Elyse Saugstad snags FREESKIER’s 2018 Female Skier of the Year

Elyse Saugstad snags FREESKIER’s 2018 Female Skier of the Year

FREESKIER is proud to announce that Elyse Saugstad is the 2018 female Skier of the Year (SOTY), as voted by her peers.

To determine the winners, we contacted over 200 of the most talented and knowledgeable professional skiers out there and had them rank the athletes they felt had the best 2018 ski season. “Best season” is a term open to interpretation, but we ask the athletes to think about a few things, including, but not limited to, film segments, web series and edits, contest results, magazine exposure and overall impact in regards to spreading skiing stoke and growth.

Each nomination (1-3) corresponds with a point value: A #1 pick earns 10 points, a #2 pick earns five points and so on. Thereby, if a particular skier shows up consistently in the #3 or #4 slot, they’d still have a shot at faring well in the final tally. There were no restrictions on nominations; skiers were able to throw any and all names in the ring.

This year, Saugstad swept the top honors on the women’s side, earning her SOTY distinction for the first time. Her recognition for this year’s award is due in large part to her role and performance in Matchstick Productions’, All In, which flipped the paradigm of the female film skier on its head. We caught up with the Alaska native to discuss her new crown, seasons past and what’s next for this badass lady shredder.

Header image: Tal Roberts


Q&A with the 2018 female Skier of the Year, Elyse Saugstad


Hi Elyse, first off, congratulations on being named FREESKIER’s Skier of the Year! How does it feel?

It is a huge honor, to say the least. When it comes from your peers, it means so much because there’s such a different level of understanding inside the ski industry of what it takes to be at the top. And so, to receive that honor is really humbling.

Now that Matchstick Productions’ All In has circulated the masses, how do you feel about the film? What has the response been like?

I think All In is helping change the paradigm of what makes up a ski movie. Meaning, the fact that it was equal women to men in this movie, and actually women had probably 60 to 70 percent of the screen time, but yet it was still a really good movie. Of course a lot of women–young girls, older women–everyone was so excited to finally see a more fair representation and something for them to get really excited about. But there were a lot of guys who literally just enjoyed the movie, which the whole point of a ski movie is to make you want to go skiing. So hearing people’s responses, from guys especially, saying ‘wow this makes me want to go skiing,’ is fabulous. I think one of the reasons is because, yeah the women are skiing really well, but there was authenticity to it. We [the girls], like to have fun in the mountains, too. It wasn’t fake, the funniness and silliness and the support that we give each other. That’s what skiing should be about.

What was your favorite part about filming All In? Did you have any reservations before filming started?

No, I didn’t have any reservations. I think I was just really excited that I was finally going to have the chance to film with women throughout the winter. That was the whole reason the concept came about. Us girls coming together being like, we’re inspired by each other, we love to hang out with each other, let’s actually make a point where we’re going to go film together, work together and be out in the field where we can be competitive with each other in a positive way and bring out the best in one another and what our abilities are. So I was really excited to do that and that’s exactly what happened. It was phenomenal to get to ski with those girls and feed off one another’s energy and perform well.

What kind of influence do you think All In will have for future ski films and the role female skiers play in them?

The industry as a whole seems to be catching on that women are an important aspect of the ski industry. Even from a business standpoint, women skier numbers are on the rise with, I think, 40 percent of skiers these days being women compared to about 30-33 percent ten years ago. This market is huge and the more visibility women get in ski movies and magazines the more that just inspires women to get after it and think, ‘well I can do that, too, why not?’ Hopefully the evolution will keep progressing and this isn’t just a one-off, novelty movie. I hope that everyone realizes how important it is to one, have women in a movie, but to even have more than one in a movie. And then it goes with the ski teams because ski companies–we can joke about what’s really obvious to people that the one token female in a ski movie has been pretty persistent throughout time–but in all honesty, a lot of ski companies have taken that same position and that’s a part of the reason why there’s only one female in the movies because it’s mirroring exactly what the ski companies are doing. A lot of ski companies used to only have one woman but there’s certain companies that are changing. Like Blizzard, for instance, one of my sponsors who I’m super pumped on and really excited that they’ve got this whole Women to Women movement and they support women and see [female skiing] as not just a little niche, but something that is bigger than that.

You’ve had a lengthy career, what has kept your spirit alive in this sport for so many years?

I sometimes wonder that myself [laughs]. I’m still able to challenge myself mentally and physically. I’m still progressing and getting better and still achieving goals and things of that nature–for instance, I’ve never won this award before and that’s huge. It’s things like that that keep you going. It’s something I really respect in other athletes as well across the board. In other sports these days it’s kind of cool to see how there are professional athletes who have been doing it for a really long time or getting older and people are like, ‘I can’t believe they’re doing so well for their age.’ Well, if you didn’t even know their age–for example, Serena Williams or Tom Brady–you would just think they are phenomenal athletes, but then you throw on the age thing and people are like, ‘wow they’re so good for their age.’ No, that’s just ridiculous, they still have a passion for it, it’s impressive. I respect that, I internalize that and it helps give me stoke and it gives me inspiration to keep doing what I’m doing.

Elyse Saugstad in Girdwood, Alaska, as appeared in FREESKIER’s 2019 Resort Guide, issue 21.2. Photo: Jeff Cricco

What do you attribute your longevity to? You obviously encountered setbacks, whether that be injury or sponsor-based… is it as simple as “to keep grinding?”

I honestly think it comes down to just having confidence and believing in yourself and not putting value in what other people see you and your worth as. There were times with sponsors when things got a little hairy and I didn’t have support. I didn’t take it personally, if anything it helps fuel the fire and it’s more of a reason to prove people wrong. If you really want it and you’re really passionate about it, you can achieve it. You just have to set your mind to it and think of all the steps it takes to get to where you want to be. And that’s part of it, just taking it one step at a time. That’s the same for injuries, too. I had hip surgery two years ago and I’m still dealing with it. I still have pain, there’s still things I’m restricted with but it is getting better and I try not to let it wear me down because that’s not what defines me. What defines me is wanting to continue to ski and do sports and because of that, I’m very mindful with how I treat my body, the way I eat and the way I train outside of skiing. In my twenties I used to throw down to party and loved it but I can’t keep doing that if I want to perform well… so there’s trade offs.

There are a lot of ladies excelling in their professional careers right now, who are you most looking forward to skiing with this season?

In all honesty, if I have a chance to ski with Angel [Collinson], Tatum [Monod] and Michelle [Parker] again that would be phenomenal. There’s definitely some younger girls on the up-and-up that would be really cool to get a chance to work with. I haven’t met a lot of these young girls but I follow them on social media…and it’s so cool. I hope they get to shine a little more and we get to continue to be inspired by them. That also helps the longevity part, to keep you going and finding the passion and desire is being inspired by other people and what they’re doing around you. A really good example is Tatum. She’s out there bringing more tricks into her skiing and that’s cool and makes me want to do that as well. Angel is like this ninja when it comes to skiing spines in Alaska and it’s pretty neat to be in that element with her. Michelle is such a really good all-around skier, she’s just really fun to be in the mountains with. And that’s inspiring in itself too, when you’re out there with someone who has a really good attitude it keeps you excited for the day.

What inspired you to start the SAFE AS clinics with fellow professional skiers Ingrid Backstrom, Michelle Parker and Jackie Paaso? How have these clinics changed avalanche safety in your eyes?

From my end, what helped initiate it was the Stevens Pass avalanche that I was in in 2012 where I was the only one who survived, three others passed away. Because of that, there was a group of us, it was summertime, and we were talking about just avalanche safety knowledge in general and coming up with the idea that we thought avalanche training can be really intimidating for women. Why not for us girls to put on a women-specific introductory avalanche course because that’s the other thing about being at an introductory level versus an avalanche 1 is that a lot of women–it’s not just women–but there are people out there who want to get into backcountry skiing. I mean, gosh we’ve promoted it so well in the movies and in the magazines and the gear has progressed so much that it makes it so easy for people to access but there are a lot of people that are like, ‘I’ve never done this before, an avalanche course is extensive, it can be expensive, I just want to get my feet wet.’ So we figured we’d open a women’s course that’s introductory-level that helps give women a launch pad to start their avalanche and snow safety education. I think too, there are a lot of women out there who thrive being in an environment where it’s just women so they feel like when the subject matter can be intimidating, that by the environment we’ve created, it allows them to feel more relaxed, soak it in more and feel really eager to ask questions. We’ve been in operation for seven years and a couple years ago we started offering co-ed courses as well. It’s crazy, we’ve actually had quite a lot of men join the course. It’s cool because there’s women who, if they’re going out in the backcountry, they’re going to go out with their significant other. This way they can take a course together but it’s still being taught by all women, except we have had Cody [Townsend] as the token male at some of the co-ed classes. But it’s still very women-led and because of that I think we have a slightly different approach and so we think it’s really cool for these guys to be in an environment where they’re hearing more the way women talk so they can understand women better when they’re out in the field.

What keeps you centered in the midst of all the chaos?

For one, my dog Theo [laughs]. Our little nugget, he’s a little two-and-a-half pound Yorkie who is so tiny I’m able to travel with him pretty much everywhere. He keeps me grounded and my husband keeps me grounded, for sure. And I think as well, as I’ve gotten older and I’ve done this long enough, there are a couple things. If you’re on the road a lot, bring things with you that make you feel comfortable. This may seem really random and off tangent but I’ll explain and it’ll make sense. I bring a nice kitchen knife with me and that’s because wherever you go and you’re making food, having a nice knife makes it so much easier to cook and if you’re cooking and not going to dinner all the time that keeps you grounded because that’s more normal of what you do and what you eat. I bring my own tea and, I’ll bring a candle with me. It’s really funny, certain people will bring all kinds of crazy stuff. Like Angel brings her crystals with her and sets those up next to the bed [laughs].

Playing in her backyard of Lake Tahoe with Theo. Photo: Tal Roberts

What’s in store for you this season? Any projects or trips you’re most looking forward to?

You know what, that’s literally still being figured out right now. I’m kind of waiting to hear from the movie companies. Things are still being formulated so I’m not entirely sure what I’m doing yet but I imagine that I’ll be spending a chunk of my winter in BC and hopefully finishing off in Alaska and everything else that falls in between. I’ll actually probably take a trip to Europe as well for Blizzard and kind of chase the snow a little bit. But definitive projects, nothing is set yet and that’s okay because there’s always something that will work out.

Is there a skiing objective or accomplishment that has evaded you thus far in your career?

As a cover of a ski magazine, I’ve had covers of more non-industry magazines, but I’ve never had a cover of FREESKIER, Powder, etc. I also thought the FREESKIER Skier of the Year award, I never really wrapped my head around that I’d ever win this either just because it’s a tough one to get and I feel like maybe I’m getting too old to win something like this award [laughs]. See, even though I try not to define myself by my age I even define myself by my age sometimes, so I guess it’s just life.

Can you shed light on some of the gear you’re using?

I’ve got a couple different Orage pieces for the backcountry that are absolutely perfect, the Zenith Jacket and the Cliff Bib. The quality is so good and the style is so good, everything is so cool looking and the materials are really good so they’re actually waterproof and legit so I’m super stoked on that. For skis, I’m on Blizzard’s Sheeva 11, those are like my ski that I ski on 80% of the time because it’s my powder ski, my big-mountain ski. It works in all powder conditions, super fun and playful, but yet it’s not a soft ski and it works really well up in Alaska for charging big-mountain stuff. Typical Blizzard style of ski. And then I’m in the Tecnica Mach 105 women’s boot and, it’ll just be new for me this year because it wasn’t made in my size yet, the women’s Zero G Tour Scout. I always have thermic boot heaters attached because those things are absolute lifesavers for me in the backcountry [laughs].

I love my Hestra mittens. The Fall Line mittens are really cool, I also love the Henrik Leather Pros as well and the Omni mitt, they’re all mitts, I love them all for different temperatures. The Fall Lines are light so they’re good for someone who runs a little warmer, they’re good for Spring conditions for me but for the winter time I use the Henrik Pro’s or the Omni. For my Scott gear for goggles and helmet I use the Scott LCG Compacts and the Chase 2 Plus Helmet and I use the Team Issue poles. Arcade belts are the best, I love how they fit with my ski gear because they adjust perfectly, you don’t have any weird belt buckles poking you in the stomach, but also, when you travel they’re the best because you don’t have to take it off at airport security and they work really well in skinny jeans.

The Salomon Shift bindings are my go-to bindings, those things are amazing. Nowadays I can go on a trip in a place where I’m only going to do a little bit of touring, especially with snowmobiling or when I go to Europe and I’ll be skiing mostly resort, kind of hiking but maybe I need to do a little touring, these are perfect because you can go into touring mode and yet you still have this alpine setup. A super trustworthy binding, and I also think they make my skis more fun, there’s something a little more vivacious to these bindings, the way they were made that give you a little more flex in the ski and so it lightens my ski up, which I really enjoy. And I always have a Wildflour Cookie pass in my pocket when I’m at Squaw [laughs].

Did you set any New Year resolutions for 2019?

Gosh, no, I’m not really one of those people. I think, in general, as I get older I’m just trying to work on my patience because I’m pretty impatient and that’s where Cody and I are a Yin and Yang. He’s very patient with me so that’s kind of probably why we balance out okay and he deals with me. But I’m always trying to work on my patience. And then also, just be non-judgmental and just be really stoked for everyone and what everyone’s doing. I think that’s something when you’re young in your career, and this is for any career it’s not just skiing, I feel like I look back on it and I was more competitive and more worried about what other people were doing and nowadays as I’m getting older, I realize I am in such awe of what everyone else is doing and I’m stoked for what they’re bringing to the table. It just makes everything better, especially on the female side of things. The more we support each other and the more we can celebrate what each one has to offer, the better off we will all be. The more we can celebrate each other together, the better off we all are. And that is why going back to it, reflecting on the movie that I worked on with the girls last year was so cool. To be at the movie premiere with all of those girls, getting ready together and celebrating one another was super fun. Everyone has their moment, this particular year with this award happens to be my moment, but in years past it has been these other girls and in the future it will be these other girls. It’s just really cool to be included and I look forward to see who throws down next year and wins the award. I’m excited to see what happens.

Your life centers around skiing—you’re a pro, your husband’s a pro, you live in a ski town, etc.—how do you find time to balance out in your life?

As obsessed with skiing Cody and I are, there are a lot of things that we enjoy outside of skiing. One of them [being] we like to stay in touch with politics, what’s going on in the world and reading a lot. We have great discussions that have to do with more than just skiing–a world where we can step away from a lot of reality and not think about our administration right now, whether you like it or don’t like it, whether you like what’s going on in the world. But at the end of the day, that still exists so it’s really great to have Cody because we talk about that stuff and try and think about how we’re going to navigate the world for the rest of our lives. We love to do other sports as well and take trips for other sports, which it’s nice to take a mental break from skiing because it’s so intense and full-on during the winter. It’s exhausting, you’re just dry by the end of winter and so it’s nice to step away.

What’s your earliest memory as a skier?

I remember being really young and my parents would take lunch up in a backpack at Alyeska Resort in Girdwood and we’d go–there were a couple different places you could go to sit and have lunch–but I remember these little spots in the trees and that was just so exciting to sit outside in your ski gear, you had to ski to the spot on a sunny day and eat some lunch in between skiing. I don’t know why that stands out as so fun but maybe it was just because it was so different, and I’m talking about when I was four years old I remember doing this just because it was so different. It’s not something you get to do all the time, especially in Alaska because it’s not always the best weather up there, so when you have nice weather it’s like really something special [laughs]. Not that I knew that as a small kid but maybe that’s why it stood out. It was just really fun, it made for a good family experience. Something that I got to connect with with my parents.

What’s the biggest thing that skiing has taught you about life beyond skiing?

What skiing is to me and why I love it so incredibly much is because it is the pinnacle of being mentally and physically challenging at the same time. For me, I originally graduated from college with a degree that I was planning to go to law school. As mentally challenging as it would be had I become a lawyer but I would have been stuck in an office and I think the way that I’m wired, it ended up making more sense that I became a professional skier because I got to be outside and physically challenge myself while also mentally putting myself in situations where I had to deal with fear and also believe in myself that I can push myself in skiing and ski things that seem so incredibly challenging and difficult. To make it happen on those given days you have to perform under pressure and so because of that, I think that’s what skiing has done the most for me. And then realizing I can do it. There are times that you fail and that’s okay because if you’re not willing to fail you won’t progress in life.

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