Dan Donnelly fell in love with snowboarding when he was 15 years old – that was in the early 1980s when the sport was in its infancy. He grew up in Mt. Vernon, WA, which is not too far from Mt. Baker – one of the best skiing and snowboarding spots in the country due to the heavy snowfall it receives each year. 

“I still remember my first run and the indescribable feeling of pure freedom and joy that I felt. It was unlike anything I had ever experienced,” said Donnelly. “I also had no idea what I was doing since I received zero instruction.”

“The snowboards at that time had no metal edge, and we basically strapped our boots on to our boards with rubber bands. It was nuts!” he said. “Picture the difference between a computer built in the 80s compared to one you’d buy today. Most boarders now wouldn’t even recognize the early equipment.”

Operator competes in Snowboard World Championships

Donnelly, who now lives in Burlington, WA and works as an operator at Shell’s Puget Sound Refinery, became a sponsored snowboarder as a senior in high school. At the time, he didn’t think he could make a living as a snowboarder, so he enrolled at the University of Washington to pursue his bachelor’s degree…but he couldn’t turn off his passion for the sport. During his sophomore year, he left college to pursue a full-time career as a professional snowboarder and competed in the Snowboard World Championships in 1985.

He competed professionally for seven years and traveled all over the world for events and backcountry movie shoots, including places like Italy, Austria, Switzerland, Germany, Spain, Japan, France, New Zealand and Chile. At his peak, he was one of the top snowboarders in the world, and K2 served as his sponsor. He starred in numerous snowboarding movies and made enough to live on through a monthly sponsorship retainer, photo incentives, placement bonuses, etc.

Time to get a ‘real job’

By 1992, he decided that it was time to “get a real job,” and he became a sales rep for the snowboarding industry in the Pacific Northwest. He then met his wife, and they started a family. They now have three children, Hailey, Blake and Sammy Jo. Hailey also works at the refinery as a maintenance timekeeper and scheduler. All of their children are avid snowboarders, but they no longer hit the slopes with their dad.

“They’re way too cool to snowboard with me now,” said Donnelly. “They’d rather go with their friends!”

Donnelly eventually left the sales business and served as a journeyman tree trimmer for several years. He also worked for the City of Burlington in the Street Department and Parks & Recreation Department until an operator position opened up at Shell. He jumped at the chance to dive into a new field and started at the refinery in 2008. He will celebrate his 10th anniversary this year. In addition to his operating responsibilities, Donnelly also serves on the site’s emergency response team and specializes in medical and rope rescue.

“I love being an outside operator and ensuring that everything in my unit runs smoothly,” he said. “I also like the fact that I’m always learning something new in my job – I never get bored.”

Safety is paramount

Donnelly sees a lot of parallels between snowboarding with teammates in the backcountry and working as an operator at a refinery. “We work as a team to succeed, we look out for each other and we try to mitigate as many risks as possible,” he said. “But we know that if something doesn’t go as planned then we all have each other’s backs – no questions asked.”

Safety is paramount to Donnelly, and he would do anything to protect his teammates. “Just like backcountry snowboarding, everything we do at the refinery has extensive training behind it. We all know each other’s skill sets and limitations, and we test our equipment around the clock to ensure it’s working correctly.”

He paused before adding, “Things can change in a matter of seconds, and preparation is crucial. We don’t cut corners here – life is precious, and we have an obligation to keep everyone safe.”

Love for family drives operator

Donnelly definitely misses traveling to exotic places from his professional snowboarding days, but he said that the “best part of snowboarding is that it’s not really about the competitions – it’s about the fun factor and having the same excitement during a run that I felt when I was 15. Even as a pro, I was always competing against myself and just wanting to push my body to do the very best it could that day…and that hasn’t changed.”

Outside of snowboarding, Donnelly is an avid skier, surfer and mountain biker. Since operators work 12-hour shifts on a rotation of nights and days depending on the week, Donnelly appreciates the extended time that he has to pursue all of his outdoor hobbies.

But what ultimately drives him? That’s easy – his family.

“I want to provide the best life possible for my wife and kids, and my job at Shell enables me to do that,” he said. “I can provide my kids with opportunities that I never could have dreamed of in other jobs. They can snowboard, play select soccer, attend dance classes, go to college and more…that’s such a gift.”

“I’m so thankful for the life my wife and I have built together. Sometimes I miss the adrenaline rush of professional snowboarding, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the joy my family brings me on a daily basis.”

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