The Ride of Their Lives

These women are going downhill fast.

If you call the Snowboard Outreach Society in Vail, a guy will get on the phone and say, "I believe that the distinction is -- hey, does anyone know the difference between an amateur and a pro? Hello? I think, a pro rider has sponsorship? And is paid to ride? Maybe?"

"If you're a pro rider, you get paid to do what you love to do," says Tom Collins, executive director of the USASA. "The Olympic definition is that if your money earned exceeds your travel and training costs, you're a pro. But it's loose, I admit it."

Another way to look at it: A select handful of pros are headed for the X Games this afternoon. So are the amateurs, but they're coming to watch.

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.

The Aspen setting for the X Games looks like a Hollywood director's dream snowboard scene, with all the stereotypes intact: the boarder/ spectators honing their rebellious look, chain-smoking and calling each other Dude; the girl groupies clotted around the aloof, lounging boys. The ESPN announcers are stoked, and what they want to know from their interview subjects is this: Dude, are you stoked to be here? The usual soundtrack of disaffected gang music plays for a crowd of people who can seemingly afford what Dena Melinn calls "that forty-dollar Cosmopolitan I can't wait to drink when I'm done with all this." The love of crashes, live on the big-screen TVs, is unapologetic, and the teen boys in the stands tell each other about their own bad wipeouts: And Dude, did you see? I ate it, I so ate it.

But snowboarding is getting more respectable every day. And sure enough, the crowd also includes the senior/ retired set and whole wholesome families, as well as Pitkin County kids who've been given several days off from school.

Jessica and CJ take the shuttle bus in from Glenwood, wearing the matching hats they crocheted at home while watching snowboard movies. They only get to stay a day, but they're spellbound.

Barrett Christy falls in the qualifying round for the superpipe. Even after a reasonably good second run, she comes in fifteenth and doesn't make it to the finals. She sticks around for a few days anyway, doing interviews for her sponsors and attending a party for her favorite charity, Boarding for Breast Cancer.

Dena Melinn wipes out near the top of the boardercross qualifying course, ruining her chances for the rest of the X Games. She is too distraught to talk. The next morning, she leaves on a cheap America West flight to Southern California, to go get a hug from her fiancé. "I just couldn't stay and party," she says. "It would have been salt in my wounds."

Talk is all about the studly Anderson sisters from South Lake Tahoe, who are thirteen and seventeen and have come to Aspen with their mother.

"Every year, the competitors get younger -- oh, absolutely," says USASA's Collins, who's a race starter at the X Games. "A lot more dollars are being spent on kids. They go to special snowboard academies, their parents are taking second jobs to buy them better equipment and moving to the mountains so their kids can train more than a couple of weeks a year. It's a whole new breed."

Dena returns from California in a funk, but with a plan: She'll keep competing, going back and forth to California twice more for big races before the season ends, and enter all the little local stuff she can. The United States Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA) will hold its Western Regionals, an Olympic-qualifying race, at the end of February, but it's hard to think that far ahead. For once, money is okay.

"Us older people have more of a handle on it," she says, "For example, today in the mail I got a check for $900 in prize money and four checks for $450 each for four times the Chevy commercial aired. I even still have a little saved up. I've been looking for jobs, but how do you tell people you have to work around your snowboarding schedule?"

A week later, while tearing it up in the terrain park at Copper, Dena jumps on a fun box, hits it wrong, fractures two ribs and punctures a lung. "I thought I could get back down the hill, but then I couldn't breathe," she reports. "It feels, really, like I broke my boob. I spent two nights in the hospital -- never done that before -- and the doctor says it'll be four to six weeks before I rehab. Let me tell you, it's going to be closer to four.

"But get this," she says. "I actually have health insurance. Yep -- I bought a short-term policy in November, and I made sure I was covered for snowboarding. I paid for six months up front. I never would have done that earlier in my life."

Barrett Christy, on her way in to Seattle for a meeting with Gnu/Libtech, doesn't even want to think about the X Games.

"Okay, so it was terrible," she says, then laughs. "I don't know which one of my lineup of excuses to use. I can't blame it on the pipe. The pipe was beautiful. All the practices were during the day and the events were at night, which was a little hard on me, but I can't really use that, either. I guess I just wallowed in remorse for a while."

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