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"No offense, but it was frustrating," she says. "I seemed to always get the bonbon-eating, overweight, over-forty ladies -- and they're all like We're gonna snowboard! Whee! And you spend the whole day just picking them up off the snow."
One day she saw her first boardercross event on ESPN. "The girls were flailing around, and I thought, I can do this," she remembers. "And then a Nike-sponsored event came to Copper, and I took fourth and won $800. I thought, Wow."
Years went by, with Dena racing, sleeping on floors, house-sitting, decorating cakes, eating a lot of pasta -- but never ramen. "No matter how bad it gets," she explains, "ramen is never necessary." The snowboarding world began to produce superstars -- riders whose big-name sponsors paid them salaries, named boards after them, gave them financial bonuses every time they appeared in print or on camera. Snowboard movies -- a subgenre featuring hip-hop soundtracks and a lot of slow-motion, bad-ass jumps and tricks -- became increasingly important, and fans watched the same film more times than they could count. Sponsors loved to see their riders in movies, and they wrote checks to prove it.
Snowboarding went to the Olympics for the first time in 1998.
By 2000, only a handful of American resorts still prohibited snowboarding, and the others, recognizing their best interests, were teaching more people to ride each season.
Dena found a place somewhere in the middle of the momentum. She consistently qualified for all of the important races, attracted a sponsor or two but never a paycheck, and filmed a Chevy truck commercial for which she still receives royalties.
"The really famous riders are on a different level," she admits. "You really need to have your face in front of a film camera whenever you can, and that's kind of been my downfall. I suck at talking about myself."
Her current sponsors are Cold As Ice, a girls-only clothing line; Zeal Optics, a Moab eyewear company; and her brother, who quit racing long ago to start a successful Internet business and recently hooked his sister up with a few Burton snowboards. He'll be coming to Aspen to help her tune those boards, and to pay the exorbitant cost of an Aspen hotel room, a luxury few un-sponsored X Game athletes can afford. Even in Pitkin County, there are floors to crash on -- but Dena will be grateful for a few nights' good sleep on a mattress.
She's riding well, she thinks.
"After the heel injury, I had to get over the fear," she says. "But I did. I broke myself in. I started out jumping small, and now I'll go off anything. My foot doesn't work that well, but I don't know, I just had to keep doing it. It's in me."
Barrett Christy, also thirty-two, is headed to the X Games this afternoon. While Dena Melinn has fans -- at Copper Mountain, where she appears in Big Air shows every Sunday, and at the Frisco Safeway, where not everyone drops by just to buy a cake -- Barrett's not just a local celebrity, she's a national star.
Drop her name in any ninth-grade classroom and you get the sudden, undivided attention of smitten fourteen-year-old boys -- and anyone else who scrutinizes the pictures in Transworld Snowboarding magazine.
Barrett's famous as much for her appearances in print ads and movies as for the medals she's won, certainly famous enough to need an agent, who handles her personal appearances and various sponsorships. One of those sponsors is Nike, where the Air Barrett Christy cross-training shoe was developed two years ago by an all-female design team. A Nike TV commercial -- part of a campaign that also featured Marion Jones and Gabrielle Reese -- had her jumping off the roof of an L.A. office building. There's even a half-pipe trick known as the Barrett Roll.
Sitting in a Frisco coffeehouse, Barrett has the look of someone who's a "good spokesman for the sport": She's wearing jeans and a tasteful black sweater -- as opposed to visible neck tattoo and butt crack -- a smallish (5'2"), beautiful, outdoorsy girl.
"Different people set up their snowboarding in different ways," she explains. "Some people just get free boards and make it work. I did for a long time; I ate ramen and ate where I was waitressing and lived with a bunch of people to save rent. Your season pass -- that's your big purchase."
Although Barrett knows the plight of the would-be pro snowboarder, she hasn't experienced it for a while. Since flying into Colorado a few days ago, she's been living in the house she owns in Avon and driving the VW she won as Best Overall Snowboarder at the 1999 X Games. Once in Aspen, she'll stay in a room paid for by Gnu/Libtech, her snowboard sponsor, and finessed by ESPN when hotel space turned out to be tight. After the games, she'll return to the Northwest, home to Gnu, Nike and her husband, who has a house in Gig Harbor, Washington. Together they own a condo at Mount Baker, which Barrett thinks of as a retreat from the media frenzy and the competition. That's a lot more real estate than usually attaches itself to a pro snowboarder. And because she, too, started riding when the sport was new, she never expected it.