Forward Motion: Grete Eliassen, Steph Davis, & Jess McMillan on Professional Athleticism
Backcountry.com has a roster of world-class athletes with diverse talents and a wide scope of influence in the world of backcountry sports. I spoke with three of the team’s athletes who have changed the face of adventure sport and, by following their passions, led the field in their respective pursuits with grace and talent.
Grete “Typically Seen with a Medal Around Her Neck” Eliassen is a six-time X-Games medalist, a four-time US Open winner, and a Powder Award’s Female Segment of the Year winner. During her first year of competing in freeskiing, she took first place in the Rip Curl Free Ski and the US Open, and since her debut, she’s had wins at Red Bull Cold Rush and the Dew Tour and back-to-back gold medals at the Winter X Games. She’s the only female skier to medal in both the first Halfpipe and Slopestyle X Games events. In 2007, Eliassen won all the open events: US Open, European Open, and Nippon Open. She was named “Women Skier of the Decade” by Fri Flyt magazine. From fall 2008 until spring 2010, Eliassen co-produced and was featured in the Red Bull ski film “Say My Name” and she won ESPN Best Performance in a Leading Role and IF3 Montreal Best Female Performance for her role. In 2010, Eliassen broke the Hip Jump World Record for a skier. She reached speeds of 60 miles per hour downhill, hit the custom 30-foot hip feature, and soared more than 31 feet in the air. Her record stands.
Steph “BASE Jumps in a Wingsuit from Super-High-Difficulty Climbs” Davis has led the world of climbing for many years. Her accolades are numerous but include the following: Steph is perhaps the only woman to have free-soloed at the 5.11+ grade. In 2003, she became the second woman to free-climb El Capitan in one day. Two years later, she became the first woman to free-climb the Salathé Wall on El Cap and to climb Torre Egger, a difficult summit in Patagonia, of which she made the first one-day ascent. Davis has soloed routes on The Diamond, Long’s Peak’s east face, a thousand-foot granite wall at 14,000 feet in Colorado. In the summer of 2007, she free-soloed the Diamond four times. She has free-soloed and BASE jumped Castleton Tower, in Moab, Utah and made first ascents around Moab including the Tombstone. In 2008, she climbed Concepción, one of the hardest pure crack climbs in the world. Steph has been on successful international expeditions to climb new routes in alpine, big wall, and solo styles, including in Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Baffin Island, Argentina, Italy, and Patagonia. Davis was the first American woman to summit Fitzroy in Patagonia and to summit all seven major peaks of the Fitzroy Range. She is also an accomplished writer.
Jess “Charges Hard and Loves Every Minute of It” McMillan is the most winning freeskiing competitor in history. She was the Freeskiing World Tour Champion and a US Freeskiing National Champion in 2007. Jess has starred in two Warren Miller films: “Like There’s No Tomorrow” and “Flow State.” McMillan sends big lines all over her home resort of Jackson Hole—and most locations she visits—and has gone on numerous successful ski adventures, including the Ring of Fire Volcano Tour in the Pacific Northwest in 2011. She is one of the best big-mountain freeskiers in the world.
Reflections in Sport
Who They Are
I’ve always described myself as a skier, but I take a part in a lot of other activities, too. I love being outside and trying new things. I always follow my heart in what I want to do. If I’m not having fun, I’m probably not going to [keep] doing it. You can see this throughout my career. I started ski racing, but got bored of being labeled as a racer. I love all aspects of skiing, the park, powder, groomers—as long as you’re outside and you have a smile on your face, that’s all that matters.
I’m a rock climber, BASE jumper, and wingsuit flier. Mainly I like adventure and being in high places.
If I had to choose one word to describe myself as an athlete, I would choose passionate. I absolutely love skiing, but not just skiing. I love being in the mountains. I always think of myself as a small-town girl with big dreams. It may be that the big mountains I grew up in created a foundation for the big adventures I strive for. Growing up in Jackson Hole, WY, the Grand Tetons and the Snake River were my playground. […] My goal as an athlete is to keep learning, keep listening, and keep challenging myself.
When I was a little girl I dreamed of becoming a professional athlete. When I was 12 years old I wanted more than anything to be the best skier in the world. I stopped playing all my other sports and focused on skiing. When I won the National Slalom title in Norway at age 14, I earned myself a spot on the Norwegian Ski Team, and my dream started to become a reality. I would travel all over Europe to different ski races and become the best in the world. After two years on the team, I realized ski racing was not the type of skiing I wanted to do forever. I wanted to ski powder, down big mountains, and go off jumps. I quit the team and focused on [park skiing]. But even [then] I wasn’t fully satisfied, because I was missing the big mountains and the powder. So I decided to make an all-women’s ski movie, “Say My Name.” I love creating my own path and being different from everyone else.
My experiences climbing in Patagonia and free climbing El Cap are a big part of who I am now. Learning to BASE jump has also shaped my perspective, especially coming into that sport as a longtime climber and free soloist.
It would be easy to answer this question with my resume, but my biggest success is a small one: perseverance. My first Freeskiing Competition was in Snowbird, UT. I skied the qualifying run and did not qualify for the competition. I didn’t plan on winning that day, but I hoped to qualify. I was so disappointed … that I asked if I could forerun the competition. I would still get a score and would be able to see how I stacked up against the best of the best. The morning of the competition, I showed up to find out that one of the competitors had dropped out of the competition and I would be able to compete. I finished fourth and was on my way to a career in freeskiing. I always look back on that moment. Had I just given up and said, “Well, looks like you’re not good enough,” I would not have the amazing memories, friends, and experience of competing around the world on the Freeride World Tour. I would not be a professional skier today.
The Role of Hardship
There have been a lot of hurdles in my life, but all of them have made me stronger. Sometimes it’s hard to see an injury or a loss as a stepping stone to what is to come in your life. But usually when I don’t win or I can’t take part in something because of an injury is when I learn the most about myself because [I’m] in a new situation that [I] never prepared for.
I lost my husband on a wingsuit BASE jump in Italy that we were making together in August 2013. Risk is a part of what we do, and loss is something I’ve lived with for over 20 years as a climber, but it has been the hardest loss I’ve lived through so far.
Stereotype has been one of the most challenging hurdles of my career. […] I will never forget a meeting I had with a big outdoor brand. I was looking for sponsorship and had a solid resume, “Freeskiing World Tour Champion and US Freeskiing Champion.” The athlete rep said, “Your resume is awesome, but you’re too old.” This conversation only fueled my fire, and it made me work harder and also work with companies who supported my dreams regardless of my age.
The other stereotype is that to be a professional female skier all you have to do is take your clothes off. But the culture is shifting. Yes, there will always be sex appeal in skiing (women are beautiful, amazing creatures) but female athletes are now being recognized as athletes.
I think it is easy for female athletes to get hung up on stereotypes, but it’s only to our detriment. I try to focus on my dreams and my goals. I like the saying, “Do your best and forget the rest!” There is no point in dwelling on what you can’t do. Focus on what you can do and doors will open.
What is Success?
I measure success by my own personal goals. I know what I want to do in life, and I don’t measure my success by what other people want me to do.
To me, success is living a free and joyful life, being deeply connected to the outside world and the rock and sky.
I define success by doing my very best. I used to think success was defined by a win, a first descent, a summit, a photo in a magazine. And yes, all of those are accolades of being a successful athlete, but they are just moments. At that moment you were the best and achieved a goal, but there is always someone out there who will be better, faster, stronger than you. Success is all of the hard work, attempts, failures, and perseverance. Success is working hard every day to be the very best you can possibly be.
I really like the quote by Coach John Wooden: “I’ve learned that winning games, titles, and championships isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and that getting there—the journey—is a lot more than it’s cracked up to be.”
Leading the Way
Being a pioneer or a leader is the best feeling in the world, because there’s no right or wrong way to do it. You just follow your heart and you make it happen. I was lucky to be born during a time period where I have a lot of inspiring women to follow. They taught me that I could do anything I put my mind to.
I learned early on that the mainstream world will always latch onto or demand the latest version of the firstest, fastest, or mostest, and that is of very little interest to me—and in fact has no meaning at all in what I consider the real world, the world of gravity, air, and earth. The real world is much deeper and more beautiful than that, and it inspires me to stay true to it.
I have definitely wished for a road map to help me accomplish my dreams. How great would it be to order, “How to be a Professional Skier,” off Amazon. There are many times that I wished it was just that easy, but what I realize now is that luckily there is no road map, no recipe, no formula. If there were, life would be so boring. All of the hard work and frustration have made the high points so much sweeter. While I was competing, my philosophy was always to work harder than anyone else, ski harder than anyone else, have more fun than anyone else. Dreams don’t come easy. You have to work really, really hard. Wishing that you were the best will not make you the best. Training like you are the best will make you the best.
Influences & Mentors
I’ve met a lot of great people in my life, and they’ve inspired me tremendously. I thank my mom, grandma, aunt, and friends like Sarah Burke who made their own way and got it done.
In my twenties I climbed a lot with Charlie Fowler, and I became friends with Jimmie Dunn and later on with Layton Kor. They all inspired me so much with their unadulterated love of climbing, the desert, and the mountains. Charlie and Layton are now gone, but they still inspire me.
I think the saying is that it takes an army. Every single person has something to offer if you are willing to listen and learn. I have learned that if athletes work together as a team everyone will succeed. It’s always more inspiring to hear, “You can do it, great job, let me give you a hand, you’re awesome” than it is to feel like you’re just trying to keep up. Thank you to:
- Kit Deslauriers for teaching me to be fiercely determined and focused.
- Chris Davenport for teaching me that skiing can be a career.
- Daron Rahlves for teaching me to be humble and never stop learning.
- Ben Stookesberry for teaching me that the answer is always “no” unless you try.
- Drew Tabke for teaching me that friendship and happiness is more important than a win.
- Jonny Atencio for believing in me.
- Gulien Schissory for telling me that if I skied I would die.
- Wild Bill Boning for sharing the joy of catching air.
- Eric Seymour for always challenging me, but with open arms in case I fall.
- Chris Figenshau for always keeping it real.
- Kim Havell for continuously inspiring me.
- Theo Meiners for the long pep talks.
- Wade McKoy for the stories and amazing photos.
- Crystal Wright for asking me the hard questions.
- Erin Corbett for teaching me that it’s awesome to be a girl!
- PYT for the love of the B team.
- Ingrid Backstrom for inspiration to be my very best.
- Ron Von Hagen for helping me negotiate the road less traveled.
- Tanner Flanagan for always making laugh, having my back, and being an awesome ski partner.
- Samantha Glaes for always understanding.
- Alex Weston for always helping me see the other side of an argument.
- Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, Volkl, Spyder, Backcountry.com, Scott USA, Marker for the amazing gear and continued support. The list goes on and on…
The Culture of the Sport
I think the culture is still the same, but I would like to see more girls create their own paths as well. It’s fun to see the girls get excited about park skiing and competing in all the contests, but I would like to see more of them break away from their competitors and be different. That’s what I always did, and it made me very successful.
Climbing was much younger when I started, and there was not much of a commercial opportunity. Being a sponsored climber often meant getting supplied with a chalk bag, and, if you wanted to dedicate your life to climbing, you needed to wait tables or swing a hammer and then go live in your car in Yosemite. Now, though the dollar figures are still relatively miniscule compared to more mainstream sports, there is a whole community of climbers who are sponsored, and young climbers have an expectation of making a living in the sport and going on trips to Europe and exotic locales. I’m watching BASE jumping go through a similar process right now. It’s interesting to see these sports change from very fringe to more mainstream, and it definitely changes the atmosphere.
The culture of the sport has changed drastically for the best. The culture used to be, “Can she even ski?” and now the culture seems to be, “She rips!” Sometimes I wonder if women were actually holding each other back. I think that there was so little opportunity for women in the sport that we were very guarded and even downright brutal to each other, all fighting over scraps. With the shift, women have learned to support each other and are a great force. We are creating our own opportunities as opposed to “waiting for the call”—we are making the call. As women come together and support one another, the level of skiing is rising and the opportunities are endless.
If you want to continue to be successful as an athlete you need to keep evolving. What worked for you five years ago will not work for you now.
For me, the real motivator as a professional athlete is to connect to others and to be of service in some way—whether that means providing inspiration, information, or assistance. The most important thing is to look for ways to give back to the community, and in that way be useful.
I think the best way to stay relevant in skiing is to stay passionate. Every day I find inspiration from a new peak, a new line, and the skiers who are out living their dreams. The more I ski, the more I realize that there are still so many things that I want to accomplish in the sport. I feel like there is a more than a lifetime of skiing just in Jackson Hole. As I travel around the world, my list grows and grows. As I gain more experience, my list of goals gets bigger and bigger. I think staying relevant is easy. Keep chasing your dreams.
Perspective on a Life in Adventure Sport
There are no rules in being an adventure sports athlete. Just find something you love and make it up.
Everything is connected.
I think you have to have a love for adventure. You have to have a curiosity for the unknown. You have to have that “what if” sparkle in your eye. And you have to work hard always knowing that you might fail. I wake up every day thinking “What is my adventure going to be today?” regardless [of whether] I’m writing emails or going skiing. Life should always look like one big adventure.