Balance. This is the key to Colin Tucker's pursuit of a pro snowboarding career while working toward an undergraduate degree in legal studies from UW-Madison. Balance is essential to his competition results but also to chasing twin ambitions - one academic, the other sporting - at the same time.
"I'm still kind of learning how to do it," he admits by phone from Colorado, where he has been training since September. Tucker is on campus at UW-Madison most fall semesters, but takes online courses during spring semesters while he tours the snowboard circuit from December through March.
He acknowledges the probability that his degree will take more than four years to attain. He tried taking a full course load online one spring semester but was "miserable."
Tucker has also confronted setbacks in snowboarding. He took up the sport at 13 and, that first year, spent a week in intensive care after rupturing his spleen. A couple seasons ago, he suffered a full compound fracture of the radius and ulna in his left arm. They took 16 screws and two plates to reassemble, notes the left-handed Tucker.
The youngest of three brothers, he grew up near Milwaukee, attending freshman year at Nicolet High School before moving to Colorado to pursue his snowboarding goals in earnest. Lodging with a host family in Steamboat Springs, far from his own clan, he stayed on track with his studies and graduated one semester early from Steamboat Springs High School in 2008.
Accepted by UC-Boulder, he opted to enroll at UW-Madison so he could be closer to family and friends. "My parents," he explains, "have always been in my corner."
Aside from isolated exceptions like Shaun White - who used his shaggy red mane, Olympic gold and X-Games cred to penetrate the public consciousness - the shelf life of pro snowboarders is akin to fresh produce. Some eke out a few years near the top, yet scores of talented snowboarders seek the peak. This can make for tough going.
Tucker has cobbled together sponsorships from such brands as Bern Helmets, Bolle Optics, Klassnine Snowboards, Powerbar and Zero Gloves. They provide gear, incentives for good competition results and contributions toward his travel budget.
His biggest check to date was $2,500 for finishing third at Aspen's annual Thanksjibbing Rail Jam. "I like to think I can ride just about anything and be competitive," Tucker notes, "but if I had to choose, my best events are rail jams" - snowboarding contests in which athletes execute maneuvers along a course featuring benches, railings, stairwells, pipes, walls, boxes and other structures.
Other paydays have been more modest. Last January, for example, he pocketed $250 for placing third in one competition at Big Bear, Calif. A couple months later, he scored a new Salomon snowboard and a Bonfire jacket for placing second at a Colorado contest.
Add all these things up, make the most of them and you might have enough to get by.
This is a primary reason Tucker is chasing a college degree while touring the pro snowboard circuit. "My priorities now, when I'm 20, aren't going to be the same as when I'm 30 or 40," he observes. He aspires to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia, but "it's really foolish to think you're going to be snowboarding past 30 professionally." He wants to go to law school, to become an attorney and pursue a career in politics or lobbying.
Such ambitions demand sacrifice: Tucker surrenders a significant portion of his free and party time to his two main goals.
But there are rewards for that sacrifice. Early career highlights have included cracking the top 100 in the Swatch TTR (Ticket to Ride) World Snowboard Tour rankings for pro men - impressive when you consider those rankings number a few thousand names.
Tucker was also among a couple dozen pros and rising stars featured in last year's Sup Bro?, one of those exhilarating extreme-sports documentaries intended to generate sufficient adrenaline among its target audience to sustain the sport's growth.
Tucker has so far this season been invited to pro rail jams in California, Ohio and Denver. His schedule for this month alone includes competitions at Mount Hood, Ore., and Salt Lake City before an event at Tyrol Basin on Jan. 23-24.
The demanding schedule conveys some sense of what he hopes to achieve both as a pro snowboarder and as a student at UW-Madison - and the urgent pace at which the clock is ticking. "There's so little time," Tucker says, "and there's so much I want to accomplish in both realms."