Ross Rebagliati: A discussion about sports, stigma, perseverance, and beyond.
The word legendary might come to mind when you hear the name Ross Rebagliati. Ross is a legend at the intersection of cannabis and sports, and a pivotal figure in policy change and advocacy when it comes to this amazing plant and its potential inside and outside of the performance space. We were honored to chat with Ross about his full-circle journey when it comes to cannabis and advocacy, and the important pathways to accessibility he continues to build in the cannabis community.
When Rebagliati got his start in sports, snowboarding was just hitting the scene and wasn’t fully legalized in Canada. Ross began making snowboards in his woodworking classes at school before he took up the sport. It was a year before snowboarding was legalized that Ross decided to give up ski racing which was a huge gamble and bold move at that point. “Ski racing is expensive and we spent years doing it, and I was getting good at it. When you are 15 and you are doing something, you’re good at it. Like junior hockey players are 15. It’s a major thing to quit a sport that you’re good at to do a sport you’re not allowed to do.”
For the next few years, Rebagliati’s dad took them around major ski resorts where snowboarding was allowed. Ross’s competitive nature from ski racing carried over to his passion for snowboarding and it wasn’t long before he was involved in professional competitions. In ‘89 he was doing the amateur circuit tour in BC and starting to win more races and freestyle competitions. Ross continued to find more success; he spent several years on the World Cup and continued to climb to the pinnacle that was to be his Olympic Gold at the 1998 Nagano games.
Nagano came later in Ross’s career as he had been competing for about 10 years and the journey was full of ups and downs. “I had been living in Europe for 6 years at that point, because I was on the world cup tour you know, isolated, no cell phones, no internet right, this was pre-internet, so I’m really there by myself and just focused. There were lots of ups and downs as a Canadian athlete trying to find sponsorship because prior to Nagano there were no national teams, nothing like that, so it was all pro. So all of my sponsors were based in Europe.” This led to a dynamic where basically no one in Canada knew what Ross was doing. “Meanwhile, I am on live TV in Europe, and like my name is big in Europe, and no one even knows who I am in Canada.”
This was not the first time that Ross had to deal with a polarized duality between two very different worlds and lifestyles. Rebagliati’s name soon became one that was known on a much grander scale when everything changed in 1998. Leading up to the games, Ross was ranked in the top 3 in the world for three consecutive years and a major player/contender heading into the games. “Then we had a huge shift with the association because the Snowboard Federation, once we got accepted to the Olympics basically got shut down by the Ski Federation who wanted to snowboard themselves to the Olympics.” This act ultimately killed the snowboarding federation and forced them to quit the tours that they were being paid to compete on. “What they did is they started a different tour, and all the guys that weren't in the top 20 on the real tour went over for a free ride around the world on the new tour.” This shake-up got political and caused a lot of disruption and fighting over who would get the opportunity to compete. Ross held out until the last minute a year before the games before switching tours because he was in the top 3 rankings, which would have been a major sacrifice if he wanted to get to the Olympics, but he was willing to put it on the table. “There were sponsorship battles leading up to the Olympics, there was politics, and then of course this new thing called ‘drug testing’ that we never heard of before in snowboarding, and none of us were worried about it except for the weed. We didn’t know so we were asking ‘What’s up with the weed?’ We went to UBC and we were asking the doctors. They didn't know either. Like how long weed stays in your system. We’re talking like 1996/1997 right like you have to go to the library still to look up stuff on weed.”
“There were sponsorship battles leading up to the Olympics, there was politics, and then of course this new thing called drug testing that we never heard of before in snowboarding, and none of us were worried about it except for the weed. We didn’t know so we were asking ‘What’s up with the weed?’ We went to UBC and we were asking the doctors. They didn't know either.”
As a consumer, this ambiguity with the cannabis consumption rules brought Ross a lot of anxiety and stress. Cannabis was a major part of Rebagliati’s lifestyle, especially as a non-drinker and non-partier. “No good answers game from anybody, so what we did was, we decided that in April in the springtime after the season in the spring of ‘97 we were gonna stop smoking weed, and go through the whole summer with no weed, do all the drug testing and get to the Olympics finally and smoke some joints right after the Olympics.” Ross went through that entire process and still went through the infamous arrest and traumatic experience in Nagano.
That isn’t to say there were no additional hurdles on the journey to Nagano. Ross opted to participate in a Canadian qualifying race in Whistler in December leading up to the Olympics. He did pretty well in it and continued to tackle the Canadian qualification part of it as well and was in the top 3 in Canada.” I was coming off of knee surgery, like an ACL knee surgery a year and a half before that so even though my points had me in the top 3, I was still recovering from knee surgery.” The next races for the Canadian athletes were in Alberta, Canada, where three additional races would decide who was on the Canadian team. Ross opted to travel to Europe to compete in the last two World Cup races with the guys he would be competing against at the Olympics since he was already a shoe-in for the competition as a top 3 contender. On the trip over, all of Ross’s equipment from boots to boards to bindings were lost. “So I am freaking out, we’re in Switzerland just at the Matterhorn in this little place called Grächen, and no gear at all. The first day I got there, it was the middle of the night, no gear at all. I don’t know what to do. My coach calls me on the phone to the hotel (obviously) because there are no cellphones.’ The coach was calling from the Qualifying races taking place in Alberta, “He goes, ‘Yeah we did the qualification races, you tied for fourth. They are only taking four guys and they're going to take the other guy because you didn’t do the qualification races.” Talk about adding stress to a situation!
Not only had the competitor who tied for 4th never beaten Ross in a race, let alone come close, but he was also much less experienced and accomplished than Rebagliati in the field. Due to poor weather conditions in Whistler and a doctor's note, Ross was able to ask for an exception to the ruling on his ability to compete as the time in Europe gave him time to recover from the knee injury, but the future was not yet clear. At the same time, Ross had to start finding ways to replace his missing equipment while racing in Europe three weeks before Nagano. “I got a board from a guy from France from a sponsor that I used to ride for, Italy gave me a speed suit and bindings, I got a pair of race boots from a coach. They were ski boots even, I wasn’t even in snowboard racing boots.” Through a lot of hard work and problem-solving Ross was able to piecemeal together the whole setup, “Some guys never make it in their whole fucking career ever, like their dream is to get into the top 15. I got 4th place with all this weird gear that I had.” This was followed by a third-place win in Switzerland, right before the Olympics! “That’s two results that you would be happy with for the whole entire season.” After returning home from these amazing wins, Ross got the great news that he had been selected to compete at Nagano.
In a matter of hours, Ross had put together his gear, met the team, and flown out to Japan, where snowboarding was the first race to start the games. “It was the first event of the entire Olympics. We had one day to train and then we race the next morning. So we get to Japan, we go to sleep, wake up in the morning, we train, go to sleep again, wake up and race. Just like that.” The day before the race, Ross was in the zone. He had never felt so good in any prior races. Despite the magnitude of the situation and in stark contrast to many of the competitors, Rebagliati felt calm and confident. “I’m feeling amazing, like I don’t think anyone is going to be able to beat me.” He was rolling into the games feeling 100% with everything firing on all cylinders.
The 1st run pull of three put Ross into a strategically good starting position for the 2nd run. The 2nd run was the run of his life. “It was a ridiculously close time, I think I won by like two-hundredths of a second or something like that. Did the drug test right in the arena. There was an army tent, and it was inside the finish line with like thousands of people there watching. We did our little quick winners ceremony before the official medal ceremony. Right at the bottom, we had a little podium, and then we did our drug test in the army tent. Then we got shuttled down from Nagano from there to receive our medals and yeah, it was nuts. Nike was right there at the finish.” Nike was super excited because they had had a chance to meet Ross as he was driving through Oregon to train at Mt. Hood in the September leading up to the Olympics. There were huge partnership opportunities as Nike sponsored the Canadian team. “They were at the finish line, blown away; they couldn’t believe it. Unbelievable! They came with me down to Nagano on the little van…The award ceremonies were there, we finally got our medals. I got my gold medal and it was basically good to go. We were going from one building where we had the award ceremonies, and we had to cross the street into another building, like a hotel lobby. It was a red carpet with the red velvet thing to guide the athletes through and the fans were on the sides.” Walking to the hotel was full of screaming fans, high intense energy, and even someone trying to grab the gold straight off of Ross’s neck. “We went back to the ski resort, we partied, a crazy party that night. We were partying in the morning when the coaches came into my room and told everybody to get out, and told me I should probably sit down. That’s when they told me that I had tested positive for something, but they didn’t know what it was yet. It was just like a crazy three weeks that you can’t even imagine.” Ross had to take the 2-hour ride to Nagano by himself knowing full well that he had tested positive for cannabis despite trying to be proactive about his consumption to meet all competition rules. “The thing is I did 3 drug tests in Canada right before I got to the Olympics and no news is good news right? I didn’t hear anything about it, obviously, I made the team and obviously I competed, but after the story broke they released those test results and I had tested positive for weed in all of them.” Understandably, Ross didn’t understand how any of this was possible. Here he was, losing his medal, they had literally already taken it away from Ross. He made two appeals to the IOC, where he had to address 30 very conservative and traditional-looking members. “I’m like yeah, I smoke weed, and they don’t get this, right, cause this is like 1998. They think I’m talking about heroin or crack or something. I had stopped smoking so I could meet the criteria for the Olympics, and I was hanging around all my friends still and I thought that was cool, but I was getting secondhand smoke. They didn’t believe me and I had to do another appeal where I just repeated the story again and they didn’t go for it.” After losing his first two appeals he went to the court of arbitration. He was surrounded by very important IOC members and other stakeholders that were very upset that he was in this situation and very supportive of his case. “The lawyers were like ‘look, weed, it turns out, isn’t on the list of banned substances for the IOC. That’s why you tested positive 3 times and you never heard about it. It’s because it wasn’t triggering a red flag because it’s not on the IOC list of banned substances. But, it is on the FIS list of banned substances, the Ski Federation from the World Cup Tour.’” Ross had known that it was on the banned FIS substance list but had assumed it was the same for the IOC, which was probably an oversight. Since then, the IOC has gone on to add cannabis to the banned substance list. This addition is a big reason why we saw Sha'Carri Richardson in trouble last year.
While Ross was being told by his team that everything was going to be fine and that the situation was resolved, the police were telling him this was an open case that was still under investigation that required him to go into the police station. “They actually put me in jail and were processing me under importing a controlled substance into Japan in my body. So, even though the lawyers told me that this is what was going on, the official decision had not been made. They just said this is what their discovery is. Meanwhile, I’m in jail now. I’ve been separated from the Canadian Olympic Association Members and the RCMP guide that was with me and everybody. I’m in jail, and they’re in the lobby of the police station…and I’m being interrogated for hours and hours about cannabis.
“Meanwhile, I’m in jail now. I’ve been separated from the Canadian Olympic Association Members and the RCMP guide that was with me and everybody. I’m in jail, and they’re in the lobby of the police station…and I’m being interrogated for hours and hours about cannabis.”
Meanwhile, I haven’t really slept in… I don't even know how many days that I didn’t really sleep well or eat very well. Because I just came to Japan, there is a 21-hour time difference. I’ve been around the world just recently prior to that in Europe and competing in North America. I have three different time zones, and I just competed in the Olympics. So I’m just like fried.” About two hours into the interrogation, Ross had had enough and said he was done. “So they left me in the room there, and then they came and got me and told me that they had awarded me my medal back and that they couldn’t keep me in jail anymore, because it was going to be too political to keep a gold medalist in jail. I walk out of the jail into the lobby of the hotel and everyone there is cheering because it was just broadcast on whatever radios they had.” That wasn’t the end of Ross’s long and exhausting ordeal, the police wanted to search his hotel room which wasn’t well received.
“Literally a thousand snowboarders from the World Cup tour were there booing the cops, throwing shit, like, it was a major scene, right? The dogs finally went into the room, they searched everything and obviously, everything checked out. The next day Ross was greeted by a standing ovation and was quickly thrust into a world of celebrity. “I walk into my room and my phone rings. This was literally right after the cops left…I’m left finally in my room by myself after all this craziness and media hanging onto the car (the hood of the car) with cameras and flashes. My phone’s ringing in my room, and I’m like there’s no way…like who’s calling me in Japan?” After letting it ring about 20 times Ross was surprised to hear his buddy from Whistler say that Jay Leno wanted him on the Tonight Show the day after tomorrow.
Overnight Rebagliati was a household name. He was on multiple talk shows ranging from Conan to Leno. He was even the center of some sketches on SNL and the Letterman show.
Ross also was a regular on the Mike Bullard show, and things continued to blow right up after that. The problem was that despite the fame and support, Ross was still dealing with stigma financially and when it came to finding a stable career path. “As a Canadian athlete at the Olympics, I actually had to pay a little money to go to the Olympics. I was wicked famous, but I had no job, and I wasn’t making any money. They were flying me around to like Toronto and shit, and I couldn’t go for lunch unless someone took me to lunch. It was insane the life I fell into after the Olympics.” Things got so intense that Ross had to retire, a difficult decision to make. This was followed by the additional blow of being placed on the no-fly list after 9/11 due to his cannabis usage, a status that has remained in place since 2001. Fast forward to 2012, Rebagliati has a baby girl (his second child), and his wife and children were packed up in the car with him to go on a trip to Palm Springs to visit his mom when he is denied at the border. “We had to turn around at the border, my wife’s crying, the baby is crying. We have a long drive back to Whistler from the border. Not to mention the prep that we did to just get ready for the trip, and that was like 2011/2012 and I was like fuck this shit. I have lost everything that I would have wanted to guard as far as cannabis prohibition and the stereotype and the stigma. Like I was trying to avoid all of that, but obviously for nothing. Now I can’t even go to the states, this is all coming back to me. I’m like building houses as a carpenter. I can’t get a job doing anything, because parents don’t want me around their kids, and stuff like that. That's when I started the Ross Gold company. I was like that’s it! What more could I lose?” So in 2012 started putting himself out there in the industry. Ross is not just jumping on the bandwagon. He has several projects in the industry with his name on them and has been in the game pre-legalization. He had reached a point where he was really sick and tired of dealing with the fallout from the Olympics and dealing with the stigma that was preventing him from moving forward in many ways. “Here I am smoking a joint with Keith Richards backstage at the Rolling Stones concert in Denver, broke. Partying with crazy known people, broke.” It was living in two polarized worlds at once. On one hand, Ross was partying with the biggest influencers and celebrities of the time but he was being stigmatized and penalized for the very thing he was being celebrated for.
Along with financial repercussions Ross was also dealing with emotional PTSD from the traumatic whirlwind of experiences he had gone through. He is being interviewed about the life-changing experience of winning an Olympic gold medal but at the same time struggling to support his family and find steady income. Through turmoil came inspiration when the Ross Gold foundation was created. Since legalization, the brand was forced to shut down as an operator in the Gray Market. So they have yet to emerge in the new market but exciting things are on the horizon! “You can see where I am now, in this huge freaking facility. We have 10,000 square feet of canopy. We’re growing living soil, we’re certified organic.”
Ross is actually growing the product himself with a team of other expert stakeholders and growers, and it is time for the Ross Gold brand to live again! “I’m not just like branding weed guys and jumping the bandwagon…I’m actually growing this stuff and it’s the best!”
Despite the difficulties, Ross says he would not change anything about the past. “You know, a lot of good has come from it. I was given this huge platform in 1998, to speak out on behalf of cannabis and cannabis users, and I did that at every opportunity.” Rebagliati continues to advocate and provide education on cannabis and its performance benefits. When the story broke about Michael Phelps's cannabis usage, Ross was the expert speaker on NBC speaking on behalf of consumers and advocates. When he was asked why Michael Phelps would use cannabis he knew from 1st hand experience, “It’s zero calories, zero fat, go to sleep early, wake up early, be motivated, be yourself, there are so many great things about it that would make an athlete want to use cannabis. I was up against the guy that was like ‘Well if that’s the case, why is it that there are more people in cannabis rehab than any other drug?’, and I’m like well in America, there is a mandate where if you get busted for weed you have the option to go to jail or go to rehab, and he had nothing to say about that.”
Along with having to deal with stigma due to Nagano he also lost the support of several potential sponsors including Nike. “They totally disappeared after the drug test thing came out. Like off the face of the earth, like it never happened. That’s the way the corporate nature of the world was with regard to cannabis. At the time they couldn’t touch that, and now they have Nike's with the weed leaf on them and stuff like that, but at the time it was tough. But, it’s come full circle right, like I’m working with OVO. At the Eden Center, I’m on the fucking window of OVO.” Ross has been able to stay relevant in the cannabis scene from owning different stores in the sector, and growing for the last number of years. He has accumulated over 25 years working with cannabis, and with his new licensed facility Green Mountain Health Alliance up and running, Ross is finally putting together the Ross Gold package. He is working on finalizing the finishing details on his Indica, Sativa, and Hybrid strains. The brand will really be showcasing the beautiful product and you can get even more immersive by looking up the batch number provided on the container. “You enter that batch number and you can see what strain it is, and you can see pictures of me growing that particular batch.” There will also be a live video of the grows you can check out to see the plants in real time to add to the full Ross Gold experience. “I’m just pumped to be able to make that connection of touching the weed and then having people feel connected to me and the story.”
Family was also a big part of Ross coming back to his passions for sports and canna-advocacy and production. His wife and he just celebrated 12 years, and he found that she was young enough to not be as impacted by cannabis stigma. “She had the ability to at least see the benefits of cannabis, rather than the stigma and the stereotypes the way most people would see it. So right away that was great because in a relationship you have to be yourself in order for the relationship to work.” Having that acceptance and support was incredibly important to Ross. He continues to break stigma as a father and husband which is so incredibly important in the cannabis community and sector.
Ross has been quoted as saying cannabis can be something that “puts you in the moment” and “where you can give 110%”. He is a big believer that cannabis can be performance-enhancing. “When we hear the word performance enhancing, it kind of is stigmatized in itself because the word is associated with the anabolic steroid or something like that. In reality, a banana is performance enhancing, water is performance enhancing. You will fucking die if you don’t drink water. So there are a lot of things that are performance enhancing that we don’t necessarily consider performance enhancing. Cannabis is one of those things. Leading up to the Olympics, Ross noticed some of the older guys were smoking weed on the chair lift and going through the training course. “I was like really? You guys are getting baked right now? They were like yeah man, it’s awesome. You can really feel your equipment and notice things that you don’t normally notice. I was already smoking weed but I would always wait until after training, and they were like ‘no no, here, have a puff.’ I have a few puffs and we smoke a joint together.” This is a great time to note that on a pro team, you are paying the coach. They are working for you, so Ross felt pretty confident not worrying about smoking at the time. It was just more of a mental separation of training and consumption up until that point that prevented it.
“Turns out, it’s great to smoke weed and then say, run a race course. There is so much feeling that goes on, and there are so many things that are happening that you don’t notice when you’re not baked. Like, the angle of your bindings, how tight your boots are, how hard the snow is, all these other things. There’s a lot of things that you don’t notice on a regular.” This doesn’t mean that Ross suggests hitting the training completely wasted; it is all about finding the right balance.
Ross found that cannabis accentuated many of the activities he was engaging in, from giving him extra motivation at the gym on a cold rainy day, to going on long mountain bike rides. “All of these things are starting to dawn on me. Like I can increase my cardio more easily with cannabis.” There were a lot of realizations about how he could use cannabis to tap into his fullest potential, and he always made sure to balance this with the rules of more public competitions. “Training? yes. Race? no.” He also had to convince himself that cannabis consumption was healthy. He had unhealthy drinking experiences in the past and he wanted to make sure that he was not falling into a similar pattern. “I really had to be like, I have been smoking weed for 10 years, I’ve won lots of World Cups, I’ve accomplished all of my goals, I’m healthier than anybody I know, what gives? I’m 51 years old and people do not realize that when they first meet me.”
When it comes to how the intersection of cannabis and sports compares now to what it was in ‘97/‘98 Ross says there have been improvements but also regressions. “The better part is you are allowed to have 1000x more THC in your system now than you were when they added THC to the list after me.” This is showing a general trend in cultural acceptance of cannabis consumption, and that a lot of athletes can be exposed to cannabis without actually using it. Another big change is CBD being added to the IOC accepted substances list. “A natural anti-inflammatory and anti-anxiety medicine. Like, what more can an athlete ask for?”
Ross also spoke of the importance of more stories coming out like Sha'Carri Richardson, “Speaking to who are the great athletes in the world like Michael Phelps, the most awarded Olympian in history. Who are these people? They’re cannabis users! All of the best ones, all of the best athletes are cannabis users. Usain Bolt, ‘Oh he smokes weed too? oh, no shit!’, fastest man on earth, right? So it’s ironic, right? That there has been this movement over the years and for it to not be completely accepted. I think the IOC at this point, it’s a missed opportunity for them to be leaders. Because they always speak out on behalf of human rights and equality, and this and that, but they are not doing that in this case. There is a big opportunity for them to be leaders, and to not just promote the physiological and psychological benefits of cannabis and to get behind industrial uses of cannabis.”
A great example is the option to build structures out of hempcrete, a more sustainable fire-resistant option to concrete which is becoming more and more vital as we deal with the current sand shortage. “At this point, it is almost irresponsible, based on the medical evidence and the studies, for them not to do that at this point.”
Ross is seeing a huge adoption rate in certain markets when it comes to the cannabis sector and consumption. A surprising upswing in the senior sector has been one that has been very inspiring to Ross, as he has witnessed one of the sectors most negatively impacted by big pharma, finding a path to this amazing natural alternative. “The seniors know more than anybody because they have taken more big pharma than everybody else. The ones that have been successful with cannabis have literally put aside dozens of bottles of pills for a plant. They are more astonished than anybody because they are the ones who believed in big pharma and who were fed big pharma since they were babies without question.”
If you go back and trace the birth of big pharma you will find that it was tied to the beginning of prohibition, “Before prohibition, cannabis oil was in almost all of the medicine. It was the base of medicine basically, and then they would add herbs for whatever specific thing it was you had, but it was cannabis oil that was the common denominator in all of the medicines. Then prohibition came and boom.” Now we see more and more people becoming dependent on painkillers, this is something Ross is all too familiar with in the world of athletics and competitive sports. He is pretty sure that if he had not had cannabis as a tool in his pain management and recovery he would have become more dependent on prescribed pain medication.
When it comes to common misconceptions there are two main things that came to mind for Ross. First, is the idea that it is easy to grow the product. It takes a tremendous amount of people power to grow a gram of weed. “Generally people are coming around to the idea that you can have a fairly high functional lifestyle and be a stoner at the same time.” Secondly, he thinks that there is a lot of room to educate people on how exciting the applications of cannabis can be. In time, Ross is hopeful that we will continue to find even more uses for this amazing plant and that more and more people will come on board when they see those capabilities. The opportunities are endless. From the industrial sector, and transportation, to the food and beverage industry, the future's looking bright. It is time to start looking for more and more ways to apply sustainable and natural options.
We also love that Ross is providing education pathways to learn more about cannabis and the sector. He provides training at the greenhouse on how to work on the plants. He is also constantly living as an example of what a successful and productive cannabis consumer can look like.
Ross is really living “a growing lifestyle”, one of the slogans of a past cannabis project of his. He is working on dropping a new clothing line (that we can’t wait to check out) that can be used to board and work on your home grow. He is hoping to collaborate with OVO on a 2nd clothing line drop.
When it comes to the future of cannabis, Ross is excited for the acceptance of cannabis to progress so we can open up more cross-border knowledge and collaboration. “We are not really able to share the cannabis and be a part of that because of the federal nature of it.” Cannabis federally legalizing is huge but if/when America makes the plunge, it will make waves throughout the entire globe. It is an incredibly politicized subject with corporate interest that we need to continue to shift the narrative on so we can continue to build access to this amazing plant.
Keep an eye out over the next couple of months for the new Ross Gold product launch. After 25+ years since Nagano which was a huge catalyst for legalization in Canada, this is such a huge milestone for Ross. He is so excited to be at this historic moment for cannabis legalization and when this pivotal moment comes in the states can’t come soon enough! Cannabis and politics are tricky, especially when it comes to an overlap of different cultural ideas. This is a mirror to the IOC, which is also a group that represents all of the laws of many countries.
Rebagliati can also be found writing as a featured regularly in Kind magazine and continues to shed light on the importance of cannabis pathways in education, accessibility, and normalization. We were honored to get a chance to speak with this amazing industry leader and cannot wait to see what’s next for him and the Ross Gold Brand! To learn more about Ross’s story and upcoming events follow him on IG @rossrebagliati98.