Sochi 2014: Grete Eliassen – The free spirit of freestyle skiing
(CNN) — With the wind in her hair, the ice cold air on her cheeks and powder flying from her skis, Grete Eliassen took her sport to new extremes.
The American hit the ramp hard, soaring 31 feet above the snow before returning to earth a world-record holder.
That monumental leap in Utah three and a half years ago confirmed Eliassen’s status as a force in her emerging discipline.
Less than a decade after turning her back on downhill ski racing, it was a moment for the freestyle star to savor.
“I was on the Norwegian national team but I quit ski racing because it wasn’t fun for me anymore,” she told CNN. `
“I love powder, I love getting air.”
As a teenager Eliassen had to choose between following her dream and pursuing her passion.
Downhill racing and a shot at Olympic gold was a possibility, but she opted for a career in the discipline she loved — freestyle skiing.
“I thought I would go to the Winter Olympics for ski racing, when I decided that wasn’t my passion I let my Olympic dream go,” said the 27-year-old, who was born in the U.S. but has a Norwegian father.
With Russia’s first Winter Games drawing ever closer, the two-time X Games gold medal winner could get one last chance to fulfill her childhood dream.
Slopestyle is a freestyle skiing discipline that sees competitors tackle a variety of obstacles, such as jumps and rails, as they descend a downhill course.
Rather than being ranked by time, skiers are judged on the variety and difficulty of the tricks they perform as they traverse the obstacles.
At Sochi 2014, it will be part of the Olympics for the first time.
“I’ve been watching the Olympics since I was a little girl,” said Eliassen, who is based in Salt Lake City — which hosted the 2002 Winter Games.
“It’s my favorite show every four years, watching all the female athletes.
“I’ve been following my heart the whole time having fun, now it’s back in my sights. It is crazy how dreams you think could never happen can happen.
“This is my only shot at the Olympics. I’m getting older and I’ve competed a lot in this sport, I know this will be my one and only shot.”
Slopestyle is the latest event to make the transition from the modern, high-octane world of the X Games into the ancient, rarefied confines of the Olympic arena.
While Eliassen is embracing this new chapter in the short history of her sport, she is also keen to pay tribute to slopestyle’s X Games roots.
“The X Games has always been our Olympics because in the past we never had the Olympics,” explained Eliassen.
“This year is definitely going to be different. We can look at snowboarding, where usually in an Olympic year it’s a little toned down at the X Games, some athletes don’t do it.
“For our sport it’s important to do it all, all of the contests which have been there since the beginning like the X Games. It’s the birthplace of our sport.”
The inclusion of slopestyle in the Olympic program has brought Eliassen under the umbrella of the U.S. ski team, giving her access to coaches and facilities which were previously inaccessible.
“Before the Olympics my training consisted of going to the gym, building up my muscle to prevent injury,” she said.
“But now we’re part of the U.S. ski team I have a strength and conditioning coach, I have an air awareness coach for trampoline skills — anything in the air and more gymnastic.
“There’s been so much more coverage of our sport. I’ve done way more media interviews. I’m just really excited to be a part of it.”
The Olympics and the media circus which accompanies the Games has helped slopestyle’s profile hit new heights.
Eliassen hopes the young sport can continue to go from strength to strength.
“I turned professional age 17, I won the U.S. Open, shortly after that I won the X Games and I kept winning and winning,” she said.
“I’ve been in the sport for over a decade now, which is incredible. I’ve seen it grow from such a little thing … I was the only girl in my terrain park, now I see girls in there every day, which is amazing.
“Now I get to see it grow into the Olympics, which is really cool.”
The final U.S. selection competitions take place in December and January. If Eliassen is picked she will complete a journey which began when she was a child bouncing on a trampoline in her parents’ backyard.
“I had a little garden trampoline,” she said. “I have a bigger trampoline now, you can jump really high, which is crazy.
“I’m not sure how I learned all of these tricks on my garden trampoline, but I did.”
Pushing the envelope has always been Eliassen’s style, culminating in her history-making leap in 2010.
“When I did my world record jump, I jumped 31 feet,” she said. “You don’t do that first. You start off with a small jump and you build up to a medium jump. It’s always progression. You start off small and you work your way up.
“Our sport is all about progression and making things look newer, the other sports are quite regimented. You never know what you’re going to see in our sport.”
Come February, slopestyle fans could see Eliassen with a gold medal around her neck.
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