The Ride of Their Lives

These women are going downhill fast.

Dena Melinn's right foot has a nasty reddish look, barely bends at the ankle and is twice as big around as her left, as though the swelling from two years ago never really subsided.

"I shattered my heel jumping a big, big gap," she says. "I broke it in thirty places, too many places. I couldn't afford the physical therapy, so I sucked it up and limped around and lost almost a year of snowboarding."

Today the foot has 40 percent mobility, and when Dena makes a toe-side turn, she can't come very far onto her right toes. "The first four months back were incredibly painful," she remembers. But now her foot is just one of those tweaked body parts that eventually nail every snowboarder, and Dena's been competing since the dawn of the sport.

Fast company: Jessica Johnson, ready to ride.
Anthony Camera
Fast company: Jessica Johnson, ready to ride.
A girl for all seasons: Barrett Christy, on the slopes.
Chris Owen
A girl for all seasons: Barrett Christy, on the slopes.

"Yeah, yeah, and I have a meniscus tear from wakeboarding," she laughs. "My knees creak. I'm old."

At thirty-two, she could be considered at the tail end of her athletic career, with a house-sitting gig in Dillon for the season that she got at the last second. The carpenter who owns the property spends his summers in the mountains but prefers to skip resort-style winter. His manly little touches -- decorative Jack Daniel's bottles, big-fish photos -- are all over the place. There's a huge TV, and hip-hop rumbles from the speakers. Dena's goal is to get in as many races as possible, make enough money to cover entry fees, and avoid paying rent.

This week, the second to last in January, will be pivotal. In a few hours, Dena will drive to Aspen to begin practices for the eighth annual Winter X Games. Perhaps the most prestigious and certainly the most public competition on the snowboarding circuit, the X Games will run into the weekend as contestants are narrowed down. Last year Dena took sixth in boardercross, an event in which six riders all start at once, taking big jumps and hard turns on their way to the finish. That was enough to earn her a spot in this year's games, which are by invitation only. If she does well at the X Games, and at a few other national races on the schedule -- a couple of World Cup events, perhaps the Jeep Queen of the Mountain in California? -- the faint outline of the 2006 Winter Olympics will appear on the horizon. At the very least, the prize money could save Dena from having to return to her day job as a Safeway cake decorator.

But it could go the other way entirely. Faster, younger riders might beat her into the ground. Or she might lose her luck to someone else, for no apparent reason -- an unavoidable peril of snowboard racing. After she marries her longtime boyfriend in California next September, she might move there year-round, settle down at a new Safeway, start raising children.

Either option could be cool, Dena thinks. In any case, she's had a good run.

"It's a different sport now," she says. "When I started out, people were always stopping me on the slope just to ask what I was doing."

She was sixteen then, riding at Mountain High, a small resort outside her hometown of Wrightwood, California. Her firefighter father commuted to Los Angeles; her mother was in real estate and taught her four kids to ski when they were so young that none of them remember their first run.

"When I saw my first snowboard, I was totally fascinated," Dena remembers. "I asked the guy the typical twenty questions. He was a skate-shop guy, and I bought one of his old boards -- a swallowtail with a fin. It was total trial and error. I went up on the hill and abused myself. I couldn't go to school the next day, my knees were so sore. But our mountain had night skiing, and I never stopped. I had Sorel boots with bindings that I baled on with a wire hanger."

Pictures from those days show Dena in skintight black ski pants, big hair and a "flowered jacket, flowered everything. That's how I looked in the little local competitions." As a snowboarder, she had a choice between Giant Slalom and Slalom -- two events cribbed from alpine -- as well as a race on a half-pipe made from two mounds of snow with a channel plowed between them, and the long-defunct Obstacle Course. She entered them all and won a lot of them, going immediately to the nationals held by the fledgling United States of America Snowboarding Association (USASA). Prizes were medals and plaques. Pretty soon a sponsor offered free boards to Dena and her two brothers.

"Was it exciting? I mean, can you imagine?" she recalls. "This is when Burton and Sims were getting popular, and another company, Barfoot Snowboards out of Santa Barbara, was getting just as popular, and they offered us boards, products, T-shirts, stickers -- no money, of course. I think we had little three-line contracts that said: I will ride Barfoot Snowboards and enjoy it. Barfoot doesn't even exist anymore. "

As soon as she finished high school, Dena moved to Lake Tahoe for a few years, where she was one of a handful of female snowboarders -- competing, looking for sponsors, waitressing. Then she followed a boy to Copper Mountain, where she stayed three years, teaching at the resort.

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