By Tetsuhiko Endo; Photograph courtesy of Stan Evans
This week, Adventure got a chance to chat with one of the best women’s freeskiers of the last decade, Grete Eliassen. What’s that? You’ve never heard of freeskiing? Sure you have, you just didn’t realize it. Think massive snow-park jumps. Think rail sliding. Think back flips off back-country cliffs. Think half pipes, and quarter pipes, and three sixties, and baggy snow pants, and loud music and all those other things that used to attract young people to snowboarding, but think of them on a pair of wide, double tipped skis.
Also known as “freestyle” or “new school” skiing, the sport was developed by the frustrated racers and mogul riders of the late 90s who gradually moved away from their well-established disciplines and into the then snowboard only snow-parks. Among them was a young girl of Norwegian and American parents called Grete Eliassen (pronounced “Gretta”). Growing up between Minnesota and Lilihammer, Norway, Eliassen became a decorated junior ski racer (what else would you do with those two hometowns?). She threw herself into freeskiing full time not long after her father escorted her into her first snow park. Since then, she has gone on to become one of the most decorated women in her sport with four U.S. Open wins, and numerous gold and silver medals in both the half pipe and slope-style X events of the Winter X games. As she has gotten older, she’s pushed into the back country while simultaneously pursuing a degree in Business Management at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.
At the ripe old age of 24, Eliassen is probably staring down the barrel of the latter half of her professional skiing career. But as Adventure found out, that doesn’t mean she’s lost a step. After watching her aptly titled movie, Say My Name at the New York City Snow Film Festival this past weekend, we got her on the phone to get the scoop on sexism, business, core strength workout, gangsta rap, and the future of women’s skiing. Luckily, she had just stepped out of class.
Adventure: You're just back from class?
Grete Eliassen: Operations management. Not incredibly exciting, but I’m a business major at the University of Utah, so it’s just one of the ones I have to take.
Is it hard balancing your studies and college life with skiing?
GE: Not really. I study during the summer and fall, then take the spring trimester off to ski. So my school year is basically May through Christmas. It’s definitely different than a normal college experience though. When I think of school, it’s only what happens in the classroom. I don’t party that much, but I do go to football games.
A lot of athletes forgo higher (and lower) education to focus on their sports. What made you want to do both?
GE: Being a woman athlete, you don’t make as much money as men so you have to set yourself up for the future. I’ve been skiing professionally since I was ten. I’m 24 now, so I know I’m not going to be in this forever.
Some of the girls at your movie screening in NYC really liked that you came out in a dress, looking "girly" in the beginning. Do you feel that you have to prove to people what women can be both athletic and feminine? Is it difficult to combine the two images?
I don't think it’s difficult. I mean, I am not the type of girl that skis in make-up. I just don't do it. I am always too excited and can barely remember to bring my ski boots, let alone put make-up on in the morning. But when I am doing a "lifestyle" photo shoot, there will be a make-up artist on hand. And I think that is great. I think it is way better to look up to female athletes than models. Models portray someone, but we athletes are actually the real deal and spend most our time outside playing.
How much longer can you go?
GE: Thirty is probably when you is when you really stop progressing. But saying that, it’s hard to tell. My friend Amber Wing is a wake boarder and at 27 she’s landing bigger tricks than she’s ever done.
And when you hang up the skis?
GE: My main goal is to get women’s sports out there, so I’d love to work for a sports television network that shows woman’s sports. When you go to the ski slopes, the male-to-female ratio is about 50:50 and, at least in Utah, we have a lot of women who do triathlons, and come winter they are out in the mountains, too. What you aren’t going to see is those same women in a ski magazines.
How do you change that perception of women?
It’s about using whatever you can, whatever is available to you. I think its going to take more movies like mine to expose women’s freestlye skiing. I also think more women will catch on if they see other women do it. Personally, I get so motivated by watching other female athletes.
Do you think the industry has been slow to catch on?
GE: I think some of them have such an old school way of thinking that they don’t really get it. It’s the same thing with freestyle skiing not being allowed in the Olympics. You can go to any ski resort and find a snow park and a half pipe, but you're not going to find aerial jumps or moguls (two Olympic disciplines). It’s like there is a group of old guys who sit in a room and decide what’s cool and what’s not. But they’re wrong. What is cool is what people are watching on the Internet.
This is the first year that ESPN is televising women’s X Game skiing. It’s like they’re finally saying that we’re good enough to watch. Ten years from now I want to turn on the TV and see women’s skiing. It doesn’t matter what type as long as it’s what’s popular, whether that be racing, or pipe, or freestyle. right now, they aren’t showing what a lot of girls are actually doing.
You’ve become more involved in backcountry skiing recently, correct?
GE: Yes. The media has portrayed woman’s skiing as always being in the park. Now we’re seeing girls like Angel Collinson bringing up a younger generation of girls in the back country. Other girls are seeing that they want to do it, too. Last year I went heli-skiing twice and now I can’t believe there aren’t more women out there going heli-skiing. You can’t even explain being in the middle of nowhere and only hearing the sound of your own turns. When I’m 30 or 40 years old, I want to be going powder skiing with all my girls. The problem is, I need to make more money to be able to afford it, that’s why I’m here studying.
Do you get scared out there?
GE: Every day I go into the backcountry I’m pushing my limits in some way. I especially feel it when I’m on top of a line that I haven’t skied before. You kind of know it (the line) because you’ve taken a picture of it, or ridden by it on the way up, but you don’t really know it.
I used to have this thing I said to myself: Don’t think just jump. That backfired and I injured myself, so you do have to think about it, but you can’t always over-analyze it. All you have to do is let your body do what it knows how to do. You can be scared to do it, but you need to know you can do it.
Does training help with that confidence?
Yes. I master fear by doing things over and over. There are a lot of little variations but...I know that if I’ve done a trick 50 times in the park, I can do it in the backcountry because it’s not that different. Also, if things go wrong, it’s like gymnastics—you know how to fall so you just go limp.
What is your training regimen like?
GE: I believe that core strength is really important, and I think my core is one of the reasons I’ve stayed so healthy throughout my career. So I try to do 300 sit-ups a day. In the fall, I like to do cardio once or twice a week, then strength training once or twice a week, which usually involves squats in the university gym. Then, during the winter and spring, when I’m skiing a lot, I still try to do core exercises as well as stretch before and after each session. Stretching after the session is really important, it’s how you are going to be able to ski the next day. In the summer I try to take time off just to let my body totally heal itself.
Staying motivated is important for me because, when I get bored with something I stop doing it. I’m always tweaking my routine according to what I read in magazines and always trying to think of the reasons why I do it. I’m not training for bikini season, I’m training for my sport, so I don’t break my back.
Speaking of breaking your back, can you tell us a little bit about setting the woman’s hip jump world record?
GE: The hip jump was unique. I called all my friends and asked them to come hit it with me and they all said “no” because it was too big. As with anything, I gradually stepped up to by starting on a smaller jump and going bigger and bigger and bigger. At that jump, my mom even came up a couple days earlier. Everyone was asking her if she was worried about me but she just said: “No, this is what Grete does. She’s been doing this since she was three.”
I only hit the jump about ten times every day because my body would give out from the compression of coming into the jump at around 60 mphs and having to pop so hard. The landing was pure ice, too, so that took a toll on my legs.
60 mph? That’s terrifying.
GE: I used to be a Super G racer, so I’ve gone faster. But there is a point where the slope you are on won’t let you go any faster.
Of course. What was going through your head as you approached the jump?
GE: You have to be kind of aggressive. But it needs to be a “flowy” aggressiveness. People told me: “Grete you were screaming at yourself and gritting your teeth.”
I also have to have the right song playing on my mp3 player when I’m in the park. I don’t listen to music in the back country because there are too many things going on, but I always have music on in the park.
Who are you listening to?
GE: I’m a huge, huge, huge, hip hop and R and B fan. Some of my favorite artists right now are Nikki Minaj, Bun B, the Wu Tang Clan, Trina, and Rihanna—love her new song, “What’s my name?” I was actually at a Trina concert in Florida and, I guess because I was the only blonde girl there, she pulled me up on stage and had me sing a song with her. You can actually see what I’m listening to by checking out the playlists that I post here.
Do you watch any TV?
GE: I watch some online. Aside from sports games, I watch Gossip Girl on Sundays while I’m cooking all my meals for the week. I’m also always on wsj.com, gotta keep up on my business news.
What’s the worst part of your job?
GE: I don’t know, I really love what I do...
Oh come on...
GE: Oh, I know: I have really cold feet! I’ve tried using boot heaters, but they keep breaking on me. I treat my feet really badly, so I try to get a pedicure about twice a month to forgive them.
How do you deal with constantly being in the cold?
GE: I’ve got the ultimate system. I wear one layer of long underwear, then snow pants and a jacket. Aside from my spinal protector, I rarely wear more layers because I think staying warm is all about having good long undewear and keeping air circulating. For my feet, I wear one good pair of legit’ ski socks, then a neck gator to keep my face warm, because if your face is cold you are not a happy person.
What do you always have in your suitcase?
GE: I always have my passport because my dad lives in Norway, and I have a lot of family there, so if there is family emergency I need to be able to get there quickly. Aside from that, I carry a Mac Book Pro like everyone else in the skiing world, and an iPod Shuffle. I like the Shuffle because the battery lasts for two days and you can go skiing with it without having it freeze up like larger iPods, or phones.
GE: Yes! I’m reading about seven different books right now, from school books on operations managment to the Mötley Crüe book, The Dirt, which I just finished in literally two days. Also, I went to school in Norway, so I’m trying to catch up on some of the American classics that I missed. Right now, I’m on To Kill a Mockingbird. Then, as far as magazines go, I read Time, The High Country Journal, which is about environmental issues, and then, of course, I try to stay current with my hip hop magazines.