Featured Image: Will Wesson
At 32 years old, LJ Strenio has been a professional skier for literally half of his life. At the ripe age of 16, LJ was a standout competitor in the fabled LINE Young Gun Open at Mont Avila where he beat out over 100 other skiers and landed a contract with the ski company that has lasted his entire career. Since then, LJ has gone on to create unforgettable ski segments with film crews like Poor Boys and Level 1 Productions. He’s taken his park and urban skills to the backcountry, secured an X Games Real Ski medal and even got to play Vin Diesel’s stunt double for the ski scene in ‘XXX: The Return of Xander Cage.’
Aside from being one of the most prolific freestyle skiers of our generation, LJ is also a bit of a brainiac. Having recently graduated with a Master of Science degree in computer science and an internship with NASA on his resume, LJ has officially made the move from professional skier to data scientist. We caught up with the LINE Skis OG to talk about his career move, his best memories over the years and what he’ll miss most about the pro-skier lifestyle. Keep reading, below, for the full Q&A.
PHOTO: Shay Williams
What company do you work for, when did you start and what is your role there?
I started on Tuesday, January 11, working for a digital audio book and e-book platform company called Scribd. I’m a data scientist, so I’m part of the applied research in the intelligence systems department. I don’t know the exact day-to-day yet but data scientists in this field specifically try to use artificial intelligence (AI) models, also known as machine learning, to do certain tasks—to do things that require making some kind of decision. Specifically for these guys, they’re dealing with a lot of text, so a lot of my work is in natural language processing, which is just a fancy way of saying I use AI to analyze text.
What inspired you to hone-in on data science as a career path?
I went back to school originally for computer science, which is the more general field. That’s more software engineering as a whole, which I think is probably better known and is just writing code. What stemmed from that was getting older and maybe seeing the light at the end of the tunnel of a ski career long-term. From there, when I found computer science and realized I wanted to go back to school in the summers, I found data science because I was trying to find an area within computer science that interested me and I thought artificial intelligence in computers that can simulate some kind of intelligence sounded super cutting-edge, interesting and intriguing to me. So it lured me in and led me down this path.
The office looks a bit different these days. PHOTO: LJ Strenio
How has the transition from pro skier to data scientist been so far?
It’s a stark contrast, of course. Being in school the last five years has given me an idea of what I was in for, but sitting down in front of a screen for eight hours is definitely very different. I’m just trying to keep my head down and grind away, there’s just so much learning going on for me right now. I try to look at the big picture and I find it really exciting. I’m realizing that I’ll miss some of the things that I’m giving up, but like I said, I’m excited about the big picture and the things I’m gaining through the transition but I probably won’t know how it’s going for certain for another six months when I pull my head out and take a peek next time.
You’ve been in the game for quite some time, what are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the industry (for better or worse)?
When I look back over the years, even from the beginning of my career to the end, I think first and foremost is the growth of the sport. It’s just so massive now, it’s so exciting and all aspects of the sport have grown. There was a time when I thought urban skiing, which is one of my specialties, was going to die off. The last few years especially, this next generation of skiers that are drawn to going out in urban and street environments is so exciting to watch. The inclusion of the Olympics falls within that timeframe as well, so all sides of the sport have really grown.
The other major difference, which may not be as positive as the growth of the sport, is the advent of social media. It’s just changed so much, some for the better for sure but some for the worse as well. I’m a little critical of some of the aspects of social media but there’s some good that came with it.
How would you describe your relationship to skiing now versus when you were getting paid to do it?
This is what I always talk with my friends about, especially those who are also going through this transition. A good friend of mine, Khai Krepala, who has recently transitioned and very successfully so, has been talking about how he’s not only enjoying skiing more he’s actually been skiing a lot better than he has the last few years. I haven’t really experienced it yet. Even the last few weeks skiing after I told my sponsors that I was leaving, it still hasn’t quite hit me. I think it’s going to be a slow, delayed process to see skiing differently, or to not feel the need to pull out my camera to get some kind of Instagram for the day. So I guess I can’t quite speak to that yet but my hope is that I’ll enjoy it on a more whimsical and casual level than I have lately.
PHOTO: Felix Rioux
Is there anything you’re going to miss about the pro skier life?
So many things, for sure! The most readily apparent right now is how much free time you have, you really make your own schedule. As much as I love data science and getting into this field, doing literally the one thing that you love most in the world and have people pay you to do it is not something I took fully for granted but is becoming more obvious how lucky I was, now that I’m seeing the other side of it. And skiing with your friends, because that’s really what my job entailed.
Anything you’re not going to miss?
There’s a lot to that as well [laughs]. We all ski because we love it but the stuff that’s not skiing that’s a part of being a professional athlete—the emails, contracts, trying to get money, the shameless self-promotion—I won’t miss any of that. I’m also pretty burnt out on social media. I’m so grateful to all of the brands that supported me but I won’t miss the need to promote brands on my posts and attach my viewpoints and how people perceive me to brand promotion.
Even some of the ski-related stuff. Fear starts to creep back into your head as you get older. For freestyle skiers, fear management is something you become very good at but as it starts to creep back into your head when you get older, you’re not quite as quick, you don’t rebound quite as efficiently. So some of that stuff, too, I won’t miss as much either.
What makes the Tell a Friend Tour so special in our current ski world?
I think the things that make the Tell a Friend Tour so special are the things that really shouldn’t be that unique. I don’t think there’s a lot of programs, at least within freeskiing, that offer such a low-level, grassroots, easily-accessible introduction or exposure to our sport, to professional athletes and what our sport is all about—the enjoyment that can come from it. When I was a kid, the sport was so much smaller then and we didn’t have social media, yet I still got to meet a bunch of my pro skier heroes. Those moments were so pivotal for me and led me down the path that I followed. When Andy Parry talks about his Tell a Friend Tour, those are some of the things he cites as reasons for wanting to start the tour.
You can definitely meet pro skiers today, and I guess talking to them on social media is a great way to make them accessible now but compared to when I was young, I think it’s a lot tougher to just go out and physically take a lap with a pro skier—especially in small towns and small ski resorts. Going to these tiny ski resorts where no pro skiers has ever gone before, there are huge scenes at some of these places. At Montage Mountain, which is in Scranton, Pennsylvania, where the show The Office is supposed to take place, there is an enormous group of kids skiing all so excited to meet us. Seeing all of that excitement really drives home how important stuff like this is and, unfortunately, it’s really unique to the Tell a Friend Tour.
You can ride on any ski you want now, what’s your go-to?
Oh I haven’t thought about this at all! I somehow skied on LINE for 16 years, and this is embarrassing but I don’t know a thing about other ski brands [laughs]. I think I have some LINE skis on the way. I’m sure someday I’ll explore and see what else is out there but for now I’m excited to get on my next pair of LINEs.
PHOTO: Will Wesson
Do you have a favorite memory from your days with the Traveling Circus crew?
I have just so many good memories. Going on trips and skiing with the people you want to ski with just inherently creates a lot of good memories. Those trips are so well-documented that I think of them more like episodes now. I guess if I had to choose, going to Europe with them, right when they started getting more funding because initially it was all just out of the van traveling around the U.S. to local places. It was the winter of 2011-12, driving around, being really young and kind of at the peak of our game, we scored some really good powder and we were just so care-free. I think that’s one of the memories I’ll look back on most fondly. The episode was “Which Way to Ze Autobahn.”
If you could go back in your ski career, would you do anything different?
I’m such a “no regrets” kind of person. There is probably a bunch of stuff I would do differently but not wanting to change the outcome and how everything turned out, for better or worse. I’m happy to leave on the terms that I am, despite not accomplishing everything that I wish I could have. I wouldn’t trade the things I got out of it for the things that I could have, so no.
Any advice to those trying to follow your ski tracks?
As much as I worked hard for the things that I accomplished, there’s just so much luck involved and one of them was the time period that I happened to come into skiing. Unfortunately, a lot of that can’t be replicated because skiing has changed. I think with the current landscape of skiing if it’s something you want to do as a profession and you want to push yourself, I would just say try to keep perspective and make sure that you’re having fun with it at the same time. If you’re enjoying it, having fun with it and enjoying pushing yourself, in my experience you’ll find success. If you push yourself to the point that you’re not having fun with it, you’re going to have a hard time finding success.
You have the day off work to go skiing, you can go anywhere in the world, any style of skiing—where are you going and what are you doing?
Do I have to choose just one!? [laughs]. It’s a toss-up between Japan and British Columbia, I guess I’ll say Japan. Just a bottomless day of skiing powder in Japan with my friends with delicious sushi and sake afterwards. Just mellow, rolling terrain in powder, no urban or park. Maybe some stuff to jump off of but mainly just deep, friendly pillows in Japan.