Say Her Name: Grete Eliassen
This article originally appeared in the November 2010 issue of Freeskier Magazine. For more from this issue make sure to pick up a copy at your local newsstand.
Words by: Shay Williams
The first thing you should know about Grete is that her name is pronounced â€œGre-tuhâ€not â€œGreet,â€ as so many have mistakingly called her. Rather than the unexceptional â€œaâ€ at the end of her name, there lies an â€œe.â€ Akin to this atypical â€œeâ€ is Greteâ€™s career arc: Not quite the straight line from point A commoner to point B superstar like so many, but something more like a Choose Your Own Adventure info-graphic with each decision she makes distancing herself further from the beaten path, but with the same successful result as the straight-liners.
But before we can discuss her life â€” the trials, tribulations and successes of the 24-year-old â€” special attention must be paid to the lemonade weâ€™re having for breakfast at Finnâ€™s Cafe in Salt Lake City, UT. â€œItâ€™s called â€˜Greteâ€™s Lemonade,â€™ spelled like my name, not the other way,â€ she says, with such grandiosity she could be addressing Congress (but weâ€™ll get to that later.) Even though she hasnâ€™t had breakfast yet and that itâ€™s unpleasantly early, the semi-academic,supremely talented, R&B superfan, always chatty Grete Eliassen dives right in to her life story.
â€œIâ€™d be on the mountain and Iâ€™d see the racer kids with their cool jackets that said â€˜Team Gilboa,â€™ and thought, â€˜How do I become one of them?â€™â€ she says of her childhood in Minnesota. But even before the starry-eyed Grete came along, skiing was her life. Her parents, Ã…dne and Kari Eliassen, are rabid skiers themselves, and had young Grete up on skis at Minnesotaâ€™s Highland Hills resort at the age of two. â€œ[On] her first trip up the rope tow, she was safely tucked in, riding between my legs, when she turned around and said â€˜I can do this myself!â€™ That was the first and last time we doubled-up. To this day, we still have a shared joy for skiing together,â€ says Greteâ€™s mother, Kari.
It was this love for skiing that led the family to relocate across the pond to Lillehammer, Norway, when Grete was 13, so that she could pursue a career in racing. She reached the Norwegian Europa Cup team and place 3rd at Junior Olympics when she was 15, and her race stock was quickly rising. Then something happened. â€œMy coaches wanted to talk to me about school, saying If I graduated in five years (normal Norwegian high school is three), it would be perfect for the next Olympics,â€ she says. â€œAnd I thought, â€˜No, I canâ€™t do this.â€™â€ Enter the Grete we freeskiers have come to know: strong willed, driven and in control of her life.
â€œI couldnâ€™t think all the way down to Whistler ,â€ recounts Grete. â€œIt seemed like so much time to do one thing. I didnâ€™t want to be on an itinerary that someone else made for the next five years. Thatâ€™s when I said I have to stop doing this.â€ Grander plans than the Olympics may sound a bit arrogant, and it did come with a cost. â€œI thought the world was going to come to an end. I thought my dream of becoming an amazing skier was over.â€
So what was the newly free, graduate-in-three- years Grete going to do? â€œMy friend Lars Veen had a pair of twin tips, the Dynastar skis with the cows,â€ she says. â€œI asked my parents if I could have some for Christmas.â€
Now here is a turning point. In one hand youâ€™ve got an extremely talented ex-racer with, as her mom puts it, â€œan instilled strong sense of responsibility and awareness of the world.â€ In the other youâ€™ve got a burgeoning sport in freeskiing on the cusp of blowing up. At summer camp in Whistler in 2002, Philou Poirier hooked her up with Sebastian Paradis, the Oakley Canada team manager at the time. Sebastian brought her to Greg Strokes, the Oakley international team manager. â€œPhilou told us how good she was,â€ remembers Strokes. â€œWe were looking for a female skier and she stood out because she had major ski skills. She had a racing background and could throw sweet tricks in the park.â€ Soon after Oakley officially picked her up, Armada came on board to support Grete, too. â€œGrete was young, confident, had an awesome personality and the skills to back it,â€ says Armada Co-Founder Chris Oâ€™Connell. â€œI knew that she was going to make a difference in womenâ€™s skiing. We were looking for the next real deal in womenâ€™s skiing, and she was the perfect fit.â€
With some sponsor support, Grete started competing on the main stage in 2004. â€œMy first international event was the Rip Curl slopestyle and pipe contests in Saas Fee, Switzerland,â€ Grete says coolly. She won the overall title. Then came the US Open slopestyle, king of events back in the day. â€œI didnâ€™t take it seriously at all. We had practice and qualifiers and then I went to the top of Vail to ski a back bowl or something. Someone called me saying the women just finished, so I had to hurry down to take my run.â€ She won that, too. In the span of her first year, Grete went from an unknown, â€œWatching Sarah Burke and Kristi Leskinen in PBP movies,â€ to a big fish in the pond. In 2005, the fish got bigger when she won the US Open slopestyle again and took gold at the first ever Winter X Games womenâ€™s halfpipe. â€œI was so excited and they asked what I was going to do and I said, â€˜Shoot, Iâ€™m going to buy a new car!â€™ Then I realized that I only won $2,000.â€
Since 2006, Grete has claimed four X Games medals, two US Open wins, a Whistler Blackcomb Ullr crown (she donated the $25,000 to Stand Strong Again), numerous other podium finishes and one bonafide Guinness World Record hip air. And despite the womenâ€™s talent pool exploding in size and the meteoric rises of Kaya Turski and Jen Hudak, Eliassen and Sarah Burke have had a stranglehold on the competitive womenâ€™s scene for the past five seasons. â€œ[Grete] has always had a competitive edge,â€ says Sarah Burke. â€œShe pushes hard to not only challenge herself, but for others to keep up. But mostly, she is out there to have fun, thatâ€™s how she handles the pressure so well.â€
Grete is no doubt at the top of the womenâ€™s skiing game. She could easily ride it out, keep doing whatâ€™s sheâ€™s doing, wring out some more paychecks, and live off the fame. But, as with her 180 from racing years prior, Grete â€œdoesnâ€™t want to get repetitive and do the same thing over and over.â€
â€œNow there are all these girls in park and pipe, and thatâ€™s awesome,â€ she explains. â€œBut letâ€™s do something different now. Iâ€™ve been doing this for seven years.â€ Specifically, Grete is talking about backcountry skiing. And not the disappear- never-to-be-heard-from-again type, but the bigger-scale-letâ€™s-forge-into-new-directions type. This foray into the backcountry has led Grete to make her own two-year film project, Say My Name, directed by photographer Stan Evans. Critics say that itâ€™s a self-centered PR move. They will say that womenâ€™s skiing doesnâ€™t warrant its own film. To make your own film, youâ€™ve got to have thick skin. Tanner Hall took some flack for his movies, as has Simon Dumont for his.
Luckily, Grete has thick skin; whale thick. And she focuses on the positive, undeterred. Making a womenâ€™s ski flick has always been a dream of Greteâ€™s, but two years ago, she finally had the opportunity in her career to do so. With the help of Sarah Burke, Lynsey Dyer, Suz Graham, Kaya Turski, Keri Herman and Elyse Saugstad â€” who are undoubtedly at the forefront of womenâ€™s skiing â€” Grete and co. will share their talents and passions for the next generation. â€œGrowing up, I only had Sarah and Kristiâ€™s tiny segments to watch and Iâ€™d try to do those tricks. They set the standard. Now I can throw this out there and the girls can try and do better than this.â€ But the film goes deeper than learning a few key tricks; beyond becoming a better park skier. â€œGrete has always stuck by her beliefs and pushes womenâ€™s skiing and I believe putting out a movie which is female dominated is going to open up some doors,â€ says X Games gold medalist Kaya Turski. Grete adds, â€œI want to get girls out into the mountains and experience them in a different sense.â€
Grete may have looked up to Burke and Leskinen in the early days, but itâ€™s undeniable that sheâ€™s now the aim of many girlâ€™s aspirations. And itâ€™s here that Grete can aspire to loftier goals. â€œBillie Jean King wakes up saying, â€˜How can I help womenâ€™s sports?â€™â€ And that is what Grete is aspiring to be: female skiingâ€™s Billie Jean King. â€œPushing womenâ€™s skiing has always been my number one goal,â€ she says. How many other skiers have gone and lobbied Congress, under the Title IX flag? Sheâ€™s one of a handful of skiers who works with the Womenâ€™s Sports Foundation to advance womenâ€™s sports, like at the Tween Summit last fall. She flew to Texas to volunteer for Hillary Clinton â€” an ardent supporter of Title IX â€” and her presidential campaign. â€œSheâ€™s driven to help young girls know and realize that they can also achieve their dreams â€” whatever their passion may be,â€ says Kari Eliassen. There isnâ€™t a hater in the world who can say that she doesnâ€™t live and breathe womenâ€™s rights.
â€œSheâ€™s demanding attention from the industry and proving women deserve the opportunity to reach their potential,â€ says Liesl Holtz, Oakleyâ€™s Womenâ€™s Sports Marketing Manager. â€œShe joins a group of women which include Sarah Burke and Ingrid Backstrom who constantly and consistently challenge resistance to the expansion, support and exposure of womenâ€™s skiing. Respect is not demanded but earned and these girls have been making sure they are recognized for their talent and skill, therefore opening doors for all women in all sports.â€
Beyond the drive Grete has, she looks to the future of the sport, the next generation, to carry the torch. â€œThere are a lot of girls coming up on the contest scene, but there arenâ€™t many girls doing something different. There have to be people willing to do something different, owning who they are and taking skiing in another direction. I havenâ€™t seen it yet but I think something wild will happen.â€
â€œGrete and Sarah will still be the Queens of the sport,â€ says Oâ€™Connell. â€œThat being said, I bet they will be stoked to see what the next few years bring to womenâ€™s freestyle skiing. They are the ones who paved the path and they are the role models for the next generation of women.â€
Pro skier, world traveler, film producer, enthusiastic student at the University of Utah, consummate businesswoman and burgeoning politico. She tells me she wants to help create an all-womenâ€™s sports channel; a would-be womenâ€™s ESPN. Lofty? Yes. Attainable? Absolutely.
By the time weâ€™ve finished breakfast, lemonade included, itâ€™s apparent to me that her career has come full circle. The little girl envious of the gate chasers is now an inspiration to so many. When we leave Finnâ€™s Cafe, sheâ€™ll be off to discuss movie premiere logistics, study for tests and help her sponsors best reach her fans: sheâ€™ll tackle the world head first. So while the world at large is still decrypting the pronunciation of her name, Grete will continue to make her mark, one pointed decision at a time.