The Ride of Their Lives

These women are going downhill fast.

"I was always into sports," Barrett remembers. "I started out in gymnastics, from four to twelve, but then you kind of had to make a commitment, and I didn't want to give up my other sports. I liked to ride horses and play lacrosse and field hockey." Raised in suburban Pennsylvania, she didn't get much time on the icy local snow -- and when she skied, she says, she wasn't "overwhelmed by all my talent or anything." But then she saw her first snowboarder at a resort in the Poconos in the mid-'80s and was spellbound.

"Remember," she says, "some people had actually been snowboarding ten years by the time I tried it, even if it was on golf courses. It was weird and unusual -- a couple of women, but mostly boys. I had to try it. I'd never done anything relative to that sideways stance before, and I didn't take lessons, and my friends were bad teachers. It was all, Hey look at me! Look at this trick! But once it clicked, it was that effortless feeling, floating on top of powder."

After high school, she followed what would become a well-worn trail west to Tahoe, where she enrolled halfheartedly at a community college and spent most of her time learning to shred.

Dena Melinn pulls a front-side air in a half-pipe.
Matt Lit/
Dena Melinn pulls a front-side air in a half-pipe.

"A lot of my friends were skiers," she says. "Skiers are faster than snowboarders. The ultimate challenge was just to keep up, and my boyfriend was a skier. When he moved to Crested Butte, I did, too. After two seasons, I was fast enough to keep up with skiers and I was jumping off rocks and rollers, not that I knew anything about the half-pipe."

It was around this time that she met a Gnu/Libtech representative who gave her a board to ride, under the assumption that people who saw what Barrett could do on that board would want one of their own. This immediately cut her out of the herd: Most snowboarders grab the attention of high-rent sponsors only in their dreams. A few months later, Barrett visited Breckenridge, entered a rudimentary half-pipe contest and took second.

"The pipe was like a little ditch back then," she remembers. "There were no more than fifteen women competing, and we all knew each other and liked each other." Her gymnastics days helped her throw more complicated tricks in the pipe, but what really interested her at the time was Big Air -- a contest in which athletes take one huge jump, usually at the base of a mountain, embellishing it with as many skateboard-inspired moves as they can before landing. Although Barrett didn't win against men, she often competed against them directly since there was no women's category in those days.

And once a woman's event was introduced, Barrett started winning it, which got Nike's attention. She was wary at first -- "What did Nike know about snowboarding?" she remembers thinking -- but eventually signed, and even went through the company's media-training program for athletes. "It was fun," she says. "The idea was to teach us not to sound like idiots."

In 1998, she was part of the first Olympic snowboard team at the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, riding in the pipe. "Actually, it was overwhelming," she admits. "Thirty thousand fans was kind of a new element. As a result, I completely seized up. I've been nervous before, but this was different. I don't always fall and crash."

It was then that Barrett began to see the direction that she and snowboarding would take -- from goofing around to deadly serious, from riding in any event that sparked her interest to concentrating on just one.

"Training is a strange concept when it used to just be fun," she observes. "I haven't even really been training in that sense of the word. But I've been doing my X Games tricks for years, so I bet I'll be okay. I got fifth last year, and a lot of the girls I used to compete with don't do it anymore. The older girls now are in their early twenties. There are sixteen-year-olds out there who have been snowboarding for ten years already, and it seems like they haven't been hurt as much as the rest of us, and they take bigger chances. I sure wasn't getting concussions at twelve."

But if some twelve-year-old steals her glory at the X Games, so be it. Barrett's been traveling too much for too many years, and she says she won't really mind if fate pushes her away from racing. Maybe she'll take more design meetings with Nike and Gnu, focus on the women's snowboard camps she's been running at Vail, or just stay in front of the cameras.

"It doesn't necessarily fit with my life to sit around Alaska waiting for snow conditions and light to be right for filming, but I block out the time," she says. "Sponsors pay when you're in a movie."

And there are other kinds of exposure. The gossip this week is all about Gretchen Bleiler and Tara Dakides, two female snowboarders who appeared dressed only in body paint for the February issue of FHM magazine.

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