Introduction by Ben Harmanus Interview by Oliver Nermerich & Christoph Böttcher Photography by Martin Fussenegger, Dan Busta, Lukas v. Monkiewitsch & Anto Old school photos tracked down by Hugo Pena
Hey Jochen, how are you?
I am fine. Thank you. I hope you too are doing well.
For all the new-schoolers who are not aware, who is Jochen Smuda? How would you describe yourself and how you are viewed within the blade scene?
I am 29 years old, living in Berlin, and running the clothing brand Ucon with my friends. I am very happy and thankful how things have come across in the recent years. It was a big step for us all moving Ucon to Berlin, but I am very glad that we did. I have met a lot of great people and made true friends here. I am grateful for the chance I was given to not miss out on such amazing experiences. I can’t really tell you how I am seen in the rollerblading community, but I can tell you that rollerblading taught me a lot of things over the years and made me to the person I am right now. I still have a lot of rollerblading friends all over the world from all of the tours and contests I have participated in around the globe. For me, those are the things that count. Not what other people think.
Can you tell us about anything you have going on right now? What things have you been up to lately?
I am working primarily with Martin, Fabian, and Kwame to build up a strong base for Ucon here in Berlin. I have been involved with that project for ten years now and it is still going and growing step by step. We went through a lot of tough times over the past few years, but always came back and survived. As everybody here knows the rollerblading industry is not the strongest. It is a very tough business and I truly have the greatest respect for all companies out there giving their best for the sport. Besides that I just try to meet up with my girlfriend as much as possible and hang out with my friends here in Berlin. I’m just trying to enjoy this great city as much as possible.
What did you and Martin have in mind when founding UCON? Did you plan to start up a company that would exist for the length of the sport or did you just want to put out a few shirts in the name of a fun experiment?
When you start a business you never know where it will go. We wanted to be a part of the whole movement with our own small company. That was all that counted, selling some shirts and doing something we liked. We never planned to still exist three years or even five years later – at least not in the beginning. We just let it happen and it turned out better and better as time went on. We worked every free minute outside of school and university, and we realized that it could work out even better when we worked fulltime. So, one thing led to another and now, it is what it is. We are still here and survived some very hard times. I think it was, and still is, more like a vision that came to life and showed a lot can happen when you believe in it and work on it with full focus.
What inspired your designs at the beginning? How did the move to Berlin change the look/direction of the company?
The look and direction of a company should be flexible everyday. I think this had nothing to do with our move to Berlin in particular. You get inspiration everyday, you want to move everyday, and you search for the challenge everyday. Our company is still very small and has the right to grow and identify itself. We make clothes we love, we love every piece we produce, and this makes our brand authentic and real. We don’t produce any items we wouldn’t wear ourselves.
What is the greatest challenge when it comes to running UCON?
That is really hard to pick out. It is all connected somehow. A huge challenge to keep the baby alive exists and it’s even more of a challenge to allow it to grow in the right direction.
If UCON was a person, what would be its three major characteristics?
It would be a very friendly, open-minded, and reliable dude that you want hang out with all the time.
What are your current main goals in life? What motivates you the most in your daily life?
It is important to have goals in life. For me, it is a motivation to do something I really like. As far as main goals, I would have to say living a happy life and everything that comes along with it. A job with challenges, finding true friends. I am not talking about a lot of buddies. I mean good friends. A caring girlfriend that truly loves you, lasting health, and of course my own small family one day. These are what motivate me both now and in the long-term.
And now, the retrospective look-back. What were you doing 10 years ago? What was your main goal and motivation back then?
The main thing at that time was rollerblading. I couldn’t think of anything else. I went out with my friends every day, we watched every video, we 360ed the jump-ramp even if it rained really hard. It was a great time when nothing could really stop us. I wanted to learn new tricks, sure. I guess that is what every rollerblader wants. I would say it completely took over my life. I was very deeply involved behind the scenes as well. It is difficult to imagine that now, but I turned pro at a time when a lot of money was coming into our sport. Big tours, nice hotels, big contests, a lot of media, etc… I enjoyed it a lot and it sure motivated us all to get better and better. I tried to focus on school as well, and now I am really happy that I did, but there is no doubt that I had rollerblading in my mind 24/7, every second of the day. It was a nice, unstoppable, careless feeling, which I definitely miss a bit nowadays.
I remember seeing you on TV in 1998 rocking the Paris Bercy street course. Out of nowhere you popped up at the contest. Most of the people hadn’t seen anything from you before the Paris contest. And then, after the contest in which you skated pretty well you were labeled as “The German Wunderkind” by the Rollerblading Media. Describe your experience with all the hype surrounding you and Rollerblading in general.
Like I said, it was a crazy time. We had a lot of rollerblading media. In Germany alone we had five magazines. It is maybe similar to skiing or BMX nowadays. We competed in contests every weekend, regular photo shoots, interviews constantly, and all that came with it. It was a great experience and I am very sure that I won’t have any others like that in my life again, so it was important to me. Every day something new happened, a new video, a new pro skater, a new interview, and so on. Everything happened very fast. The hype grew to massive levels, but on the flipside it all disappeared just as fast.
How did you deal with the pressures and expectations that were brought to you at competitions?
I skated competitions because they were a lot of fun. Meeting up with friends, hanging out, and have a good time… that is what it was all about. I didn’t really feel any pressure while skating in competitions. I wanted to skate a good run and that was all. Sometimes I was satisfied, sometimes not. I think that is how it always goes in life. Try your best, and if you fall down then try again.
What has changed since then? How have you changed, how has your relation to Rollerblading changed, and how has Rollerblading itself changed? And, most importantly, what do you think about the changes?
Things just change. That is life. I think a lot of people can’t really accept change or feel uncomfortable with it. Everybody thought that everything would stay like it was or develop in an even better way, but nobody could accept the changes when the whole building went down. A lot of people dropped rollerblading, a lot of companies left the sport’s industry, and so on. But, in my opinion changes in general are a good thing. Changes mean closing old doors and open new ones – room for new ideas. I don’t want to refer this to rollerblading only, but to my personal life as well. Changes are important because they keep us going. Without changes there would be no progress. For me, rollerblading is not the main focus of life anymore, but this doesn’t mean that I don’t have it in my heart. You don’t have to rollerblade everyday to be a rollerblader. Things just change and for me it is important to recognize that changes and live them. I want to progress in every part of my life.
Looking back on everything you experienced in Rollerblading (contests, tours, friendships, business, etc…), please share your favorite memories of the last 10+ years with us. What was the best contest you were involved in, which tour was a blast beyond others, what was the funniest situation you’ve experienced, etc…?
It is hard to tell because we really had a lot of great times. If I were to pick one period of time I would have to say around 1998. The Salomon tours were massive. It was always fun to hang out with Aaron Feinberg, Jake Elliot, and all of those guys. We went on big tours all around the world, entered the nicest contests, partied hard at nights, and of course there was the skating. It was the time where I met all those skaters I had only known from videos. It was a strange feeling for me to skate with Dustin Latimer in the same heat – at that time anyway. They were my role models, I knew every trick in every section with every song, and then… you stand in front of them and skate together. I laugh when I look back now, but at that time it was the greatest thing in life that could happen to me.
A few years ago someone told me Jochen Smuda could do every trick there is. How much of your ability in blading is the result of hard work and how much is talent?
Haha, I never could do every trick out there. Honestly, my trick vocabulary isn’t that big at all. I never went blading to train for any special trick. Blading means a lot of fun and it should not be connected with any “training”. Of course, sometimes you really want to learn a specific trick, but when you loose the fun while blading, the downside will soon be apparent.
Which person/ skater has been the greatest source of inspiration to you since you started rollerblading?
Who is the biggest rollerblading talent out there currently?
In my opinion, the biggest talent which rollerblading has ever seen is Dustin Latimer. There is nothing that touched me more than his skating. Nobody had a better control over eight wheels than him. Possibly, Jona Messerli. But, you get the point.
You reached the ripe old age of 29 years. You are still shredding, right? How many times a week currently? Does your age already affect your skating ability, and if it does, in what way? What do you do to stay in shape? Do you feel that you are in a good shape?
How many times a week? Better ask how many times a month, haha! I would say I definitely have periods where I skate more, and then I totally lose skating on the other side. I do a lot of sports on the other side as well. Regular things like jogging, soccer, cycling, etc… This keeps me in pretty good shape, so it’s all good. Of course, I would say the age for sure affects skating. Maybe not too much the ability, but of course the drive to skate hard. This is also the reason why I respect Jon Julio so much. It just makes me happy to see him skate and rock the streets. What he gave to rollerblading is not possible to put in words.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years from now?
Nobody can tell what time brings. I hope I am healthy and lucky. Nothing else counts.
In celebration of UCONs 10 years anniversary this year and Christmas approaching fast, Jochen was kind enough to offer a 10 % discount on any UCON gear sold through the UCON online shop for all Be-Mag readers up until December 24th, 2011. Simply use code BEUCON10OFF upon checkout. Not sure what to get? Well, we recommend… everything. Have fun shopping!
Find more ‘Blast from The Past’ articles on Be-Mag here.