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How Elyse Saugstad Crafted a Ski Career She's Proud of

On My Own Terms

Story by Katie Lozancich

Under the cloak of darkness, Elyse Saugstad woke up, threw her ski gear on, and got her sled ready. Once everything was good to go, she and her tiny crew—consisting of a cameraman and her husband and fellow pro skier Cody Townsend—ventured to a zone in the Coastal Mountains of British Columbia. That alone was typically an hour’s journey, and often they'd watch the morning light paint the mountains around them in alpenglow. Once in position, it was time to make a badass ski edit. Using the skills she gleaned from her time spent on the Freeride World Tour, Elyse surveyed the face, favoring lines with big airs and opportunities to ski fast like she was back in race gates. When she laced up one sequence, she got back on the sled and headed back up to repeat the whole process. Elyse skied lap after lap until the sun started to dip towards the horizon, their cue to head home. After a 12 plus hour day of filming, she had just enough energy left to eat and collapse into bed. The next morning her alarm chimed at 4:00 a.m. sharp, and Elyse rolled out of bed to start the routine all over again. This is how she slowly chipped away at making what was a jaw-dropping edit for Teton Gravity Research's Co-Lab contest in 2012.

"Oh my gosh. Yeah. I remember her Co-Lab segment because it was the same year that I had first filmed with TGR," Angel Collinson says and distinctly remembers the strength Elyse exuded, "I mean, I remember thinking she's a beast because like we all know like the kind of strength that it takes to stick landings like that. Obviously, her courage stuck out, but also her strength." One of Nick McNutt's first impressions from watching Elyse Saugstad's Co-Lab edit was, how have I not heard of this person before? "One thing that some people don't realize is most of the features she's skiing are blind, and they take a lot of precision and planning," explains McNutt, who's familiar with many of the zones where she filmed the edit. "With the things she was hitting, it's tough to tell if you've made a mistake until it's too late. So, just seeing how confident she was in her skiing was impressive."

This confidence stemmed from the fact that Elyse wholeheartedly believed she could be a film production skier. Unlike the many budding hopefuls that submitted edits, Elyse was no green athlete. As a veteran ski racer turned big mountain freerider, she garnered a reputation for fast, technical descents on high-consequence terrain. Oh, and not to mention, she loved dropping cliffs and stuck the landings like an Olympic gymnast. In 2008, the Alaska native won the Freeride World Tour, the most prestigious accolade in competitive freeskiing. The following year she won the FWT's "Best Female Line of the Year." Having made her mark on the competition circuit, Elyse felt it was time to pursue her dream of filming for the big screen. 

But even with impressive laurels like hers, she had no luck breaking through to the significant action sports production companies. "I think there are a few things that led to that. One is just the essence of the times that across the ski industry, between actual ski companies to the production companies, everyone had this model of one token female,” Elyse explains. The token female syndrome has been a longstanding problem within ski filmmaking. In an interview with snowboarding icon Julie Zell—who paved the way for women's big mountain snowboarding in TGR's Harvest, Uprising, and The Big One—Zell emphasized the lack of other women Alaskan production trips. "There could only be one," Zell said, referring to the number of spots allocated on the helicopter for women, and it became an unspoken understanding amongst female athletes. For obvious reasons, this limited the amount of qualified and talented skiers—like Elyse—to be part of the film industry. But these roadblocks did little to temper her ambition. "I didn't want to give up on the desire to film. I still thought that was what was most important to me. And so at that point, I just decided to take it into my own hands," she says.

A Natural Athlete

Before Elyse touched a pair of skis, her parents would throw her in a backpack to ski with them. She jokes that her parents eagerly got her in ski boots when she got too heavy for the pack. "I think I was skiing by the age of three or so, and I just took to it immediately," she reflects fondly. One of her earliest skiing-related memories is when her parents pulled her out of a day of kindergarten to ski pow. That small taste of the white room hooked her imagination. Her parents—her mother was an electrician and father was a construction worker—worked hard to share their passion for skiing with their children, a trait that Elyse carried into her career.

Two years later, Elyse joined Alyeska's Mighty Mite program and began ski racing, developing her foundational skills on the resort's steep and deep slopes. At seven years old, she raced her first event, edging out the rest of the competition. Bashing gates taught her how to charge, ski fast, and balance risk—skills that would later transfer well to freeriding. Skiing professionally never occurred to her, aside from the lofty goal of racing in the Olympics. But by the time she was in high school, she felt burnt out after years of non-stop racing. Ultimately, academics took precedence over skiing, and in college, she dropped out of the University of New Mexico's ski program to become a lawyer. That's not to say she was over skiing; in fact, she still kept her finger on the pulse. Freeride was gaining momentum within snowsports, and after class, she'd hurry to the video store to rent movies like TGR's Continuum or Harvest to keep tabs on the sport. "There weren't very many skiers at UNM. So I would have my friends come over and make them watch these ski movies with me, and they probably would roll their eyes. They weren't that into it, but I was super into it," she jokes. What especially captivated her was the skiing in Alaska. The spines. The untracked powder. And the endless sea of mountains. She saw herself out there, one day.

After completing her undergraduate degree, Elyse relocated to Olympic Valley, California, to treat herself to a ski bum year before starting law school. Suddenly, she was in the epicenter of freeskiing. In between studying for the LSAT, Elyse kept up with the pros around Squaw Valley—not to go professional—but merely as a means to push herself and her skills. It wasn't until she went on a ski trip to Utah with her new boyfriend, Cody Townsend, that she saw a ski career's potential. She was out skiing while Cody was in a meeting with Salomon's big wigs, and Salomon's Head of Marketing just happened to notice her charging down the slope. Her hard-charging style left such an impression that Elyse was offered a spot on Salomon's team shortly after. It also helped that Elyse had friends like Ingrid Backstrom to use as inspiration. The two had been pals since their teenage years, initially connecting through ski racing. "She had her breakout into the whole freeride ski scene, and that was momentous," Elyse explains. "it made me think like, you know what, this isn't too far out of my league."

Making Her Mark

One of the most natural ways to gain a footing in professional sports is to start competing. For skiers, that realm is the Freeride World Tour. She qualified for the FWT and performed well. Beyond placing high in the ranks, competing taught her how to read terrain, a crucial skill that she'd later rely on for filming. "For me, competing helped give me the experience of making myself step up to the occasion and perform when I needed to perform," Elyse explains. This ability to turn things on at a moment's notice worked in her favor. In 2008 she stacked up enough first-place finishes—Sochi, Tignes, and Verbier—that she walked away with the Freeride World Champion Title.

Ballooned by this achievement, Elyse started reaching out to different production companies to begin filming. But making the transition away from competing to ski filming isn't easy. It's a huge career risk. "Competing on the Freeride World Tour takes up a lot of time and mental focus. So, to try and interject filming on top of that is pretty difficult," she explains. "When you have a set amount of time to work with, it can spread yourself thin, and you're not giving 100% necessarily to each endeavor." Despite the challenge, she kept reaching out to major production companies, receiving rejection after rejection. She noticed that most companies had their one female for their entire roster, which ultimately shut out skiers like herself and many other talented women.

But the thing about Elyse is that—if you haven't picked up on it already—she's a hard worker. If she made it through her undergraduate law degree unscathed, then finding a way to film wasn't going to be impossible. "The thing that strikes me the most about Elyse is just the unbelievable amount that she believes in herself against all odds. I think that that is her best and just most admirable trait," explains Angel Collinson, who's worked with her closely a handful of times.

Rather than wait around for the big names to respond, she started making content by reaching out to smaller production companies. Buying a snowmobile also upped her game. "It became my heli," she says and suddenly could access terrain seen in most ski films. Sure, it wasn't Alaska, but it was damn close and gave her the edge she needed. This hustle became Elyse's program for the next three years, hoping to someday win the Best Female Performance at the Powder Awards. A win would place her in the ranks of women's most celebrated skiers: Michelle Parker, Angel Collinson, Ingrid Backstrom, and many more. Elyse knew that she could do it but still had one barrier to overcome: she had to be part of a high-production film segment. But in 2012, she found a way to work around that stipulation. TGR unveiled The Co-Lab, an open-sourced film competition with $100,000 on the line for the best edit in freeskiing.

The contest attracted everyone from established professionals to up-and-coming athletes. "It seemed like it was a talent search for TGR," Nick McNutt says, looking back at the contest that also cemented his own spot on the TGR roster. He mostly entered because it seemed like a solid stepping stone for his career. "At that point, I had some gear sponsors, but I was like still working full time in the offseason. So, the opportunity to work with TGR was a pretty appealing side effect of that."

Elyse had the same thinking, and the thought of winning the $100,000 grand prize wasn't what encouraged her to compete. If she could make a good enough entry to get in the top 10, then she'd be part of the film. It would finally give her a shot at the Powder Awards. It was a wild idea, but what did she have to lose? "The thing is, that approach to life - like ‘what do you have to lose?’ That gets you further. If you can, remove yourself from feeling like you're going to fail by trying. There's not a single professional athlete in the world that is against trying. If you're not willing to put your neck out there, willing to fail, then you're not going to succeed."

The Hustle

Deciding to do the Co-Lab contest felt easy compared to what it took to make an edit. For one, Elyse didn't have any money to hire a crew, which made it hard to convince a camera operator to follow you around for the season. "So it was this mish-mash of camera people in different groups getting this footage," she says. The footage quality was so mixed that she ultimately decided to make the whole edit black and white to cover up the inconsistencies. But having a 4k cinema quality camera wasn't the point; it was to make an impression with her skiing. That was entirely in her control. "When you have the sole intention of getting out there and skiing your butt off and doing the best that you can, that can shine through, and you don't have to worry about as quite as much as how well the cameraman is making it look good," Elyse says, and the hard work showed.

Out of all the skiers that submitted edits, Elyse made the final top 10. The audience even voted her in Top 5 Overall in a field of over 40 men. She didn't win the $100,000 check, but that didn't matter. Her edit made it into the film, giving her a shot at coveted Best Female Performance at the Powder Awards. Months later, she sat nervously waiting while MC Wendy Fisher announced the other nominees for the prize. It was a stacked list: Lexi Dupont, Angel Collinson, and Ingrid Backstrom. When Fisher opened the envelope, she read, "Elyse Saugstad with Co-Lab." The crowd erupted with cheers, and before Elyse could make it to the stage to accept the award, friends like Ingrid Backstrom, Jackie Paaso, and Michelle Parker swarmed her with hugs and praise. "You can take a moment for yourself and be like, ‘all right.’ I just achieved a goal that I've put a lot of work into, and it feels terrific. Still, to have the support around me from the people that I'm also technically competing with for this award, it feels like an honor," Elyse reflects fondly.

Lessons Learned

Crickets. That was the sound Elyse got from production companies after winning Best Female Performance. After numerous cliff stomps, early wake-ups, and one shiny award later, Elyse found herself still knocking at the same doors and getting no response. Something felt wrong with this script because if it were a sports movie like Rocky, that would be the kind of moment where she'd be celebrating at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The thing is, Elyse's hard work did pay off, just not in the way she expected. "I had an epiphany at this moment when I realized I had put a lot of value into what I could achieve as a professional skier by the sole factor of whether or not I got to film with a big production company. And I realized that it really comes down to what you can put into it, what you can make, what kind of effort you put into it, what the end product will be. I'm sure it can be more work, but it's achievable," she says. For most of her ski career, she linked the idea of success to collaborating with a big name company. But if there's anything that the Co-Lab taught her, it's that she can make things happen on her own.

Eventually, that call to film came in 2016, and Elyse fulfilled that wild dream of heli-skiing in Alaska. Just like those skiers she used to admire in Continuum and Harvest, she's now one of the lucky few that knows what it's like to ride Alaskan spines. "I had a lot of gumption thinking like, I could be like those skiers, and I look back at that thing and like I don't know why I thought I could do that back then, but I did," Elyse says, looking back on those days in college. "Having it come full circle where I got to be a part of a TGR production going heli skiing in Alaska, I think like really sealed the deal. It really sealed the deal on a career that I could be very proud of."

But the most beautiful part of this story is that Elyse's success with the Co-Lab was shared by more than just herself. As we work towards equity in snowsports, Elyse's hard work is an example that we can look to remind ourselves that our dreams are possible despite unfair odds. "She pays so much attention to all the talent coming up. I think, although she might never admit it, a lot of that is due to the hard work that she put forward," her friend and pro skier Jackie Paaso explains, who also credits Elyse with inspiring her to make her own film project Evolution of Dreams. "Just showing that the Blondes can go out and produce their own little edits and get recognition to get up into bigger movie projects. She really did a good job of paving the way for younger girls showing them like, what's possible if you set your mind to something and just put in a little bit of hard work," Paaso says.

And if you ask Elyse how she feels about the future of the sport she doesn't even need to think twice to tell you: "I honestly think that the most exciting thing in skiing right now is women, and I'm really thankful that I've been a part of it one way or another."

Return to TGR Journal Vol. 2