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Wednesday, January 17, 2007
Updated: May 11, 7:54 PM ET
Girls Gone Wild

By Melissa Larsen

Gretchen breaks out of the spin to win game by using tricks in her run that require huge cojones—like this crippler.

"Last year was more about polishing than progressing. Instead of learning new tricks, we focused on dialing the ones we already had. It was something we had to do. The world isn't tuning in to watch people fall at the Olympics."—Gretchen Bleiler, Olympic Silver medalist and two-time Winter X superpipe winner.

If the 2006 snowboard competition season would have taken place in the world of fashion, it's safe to say that serious was last year's theme. Since the Olympics have come and gone, however, the '07 season's runway hit will be evolution as the new black, and accessorizing with fun will be the latest handbag.

After spending the last couple years (rather than seasons, as those have lost their bearing in lieu of transcontinental, year-round riding) perfecting pipe runs with technical-trick-combos most-likely to score Olympic gold, the ladies of pipe have decided that it's time to loosen up a bit—setting their sights on goals other than winning.
Janna rules. Plain and simple. Ask anyone, and ask her if she cares.

"Girl's pipe events last season were a battle of the frontside nines," says two-time Olympian and seven-time X Games competitor, Natasza Zurek. "She who did hers the best that day would win. It was a natural response to judging criteria. Torah Bright had the most creative runs, but she was often penalized because they lacked a 900."

Judging criteria in competition, being largely bureaucratic and thus a slower-moving beast, have never been able to keep up with the progression of snowboarding, and controversy over which tricks score higher and lower, and why, is an old story. Breaking news this year, however, is that more girls will be putting behind them the stress that comes with pleasing the judges. This time around, winning or losing isn't as big a concern as making a mark by trying new things—pushing aside the "safe" skill sets in the name of boosting expectations for female riding.

"When you focus so strongly on something, it's nice to take step back to change your perspective," says Gretchen of her outlook of the upcoming season. "If I keep trying to win contests with the run that I have, eventually, I'll fall behind. Instead, I am going to huck myself more, fall more, and probably not win as much. But this is what I need to do to get to the next level."

So what does this mean for this winter? Anything goes. Not only will we see new tricks, combos and carnage in the Winter X pipe, but there's a chance that some pipe-only beauties, like Gretchen, may branch out and try their hands at slopestyle, too.

"Slopestyle is easy and fun," says Janna Meyen, reigning slopestyle queen and the first X Games athlete ever to four-peat. "You need so much board control to be a good pipe rider, where you can fake that in slopestyle. Plus, slope doesn't have the same hype around it. There are no coaches or quick tunes at the top of the course." Slope riders are on their own.
Elena Hight has plenty of time to plan her all-around take down. She's but a wee 17.

"Slopestyle requires balls and confidence much more than it requires technique," adds Gretchen. "Halfpipe is like golf—you can't just swing as hard as you can. I actually used to be better at just hitting jumps, and I feel like this is the case for most riders. That's what drew me to pipe in the first place—it was a real challenge. I'm not the type of person who wants to be good at only one thing. I've always pushed myself in all areas of snowboarding."

Will the pipe masters be able to unseat the slope dominators anytime soon? They contend that that's not the goal. "I like to mix things up and push myself in different ways," says Elena Height, who along with Torah, regularly competes in both pipe and slope. "I compete in slopestyle do something different. It keeps snowboarding fun."

"Slopestyle challenges me," agrees Torah. "I don't focus on beating anyone, I want to be a good all-around rider."

Even so, "If there were ever a year for another woman to take me out, this would be it," says Janna, who is looking into this year's Winter X with a mindset similar to her pipe-girl counterparts. "I've always held back at the X Games, throwing down safety runs, doing tricks I know I'll land, not grabbing. I want to get out of my comfort zone this year. But by doing so, I'll be opening the door big-time for mistakes, and for others to smoke me!"