A banged-up wooden plank covered in ratty old carpet, rusty metal staples, and decaying inner-tube straps isn’t the first image that comes to mind when we think of innovations in snowboard gear, but there it is: The “Skiboard” 12-year-old Tom Sims cobbled together in his 7th grade shop class in 1963—currently on view at the Colorado Ski & Snowboard Museum in Vail. The subsequent prototypes he produced would forever change the way we think about sliding down slopes in the snow. Within a couple of decades, his invention would shake up the entire ski industry, give way to a new Olympic sport, and forever alter the mountain lifestyle.
Sims, 61, died on Wednesday after suffering a sudden cardiac arrest, according to a statement issued by Sims Snowboards on Thursday, Sept. 13. As we mourn his death, his life is worth reflecting on for anyone interested in gear, innovations, and big ideas. His legacy serves as a reminder of the simple fact that, even in this modern age of high-tech R&D labs, some of tomorrow’s brightest ideas could well be brewing in a junior high shop class somewhere, or in somebody’s basement or garage.
Tom Sims wasn’t the first kid to stand sideways on a sled and get tossed on his ass, or even the first to patent something like a snowboard to try to do something about it—that distinction belongs to Gunnar Burgeson, Harvey Burgeson, and Vern Wicklund of the Bunker Company in Oak Park, Illinois, whose Bunker Sno-Surf and 1939 U.S. Patent are on display near Sims’ boards in the museum. But the young surfer and skateboarder was the first to realize the potential in taking his California beach lifestyle to the mountains. He was a thinker and a tinkerer from a young age, and he lived to see his dream of riding sideways through life realized: When the surf was up, he went surfing. When it was down, he went skateboarding.
Sims was the original longboarder—working to improve skateboard decks, trucks, wheels, and kicktail design to make it feel more like surfing. And when he realized that snowboarding could give him an even bigger rush, he returned to his middle school middling and set out to challenge the supremacy of two-plankers at ski areas across the country.
He wasn’t in it alone: Sherman Poppen’s Snurfer boards were all the rage in the 60s and 70s, and by the time Sims returned to his snowboard concept in earnest, a number of others—including Chuck Barfoot and Jake Burton—were bringing innovations of their own. Still, Sims is credited with many of the inventions that have shaped modern snowboarding. Among them: the first signature pro model snowboard (Terry Kidwell, 1985), the first snowboard with metal edges, the first folding high-back bindings, and the first women’s specific snowboard (Shannon Dunn pro model, 1994).
Sims himself could ride with the best of them. He won or made the podium in many of the earliest snowboard contests, dating as far back as a 1982 event at Berthoud Pass, Colorado, and frequently found himself in competition with Burton on and off the slopes.
Just about everyone who ever stepped on a snowboard owes him a debt of gratitude, and many riders have been posting tributes to a RIP Tom Sims Facebook page. But to truly honor the spirit of Tom Sims, you’ll have to paddle out to your favorite break, bomb your favorite hill, or head for the closest patch of snow and carve it up for all it’s worth. Or, better yet, put your mind to the task of improving the experience of any of the above through some ingenious innovation of your own.