The King of Slovenia

Marko Grilc is the East Bloc’s Hometown Hero

Editor’s note: On November 24, 2021, Marko “Grilo” Grilc passed away in a snowboarding accident. To celebrate Grilo’s life and legacy we’ve rereleased his feature profile from Issue 10.4.

Grilo is survived by his fiancée, Nina, their two beautiful children, as well as the immeasurable impact that he had on snowboarding and everyone he encountered.  

Who would trade sled laps in the mountains for enforced waits at the top of an icy in-run? 

Marko Grilc would. 

After paying his dues chasing podiums from the Junior World Championships—which he won four times in the late ’90s—to the Air & Style, X Games and beyond, Grilo had secured a full ride from Burton and Red Bull, among others. He had the chance to break from the contest arena with parts in David Benedek’s opus 91 Words for Snow, a spot on both the Pirate Movie Production and Standard Films rosters, and growing recognition Stateside as a progressive jumper who could throw down in both the front-country and the backcountry. Yet in the past couple years, the 27-year-old Slovenian has returned to the contest grind, oftentimes finding himself on podiums with riders 10 years his junior. 

This Cardrona, NZ andrecht cost photographer Jeff Curtes an $800 fisheye lens. Sometimes, in photography at least, there is such a thing as being too close. Photo: Jeff Curtes


Grilo, it seems, likes the limelight. He hails from a country of just two million people that shares the coastline of the Adriatic Sea with Italy to the west and Croatia to the east. It’s a country that was a part of the former Yugoslavia until secession in 1991, and a country that managed to avoid, for the most part, the bitter four-year war that took 140,000 lives in Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia and Montenegro. And Grilo is something of a household name back home. After winning the Air & Style in 2009, he landed an interview in Playboy and a spot in a European version of Maxim, which called him a “Freestyle Hero.” He starred in the Red Bull-funded Grilomentary, a satirical look at his daily life including a fictional liaison with a beautiful reporter.

Can you blame him?

Contests are in Grilo’s blood. After learning to ride on icy hills with no jumps where the snowboard scene consisted of a dozen hard-booters, his ticket to ride was through competition. After being sponsored by Burton at 14 years old, he traveled Europe for half a decade competing in all disciplines before anyone even pointed a camera at him. As a young rider coming up out of a Slovenian snowboard scene that didn’t really exist, contests were his connection to the snowboard world.

So who would trade sled laps for park laps and powder wedges for scaffolding setups?

The King of Slovenia would. 

A spring 2011 Sun Valley, ID, kicker session. When it comes to big tabletops, Marko’s one of the best. Photo: Jeff Curtes

CW: What was it like growing up in Slovenia?

MG: When I was really young, everything was different. There was no Internet. We had TV, but we didn’t have many international channels. We didn’t have much connection with the rest of the world.

When I was a kid, I went skateboarding—I lived in the city [Ljubljana]. At the same time, my parents have always been into snow skiing and we had a cabin at one of the resorts here in Slovenia called Kranjska Gora. I first saw snowboarding there when I was eight years old. Half of the resorts in Slovenia didn’t allow it—this resort just allowed it because there was one guy who was a local there and they knew him, so they let him ride. 

I couldn’t get equipment in Slovenia so I had to go to Austria, and even then it was hard to find kid’s boards—it took me and my parents half a year. There were no shops or anything in Slovenia, but even before I started snowboarding, my brother’s friend—his best man at his wedding—had moved to California and he would send me stickers and stuff from the States; every time he would come home, he would bring some skate stuff, so that was so big for me and kept me connected. 

A young Marko hard-bootin’ it at home in Slovenia. Says photographer and Burton team manager Adam Moran, “I have a feeling he is straight-lining it for the apres ski techno party on the sun deck—even at 12 years old.” Photo: Courtesy Burton Snowboards

So the Slovenian snowboard scene was just you and one other guy?

My brother got into it too, but there were maybe 10-to-15 snowboarders in the whole country. Everybody knew each other and most of those guys were still alpine snowboarders—I was the only guy that was into freestyle. It kind of came naturally because I was into skateboarding. Every now and then I would get a Burton catalog, maybe some mags from the US, then we had Eurosport [television] later on, and from time to time you would randomly catch the first halfpipe contests on TV. Compared to now, if you’re a young snowboarder anywhere in the world, there’s so much information—if you’re good, you can post your stuff online and you always know what other people are doing. Back then, dude, I was living in another world where snowboarding wasn’t even existing. 

What did your parents do for work?

My mom was an architect and my dad did a lot of jobs—when I was young he did accounting for construction companies and he was a journalist and all sorts of stuff. When my brother and I got into snowboarding, my dad was definitely the one that made it all happen. He would travel with us and help us out. I didn’t even have a driving license for the first half of my snowboard career. He just dedicated everything to us—nothing could’ve happened without him. 

Did you start competing pretty young?

I think I was about 12 or 13 when I got into competitions. We didn’t have any park—no jumps, no nothing. I just rode the whole mountain all the time. My brother was an alpiner, and I went to contests with [the alpine guys] as well. I wanted to snowboard as much as I could and doing all the events was a way to do that. Up until I was 18, all I did was contests—boardercross and race, freestyle, jumping, pipe—I got the basics of snowboarding dialed in. That’s something people just don’t do anymore—now everybody just goes to the park and hits rails. 

“Besides being able to party with the best of them, Grilo is an amazing guy. He’s done everything in snowboarding, from winning the Air & Style to having ender parts with Pirate Movie Productions, and he truly loves riding and being part of the snowboard world—more than anyone I know. Besides the few months in the summer that he goes surfing, he literally is snowboarding nonstop the rest of the year round and never seems to get burnt out since he loves it so much—I admire that. He’s a true shredder.”—Adam Moran 

A spring mission to Alaska—Marko proves he can handle more than park booters. Photo: Dean “Blotto” Gray

How’d you get sponsored? 

Being from Slovenia, the only way for me to get noticed was to do contests, but the contests where people would notice me were very far away. I didn’t have the money to get there. There was just one contest a year that really mattered, which was the Junior World Championships put on by the ISF [now-defunct International Snowboarding Federation]. I went to my first one in Talma, Finland, when I was 14. I rode everything and did well, and Burton picked me up on the spot.  

For a little kid coming from Slovenia it was such a dream—I couldn’t believe that it really happened. The ISF tour was in Europe, and there were maybe four international events they would send me to each year. Traveling was the only way for me to ride pipes and become a freestyler—there were no parks in Europe back then. I would go to Saas-Fe [Switzerland] for a week, then back to school for a week, and to Austria a little bit. Riding outside of my country was key, because I got to spend time in the pipe—being sponsored and having that support made a big difference. 

How is the snowboard scene in Slovenia now? 

I don’t want to take credit or anything, but I think that a lot of the kids saw, through me, that it’s possible to become a pro. Now we have a couple good parks and at least 10 really good riders that are really hot on the European scene. There’s Cilka Sadar—she’s like fourth in the TTR—then we have a little kid named Tim Kevin Ravnjak who’s only 14, but he’s gonna be the next big thing. There’s a big scene for such a small country. 

May 9, 2006: a warm, sunlit evening session on one of Hemsedal’s most memorable jumps. Grilo holding his own among the big guns with a style that is all his own. Photo: Jeff Curtes

Do you ever feel pressure to move to the States?

I feel like I can do anything I want to do from home, from Slovenia. I knew that it would be easier for me if I moved to the States, but I always wanted to stay true to where I come from and who I am. I’m proud of Slovenia—it’s such a new country. We used to be a part of Yugoslavia, and we separated in ‘91. 

Do you remember that well?

Yeah, the Yugoslavian war started [in 1991] and we were back home. This was when I just started to snowboard. There were bomb attacks, so my parents took us and we fled the city, leaving everything behind. We were going to my grandma’s place, which was in a village at the Croatian seaside. We passed tanks along the way, and luckily nobody shot at us. When we went to cross the border there were barricades and they wouldn’t let us through. It was quite a hard time.

I was so young that I didn’t totally realize what was going on, but the war in Slovenia was not that bad—it only lasted for 11 days. We came back and everything that we owned was still there—it hadn’t been bombed, nothing was stolen, everything was fine. For four more years there were people in bunkers being air-bombed one hour from where I was living—we weren’t in the war, but it was so close. There were so many refugees—I always saw the sadness. There was so much crime and so much aggression within my environment during those times… people who don’t live next to it can never really feel or realize how hardcore that is. 

Luckily, I had snowboarding and I was going to school and everything was fine—I was focused on that. One hour away from me there was war, but I went an hour the other way and there were mountains. That’s one of the good decisions I made in life. 

Grilo is no stranger to putting on a show for crowds—he’s dealt with the pressure of the Air & Style and many other events all over the world. But it’s a whole new element when you have Chinese army officers watching your every move. Beijing, China, December 2010. Photo: Adam Moran

How have things been since the war?

Because Slovenia separated early and became independent, we were not a big part of the war. We developed like a normal country straight after that—the economy grew, everything grew. Now the standard of life is really good; all the other countries that were in the war had to take all of their money and put it into weapons. So many people got hurt and injured—everything was destroyed. Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia, all these countries are so far behind when it comes to their standard of living because of the war.

If it went just a little bit the other way, I probably couldn’t snowboard or have the life I have right now. It’s luck, or, whatever you call it, but I could’ve been somewhere else, if not dead. It’s crazy how things go. 

How much time do you spend at home now? 

I have to travel most of the year, but my home is still there and whenever I get the chance to go ride with my friends and ride for fun, I go there. I try to spend as much time as I can at home and it feels good. I doubt that I will ever move—it’s my place. 

So now you’re a bit of a celebrity in Europe—what’s up with hanging out at the Playboy mansion and starring in Maxim?

You go more mainstream with the contests, more people recognize you, and that’s how you end up in these positions. When I got to be a part of Playboy parties and all this, I was like, “Jesus, how did I end up here?” But it’s awesome; one second I’m somewhere in the mountains filming and shooting, then the next day I’m among these supermodel hot girls. It’s two different worlds just colliding, but it’s definitely cool to see that other way that some people live. 

Aspen, CO, scaffolding creature—the dark side of the spotlight at X Games 2010. Photo: Jeff Curtes

Do you think partying is still an important part of snowboarding?

I think it’s one of the things that makes this sport really cool. It’s really sociable. It’s a big scene and I think it is important. A lot of kids become involved through both the fun of riding and also the lifestyle thing, it invites them to snowboarding. Snowboarding never gets to the point where it gets so serious that you have to do all the crap that other athletes have to do. It gives you some freedom, and it gives you a chance to choose your path. I think that’s the beauty of the sport: you can do whatever you want and still be involved. You don’t have coaches and people telling you what to do all the time. You have the freedom to express yourself and do your own thing. 

What about snowboarding being in the Olympics—maybe even slopestyle now?

I think it’s good. I think the Olympics bring a lot of attention to snowboarding and the sport itself grows as a result. It might be that it loses that spirit from the 1990s a little bit, but that’s the evolution of the sport. It became a huge industry and you can already see it with the youngest kids, they’re definitely going through a different process; they need to work way harder to be on top. If slopestyle goes to the Olympics there’s going to be a whole army of people doing that. The sport is changing and—love it or hate it—it’s going to happen. I hope snowboarding becomes a big sport and hopefully it won’t lose its spirit along that path.

“Hero in a hometown—that’s how I imagine Marko in his country of Slovenia; his videographer Andro by his side, a plethora of international contest wins feathering his cap; not a woman that wouldn’t want to go there, and I wouldn’t imagine Marko resisting. Understated in the crowd of über pros, Marko has stepped up during the heaviest sessions I’ve witnessed and held it down with a style and power that is uniquely his own. Marko is Pro with a capital P.”
—Jeff Curtes

You’ve been doing contests for a long time—what keeps you motivated?

I’ve been doing everything; contests, filming and photo shoots. Recently, I’ve gotten back into contests and it just feels like, personally, that environment is maybe more where I belong. It’s funny, it keeps me going. Obviously, I’m ambitious on a personal level, I want to reach goals and all that, but it’s really funny when I’m at the X Games and everyone on the podium is 17 and I’m 27 and I come down and the homie on the speakers is like, “And he’s ten years older than the rest of the field,” and I’m just like, “God, what is going on here?” 

But it’s cool. I just have to work a little bit harder. My body’s definitely not 17, so maybe I lift a little more weights. It’s not as easy for me to learn new tricks as it is for the little guys, but if I give it all I got, I’m still doing well and I’m really stoked to be a part of that right now. But I definitely miss filming and riding pow—I’m not gonna lie. It’s the part of snowboarding which is, in my opinion, the most fun. If I can do double-corks and get good contest results I’m definitely going to do that, but the spirit of snowboarding comes from riding pow. 

A 2009 spring shoot at Squaw Valley, CA—a mellow afternoon frontside 540. It’s not all about double-corks in Marko’s world. Photo: Dean “Blotto” Gray

What about where tricks are going? Do you ever feel like it’s getting to be too much?

What the public doesn’t see is that everybody who can do double-corks—or even the kids are doing triple-corks now—we’re just like normal people on the mountain. It’s fun to do a double-cork, but it’s way more fun to do an easy trick on a smaller jump as well. When I ride with the best contest snowboarders in the world, with guys like Mark McMorris, or go on a shoot with the whole Burton team, as soon as we stop filming, everybody goes to the small park and has a bunch of fun, rides the smallest jumps, and if the bigger jump is good, we might go ride it for a while—we always just enjoy it. You learn the double-corks, but it’s not like we come up to the mountain every day and just chuck—it doesn’t work like that.

Doing a double-cork is such a new experience and new feeling. And now with the triple-corks the level got raised again—when is it gonna reach its boundaries? I don’t know if it can go past triples… If you’re a young kid now that wants to break through, you have to go crazy. 

With how fast things are progressing, have you had to deal with many injuries?

The older you get, the easier it is to get injured. When you’re young, you just go ride and eat shit and you never get hurt. The older you get, you realize you need to work out not to get injured. I dislocated my hip a couple years ago and that was definitely a mind-changer. I realized I could injure myself to a point where I can’t even snowboard anymore, and I definitely started to try to be fit so I don’t get injured. 

If you’re chucking on ice, shit happens all the time. It’s not mellow for me or for the rest of the field that wants to ride on such a high level. Everybody gets injured every year. It just depends on how hardcore the injury is. Is it a couple weeks off or is it, “That’s it, I can’t snowboard?” I don’t know if there’s anybody in the contest scene that stays healthy—in the film scene, if you want to have a banger part, you’ve gotta be really lucky to make it through the season, too. 

A 2010 Snow Park, NZ, session—Grilo takes the cake with this drifting handplant flyby. Photo: Jeff Curtes

Do you think there’s any way to change that?

There’s definitely a way. When I was doing rehab, I went to the best clinics in the world. I talked to the doctor there and she said, “What is the problem? I have soccer players here who are 35 and get injured, but they’re still doing their thing.” She said, “You need to work out like crazy. You need to start building up your physical strength from when you’re a little kid, and you need to be like a real athlete.” That’s where snowboarding is going anyways; like it or not, kids nowadays, they’re definitely doing that anyway… it’s the only way. 

If it was up to you, where would snowboarding go in the future?

Where I see it going anyways—it’s already so big, and I think it’s gonna take over most of the traditional sports that have been ruling for the last 50 years. The beauty of it is that snowboarding is so varied, there are so many different parts of it. You will always have the competitive side, which is already mainstream, but there’s a whole other movement, which is filming and freeriding. There are so many aspects and we’re so many different personalities doing snowboarding. The beauty of it is that it’s like art and you can always go the way you want to go. Nobody’s forcing it. It will grow as a sport, it will become huge, but no matter what, that magic will never be lost.

First published in The Snowboarder’s Journal Volume 9, Issue 2


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