Next time you’re at the grocery store you may run into one of the most decorated extreme sports athletes in history, and you probably won’t even realize it; most people don’t.
Such is the curious case of Joe Parsons, who won his 16th and 17th Winter X Games medals in Aspen over the weekend. He has more Winter X Games medals than anyone except snowboarder Shaun White, whom he trails by a single medal, and he’s about as big a star as there is in the world of extreme snowmobiling. But extreme snowmobiling isn’t an Olympic sport like snowboarding. So Parsons, who still lives in the West Valley community where he grew up, is known all around the world but also is still relatively anonymous even in Yakima.
“Joe Parsons has left an indelible mark on the sport,” said Emily Hare, American Snowmobiler Magazine assistant editor. “His ability to land tricks — and land on the podium — puts him right up there with high-flying daredevils like Heath Frisby and Colten Moore.”
Parsons, 29 — West Valley High School, class of ’06 — has been building his place atop the sport since competing in his first X Games in 2008. He took a silver in freestyle that year and a bronze in the speed and style event. He’s won at least one medal every year since, including five golds.
X Games Athlete Profile: Joe Parsons
But he was doing crazy tricks and jumps even before he started doing them on TV in competition. Parsons comes from a snowmobiling family. He thinks he was 2, maybe 3, when his father, Bill Parsons, taught him to ride in the woods around Yakima.
“Basically my dad just got me into it at a real young age,” Parsons said. “He got me started riding little, tiny snowmobiles. And from there the machines just got bigger and bigger.”
The Winter X Games, created by ESPN in 1997 as a complement to the summer edition launched two years earlier, were still in their infancy when he started trying to do jumps and freestyle tricks. So the 10-year-old Parsons took his cues from trick motorcycle riders, teaching himself to jump on ramps and eventually to pull of some of the acrobatics and aerial maneuvers that have won him his medals.
His big, gold-medal-clinching move in freestyle this year was something he invented called “the volt.” It was unprecedented and involved launching his snowmobile off a huge ramp, letting go of the handlebars, performing a mid-air 360-degree full-body spin over the top of his snowmobile seat and then landing without crashing.
Joe Parsons pulls volt on snowmobile
“Whoa! What is that?” X Games announcer Cam Steele said on the broadcast.
“It was the, it was the — he spun around on top of the sled!” analyst Chris Burandt replied.
Nobody had seen that in competition before, but Parsons knew what he was doing. He’d been working on the move at his own training center at home in West Valley. He doesn’t try moves like that until he’s confident he can pull them off without risking bodily harm.
“There are very few times when I really get out of my comfort zone,” Parsons said. “I practice so that when I try something new, I’m ready to do it.”
X Games Aspen 2013: Joe Parsons lands the first ever Gator Hater in Snowmobile Best Trick
The risks of extreme snowmobiling, as opposed to say basketball, are never far from the surface. The 2013 X Games, at which snowmobiler Caleb Moore suffered a fatal injury during the freestyle event, are testament to that. Things got scary again this year; Moore’s brother, Colten, needed surgery on Sunday following a crash in this year’s best-trick event.
But Parsons, who is married and had his second child in September, said he maintains a tricky balance between the necessary caution and the necessity of “letting go” and trying something potentially dangerous. That’s where his home training comes in. He and fellow X Games medalists Heath Frisby and Cory Davis spend a couple of months there each year, experimenting with new tricks and determining just where their boundaries are.
“There are risks driving a car, too,” Parsons said. “But if I go about things with a little bit of thought put into it, it’s not as dangerous as it looks. I’m not going out and lining up for a jump and just thinking, ‘I’ll see what happens.’”
His success in that has made him a hero to a generation of amateur snowmobile daredevils, said Matt Mead, Washington State Snowmobile Association media director. While Mead, a Selah resident, is more of a weekend-ride-in-the-woods-with-the-family guy, he certainly knows Parsons’ name.
Joe Parsons sets a world record freestyle trick
“There is a whole group of younger riders who like to emulate those guys,” Mead said. “They go out and do all the jumps and stuff. In those circles he’s very popular. There’s a few names in the snowmobiling world and he’s one of them.”
Parsons is someone the broader snowmobiling community in Washington points to with pride, Mead said.
“Looking at Facebook the last week, his name’s been on there a lot across all of the Washington snowmobile community,” Mead said.
That notoriety may increase if Parsons eclipses White’s medal count, either next year or somewhere further down the line. He never set that as a goal exactly, but it’s definitely something Parsons is interested in sticking around long enough to accomplish.
“Yeah, I mean now that I’ve gotten this close, why not?” he said.
Still, his fame remains relatively narrow. He doesn’t seem to mind that; he’s just Joe, a guy who grew up here and stayed here.
“The run-of-the-mill person doesn’t really know me,” he said. “Unless they catch me on Sports Center.”