The Ride of Their Lives
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.
"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.
"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.
"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.
"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.
"The men's magazines have been trying to do that story forever," Barrett says. "Playboy was calling for a while there. Eventually they got girls who said they were pro snowboarders. None of us had ever heard of them, but who knows? They sure look like they have the most perfect bodies. I'm all for it if it fits your personality. I couldn't. I mean, I'm confident with myself, but not necessarily naked."
Nineteen-year-old Jessica Johnson and her boyfriend, CJ, have just figured out that a friend of a friend who goes to college in Glenwood Springs has floor space available and that they may be able to weasel out of their jobs at Loveland Ski Area long enough to catch a few of the X Games events, which are free.
Jessica works part-time at the rental shop. Last year she worked full-time, she explains, but she barely had time to ride, and she needs all the riding time she can get. Her desire to turn pro is a lot stronger than her need for cash. Besides, she and CJ worked all summer selling beer at Red Rocks. The money was good, and three months of walking up and down those amphitheater steps gave her bionic quads.
After scrounging for gas money, they decide to make the trip. They're familiar with Aspen, sort of.
"Last year, CJ and I did the Jeep King of the Hill; it's a kind of a coed pair race," Jessica says. "We did great. He came in first, and I smoked all the guys. It was just last year, and we won a trip to Aspen to compete. They gave us two hotel rooms 'cause there were two of us, and so naturally we invited ten friends, and then none of us could afford to eat up there, it's so expensive. And we didn't do well in the race. But we had a great time, and I thought, for the first time, Whoa -- I could compete."
She can't wait to go back, even if she has to go hungry.
Jessica, CJ, a friend and an un-neutered male pit bull share a tiny miner's shack in Silver Plume that's visible from the highway. Heat comes from a wood stove. A snowboard video (License to Appear) plays on the TV. Jessica's savings account currently holds eight bucks. Her father, a framer with a grip on real-world economics, wants to know when she plans to join the rest of society. He also wants to know:
Why she keeps getting in car accidents.
Why she's been a "boot girl" at the Loveland rental shop for three years.
If she'll ever pay for her own health insurance, considering the number of times she's dislocated her shoulder while riding, and then there was that broken hand...
And what about this racing? Does she have a shot?
He owns a time-share at Beaver Creek, but like the rest of Jessica's family, he's skied only a few times in his life and never snowboarded. Jessica discovered Loveland on an eighth-grade ski trip and immediately decided that if her friends could ride snowboards, she could, too. Without ever taking a lesson, she simply decided to keep up with the boys. Before long, snowboarding was her life.
"My parents got divorced, and my mom and I moved to Evergreen, and I went to Clear Creek High School," she says. "I got in a lot of trouble in high school. My mom would pretty much ground me every weekend, so during the week, I didn't go to school much. There are a bunch of roads up here, and we'd go out there and throw rocks and drive around Idaho Springs and hang out at the park, just skateboard all afternoon. I got my job at Loveland when I was sixteen."
Compared with other Colorado ski resorts, Loveland is small, inexpensive and really not even a destination for out-of-towners. There are no hotels or boutiques, no day spas -- even the lodge carpeting looks decades old. But Jessica found out that a "dinky slalom race" had been set up, and she entered it and took third. The next round of the race was at Keystone. All she had to do was send in some paperwork, but...she forgot. Her dad, again, was pissed. The next year, though, she got it together and took fourth, and that's when she began thinking about life as a pro.
"A sponsor -- what would that be like?" she wonders. "I mean, do they really hook you up with everything you need? Making a sweet video -- that would be awesome, too. We had a friend up in Dillon, and she had this sweet camera and she was filming us, talking about making a movie, but we haven't heard from her in a while."
Loveland isn't exactly lousy with sponsors and film crews. So while Jessica waits, she rides as much as she can and works out "at the dinky little rec center in Idaho Springs. And I think," she says. "I think about the X Games."
What separates an amateur snowboarder from a pro?
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.
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."
After that, she took a look at her fellow competitors. "The whole crew was younger, even younger than last year," she says. "They're all training hard for the Olympics -- one event, very focused, not at all like we used to be. It must be intense."
The X Games ended Barrett's racing for the season, but she'll still be riding for a living over the next few months -- a helicopter trip for a Utah TV station, outings with Vail VIPs at a conference in Breckenridge, several photo shoots arranged by her agent.
"And what next? People have been asking me that forever," she says. "I'd like to get involved with recreational riders. I like teaching. There's so many women who don't see themselves as your typical snowboarders. I want to teach them. I love to play tennis, and I love to surf. I love basset hounds. I love my husband. And you know, I have a lot of medals. You can't do this all forever. I've done as well as I want to do."
"Saturdays," Jessica says happily. "I love Saturdays -- so many people to show off in front of." And that's what she's been doing all day, riding up and down Lift 6 to the Loveland terrain park, riding the rails and the boxes, oblivious to the small group of thirteen-year-old girls who watch her every move. Tupac croons into her headphones, and it's all "awesome and smooth," she says, "feeling my board move around underneath me and just hitting it." When she jumps onto an obstacle -- a long, C-shaped box about a foot wide -- it looks effortless, as if she were taking the first step onto a flight of stairs.
On her next ride up, though, Jessica witnesses a brutal collision between two skiers. After the crash, both lie limp in the snow. A young boy on a snowboard rushes toward them, not sure what to do.
"Oh, my God, that's horrible," Jessica says, breathing fast. "I'm terrible around blood and freaked-out people. This guy who's been riding with us, a crazy guy with skulls tattooed on his neck, and it turns out he's old, like thirty-eight, he hit his leg riding with us a few weeks ago and the blood was just spurting. And then when I was in that pickup truck that rolled -- when I woke up, I was lying there bleeding and my boyfriend at the time was bleeding in a ditch. I broke my eye-socket bone and my nose. I had lied to my dad about where I was all week and the kids were all drunk. You know what? I think I've been stupid and naíve and have had to learn a lot of lessons. I think they should change the driving age."
After the rollover accident, Jessica got a little insurance money. She put a thousand dollars into snowboard gear -- all good, but used. Then last September, she went to Washington's Mount Baker to ride the early season, which was so sweet, and she looked for work so that she could stay where the serious riders live. But there were no jobs, so she returned to Loveland for another season. There's talk that next year, Loveland will have a snowboard team, and she'll be on it. Meanwhile, she'll ride and wait for the little races to come to town.
"This little ten-year-old girl asked me to ride with her last weekend," she recalls. "Her brother was making fun of her, saying she couldn't ride the park. So I did, I rode with her. It was cool. She was fearless, of course."
Dena is definitely not supposed to race for at least three more weeks, so she's come out to the Copper Boardercross Series just for the hell of it, she says. Her ribs still hurt so much that she has trouble bending over to put on her boot, but she's dying to get out on the snow.
"I might just side-slip down the course behind the other girls," she decides. "Just so they know I was there. They have to give me some points for that."
Only three other girls enter the race; she should be able to stay out of their way. And what's the worst that could happen?
While she waits, she takes pictures with the tiny digital camera she got in her X Games goodie bag. "It was a great atmosphere, now that I can think about it," she says. "A huge athlete's lounge with big-screen TVs, massage, Internet, food and drink. And they gave us these cameras, and backpacks, and candies -- Reese's, which I ate both of and felt guilty -- and an Offspring CD and a couple of beanies. I got $250 prize money just for showing up.
"You know something?" she asks. "I made $40,000 last year, half on a snowboard. That's not too bad."
Parked in her gate before the next boardercross heat, Dena looks relaxed, wearing one of her Cold As Ice bright-blue outfits and a helmet sticker that reads "Girls Luv Snow." She is eight years older than the next-oldest competitor. When the gate drops, she falls easily into last place, coasting gently around the first curve and on toward the finish line. People who know her can't believe she's racing at all.
"She should be sitting on a sofa," someone says. "Did you hear what she did to her lung?"
But maybe today was the wrong day for the sofa, because at the bottom of the course the three younger women fall on top of each other, and by picking a smart route around them, Dena manages to stay upright, then pick up speed, and finally win the grand prize of a $100 gasoline certificate, courtesy of Shell.
Suddenly, those races in California don't look so far away.
"Luck," she says happily. "It's called big-time luck today."
On February 28, a nearly recovered Dena Melinn won the women's boardercross race at the USSA Western Regionals. USSA, which compiles athlete standings, now ranks her fourteenth in the United States.