Z, Kanye, The Weeknd, Drake… Mostly hip hop.

And also, I feel like it’s impossible to be a professional snowboarder these days without a strong presence on Social Media, especially Instagram, which is something you do very well. How important is it to you to connect with people in this way?
Matija: Instagram is everything right now. It’s all about the influence. There are potential sponsors out there who care more about the number of followers and the reach you have than how many wins or podiums you have. It just has a greater value to the companies you’re representing. And to me, Instagram helped me a lot. I try not to spend as much time scrolling down my feed before I get addicted (laughs), but so many people got in touch with me that way. A few partners, a couple of sponsors, I mean, you reached out to me on Instagram about this interview. So, it’s probably the best thing that could happen to me in terms of marketing and showcasing what I do.

One more thing about this is that, although I don’t think I am a celebrity in any way or anything like this, I do have some leverage in the snowboarding community, and I can influence young people a bit. And there is no better feeling in the world, than someone writing me that it was because of me that they started riding. It also inspired me to look back and give back to the community and the sport that gave me so much. A while I go, some people from the City of Kragujevac reached out to me, and we did a camp with children without parental care. And I went to Kopaonik with these kids and spent a couple of days in the snow with them. And it was such an amazing experience – I loved every minute of it, and that’s something I will definitely try to do more in the future. 

And it’s always a great feeling to show snowboarding to some new people. You know, snowboarding is constantly growing. It may not be the most popular sport, but it’s a massively popular hobby in Serbia. There are many people who ride recreationally, and it’s becoming more popular every season. More young people are now in a position to do well-paid jobs, and they are getting into snowboarding. Also, many celebrities around the world are getting into it, and I think it’s really cool and really important for the sport.

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And it all leads to the progress of the sport, which is insane, year after year.
Matija: Oh, yeah. Every time we say we’ve hit the ceiling, someone does a trick that was considered impossible just five months ago. So I don’t even want to talk about the limits, as I have no idea where the limit is. We just have to follow the progression and do our best not to be left behind.

Yeah, like Shaun White said after these last Olympics – it was maybe the first time he wasn’t angry for missing out on a podium, as he felt he was beaten fair and square by the younger riders.
Matija: Exactly. In the past, the only times he didn’t win was when he had fallen or messed up his run. And now he did his best and ended up in fourth place. But that’s it, that’s the nature of the sport. We’re not competing against each other, and that’s the beauty of snowboarding. Of course, you don’t anyone to beat you, I wouldn’t mind if you make a small mistake, and I end up winning. (laughs) But when the rider nails their run, we’re all happy for them, and we are there to give our support.

You have zero influence on how somebody else is going to ride. Everyone is doing their thing, and we will see in the end who will come up on top. Maybe the judges can sometimes have an impact, but again, it’s not between the riders. There was never a conflict or a toxic rivalry between two riders about their runs. So, I’m the same way. I’m never angry if I manage to do everything I wanted and planned to do and still miss out. I hate being fourth or being thirteenth when twelve is advancing to the finals, for example. But if I ride the best I can, and I still get beaten, then fuck it, it is what it is.

At this point, you already had some big results such as two Europa Cup wins, and multiple National Championships. Which one would you say it’s your biggest achievement, and which event do you like the most, regardless of the results?
Those two Europa Cup wins were amazing, obviously, one at Bjelašnica and the other at Kopaonik. And that one is really special for me. We had no idea what will happen until the very end. The conditions were really hard, we were on the track until 10 pm. But the contest I’m the proudest of is Europa Cup at Kopaonik a year later when I finished third. I caught Covid shortly before the contest, and we were working on it a month in advance. There was a great media campaign, all the local outlets were writing about it, and a big part of it was because of me. And some eight days before the contest, I tested positive.

So, for the next few days, I was tested on a daily basis. And it was the second time I had Covid, but it was much better than six months ago when I was really sick. I had no symptoms this time. So, I was tested every day, and luckily, a day before the first practice I got my second negative test. So, we went there, and I was really excited. Lots of fans came to see us, and I rode really well. But on the Big Air day, there was a terrible fog. The contest was scheduled for 3 pm, but around 6 pm, when nothing happen, I went to the hotel to catch some rest. And I can’t even remember when we actually started the practice. And I was good up until the last few runs. So, I started panicking. I was never so afraid in my life. There were so many people there, and everyone was expecting me to do well since I won the event a year before. And on my first run in qualifications, I just fell like a potato. (laughs) I just fell in the middle of the flat section, with zero speed. But I managed to gain some composure, got my game back, and in the second run I qualified for the finals.

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I think I was the happiest I’ve ever been in a contest. (laughs) In the finals, I had no fear, I was fully focused and ready to drop in. And I had a great first run, but in the second, I felt a strong wind hitting me in the chest, probably like 40 km/h, and I just went straight over the jump, thinking I will be able to repeat the run. However, the rules say that because I got over the jump, and just rode beside it, judges had to count it as a jump. So I would only have points from two runs, compared to everyone else’s three, and it was all up to the third run. I was so angry and wanted to prove a point, that I jumped so far in the third run, that I almost went over the landing. But I landed it perfectly and took third place. And it was all happening at 11 pm, so we were all dead tired, but the morning after, I was so happy that I managed to pull it off.

And for the second part of your question – I was at Air + Style in China, and it was amazing. We rode at the same platform that was made for the Big Air events at this year’s Olympics. And it was the first time at the Big Air contest in the urban surroundings that the platform was built, and not made of scaffolding. It was a huge innovation, and the whole event was just amazing, although I fell. (laughs) And the afterparty was great as well. That’s also very important, parties, concerts, music, connection with other riders. It’s all part of the sport.

So, to slowly bring this one to an end – what’s next for you? What can we expect from you in the future?
I really have high expectations for myself. I made some plans, that will require 100% of my focus, but I’m really excited about everything. And besides the contest, I am trying to create something more of myself than just an athlete. I don’t want to box myself. I want to be the ambassador for snowboarding in Serbia and to promote it the best I can. I definitely want to explore the creative side of snowboarding as well, and try to get to the next Olympics. That would be my ultimate goal, but it’s still four years away, and I need to go step by step. I’m planning to train even more and put all of my energy into it. Hopefully, I will be financially able to have even more training days in the upcoming season. But yeah, I want to have “Olympian” written next to my name. I will enjoy every part of the journey, as that’s the most important part. It’s why I started doing this in the first place. You simply can’t be a professional snowboarder without loving every aspect of it.

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