He’s unstoppable, unyielding, tempestuous. A professional snowboarder, a musician, and a free spirit. Acknowledging no limits, accepting no norms, no hurdles can slow him down. Pat Burgener has flown to the sun and beyond – and kept his wings intact.
Pat Burgener was born in Lausanne in 1994, the middle child of three brothers. Max, Pat, and Marc-Antoine – three sons whose parents expected them to play one sport and one instrument each. Age five, Pat took up the guitar. Although his first sport was tennis, he soon switched to skiing, and ultimately to snowboarding. School wasn‘t for him. He did show an interest in languages, music and the arts, but when it came to maths, biology, and chemistry, the wild child could hardly be kept in his chair. He rebelled.
The struggles of a free spirit
“School did nothing for me – really, nothing!” the now 25-year-old Pat tells me, with feeling. We’re sitting in a cafe in Lausanne, the sun illuminating the old town’s cobbles, a couple of rooibos teas on the table in front of us. “At the time, other people had a tendency to make life difficult for me, because I questioned the ‘normal’ way of doing things, simple as that. And I stood up for myself,“ he says and takes a sip of tea. “Too often, we pay too much attention to what other people think, or what the ‘done’ thing is. I‘m not a disrespectful person, you know. But I do believe we have to free ourselves from the reins of what society tells us to do in order to find our own way in life. Unfortunately, people who don’t stand up for themselves end up letting others dictate their lives,” and it‘s such a waste, says Pat.
He took his time learning that lesson himself. “Believe it or not, for a long time, I was actually ashamed to tell people that I was a professional snowboarder.” He catches my eye and pauses, lingering on the significance of what he‘s just said. After a moment, he continues, “Being a professional snowboarder – that way of life – it just didn’t fit the system so it was ‘wrong.’” For free-spirit Pat, that way of thinking is a nonsensical and boring thought prison. But in Switzerland, anything that is not strictly business tends to get a bad rap. Sports and music included.
Still, Pat did not let the constraints of society’s accepted values and life choices stop him. His father rented an apartment in Saas-Fee each summer so that Pat could ride his board year-round. As ever, he veered from the norm and chose not to focus on any particular discipline. He took to all three – halfpipe, slopestyle, and big air. And, at the age of 14, his exceptional talent earned him a spot on the Swiss national team, at which point he left school, quickly becoming the rising star of the national team. Soon, all eyes were on him, awaiting Olympic medals.
The trouble with fame
“How did finding fame at such a young age affect you?” I ask, and Pat goes silent for a moment. “It was never my goal to get famous. I only ever trod my own path and followed my heart” he explains. But travelling the world at 14 years old, having nothing but the slopes and the spotlight to worry about, does come with its own challenges. Pat‘s own rebellious nature, his inability to accept limits, and his desire to enjoy life to the fullest, almost ended his career early. The victories were drying up, and he was always injured. “The pressure was too much and I got distracted,“ he continues. The injuries started in 2013, and they kept coming, one after the other. “Suddenly I realized that snowboarding could be over for me. In 2014, I was so far from a comeback that I was thinking about quitting altogether,“ he reveals somberly. Exiled from the slopes, he turned to music, playing guitar and piano for days on end, composing songs born from his fears. He found peace in music, as well as renewed inspiration and strength… ultimately he found himself. The music brought a newfound modesty, it brought him back to earth. With this new mindset, he managed the jump back to the top of the snowboard world with ease.
Freedom and the meaning of life
“I need my music as well as my sport. It grounds me, makes me stronger,” he explains taking in the cafe around him. The tea in his cup grows cold as he tells his story. In addition to his pro snowboarder career, Pat writes songs, records them, produces his own videos and goes on tour. He’s now under contract with Universal Music. However, he only signed the deal on the condition that he would retain complete artistic freedom, something he’s keen to emphasize. He’s uncompromising.
So how do you define freedom? I ask, expecting a contemplative silence. Pat fires back almost instantly: “Quite simply: deciding for yourself where you go and what you do each day. You control your life, nobody else.” I throw a second punch: “Are you free?” He laughs, “I am the freest person in the world! I have arrived at a point where no one gives me instructions or decides what I should do. It’s taken some time, but I’ve got there.”
“For a long time, I was actually ashamed
to tell people that I was
a rofessional snowboarder!”
Icarus and the moral of the story
We talk about his songs for a while, then about his last album. In the meantime, day has turned to night. Soon Pat will be on stage in the club underneath the cafe we‘re sat in. He should be sparing his voice, but he wants to tell me about why he named his album “Icar“.
“You know the myth of Icarus. The commonly held moral of the story is that you shouldn’t get overconfident because if you push too far, something bad always happens. But that‘s not the whole story. Icarus’ father said that he shouldn’t fly too high, nor too low. In other words, stick to the middle ground, and don’t take any risks. But that’s a terrible message, we all need to find our own way. We should follow Icarus, and fly as high as we want and as high as we can!“ Pat says, voice shaking with passion. “But in the myth, Icarus dies in the end? His death was his punishment for reaching for the divine…“ I reply, struggling with my own grasp of mythology. Pat shakes his head: “That‘s the problem! That’s the way the Icarus myth is interpreted, but who came up with that message? You have to live life! Don’t let anyone tell you how high you should fly or where you can go. Nobody gets to tell me whether I can fly to the sun or even go further. Yes, sometimes you‘ll fly too high. And if you crash, then you simply get up and keep trying. If instead, out of fear, you never try, never follow your heart, you may never find what truly makes you happy. And we all deserve to find that. Don‘t we?”
“Freedom is deciding for yourself where you go and what you do each day.”
Photos: Wabs/Etienne Claret