Go For The Gold


Elena Hight poses during the NBC/U.S. Olympic Committee
promotional shoot on April 23, 2013 in West Hollywood, Calif.

At the 2013 Winter X Games, Elena Hight did what no snowboarder — male or female — had ever done in competition. In the women’s snowboarding superpipe, Hight completed a double backside alley-oop rodeo. Or in simpler vernacular, a double cork.

Although many men have performed double corks in the ‘pipe, none had taken off while facing uphill (the “backside” part of the trick). Only two other snowboarders, Shaun White and Danny Davis, had reportedly landed the same trick. But not in competition.

The next rider to drop into the ‘pipe at the X Games, two-time Olympic medalist Kelly Clark, watched Hight’s entire run and “had about 10 seconds of ‘that was amazing.’” It was, as the ESPN announcers said, a historical moment.

In the past eight years, Hight, 24, has often been overshadowed by her Olympic medal-winning teammates, like Clark, Hannah Teter and Gretchen Bleiler. Now with her backside double cork, she aims to add her name to that elite list.

But for the petite Hight (she’s only 5’1”), it’s not so much about beating her competition as it is progressing the sport and pushing herself.

“At the end of the day, I snowboard for me and for the joy and the passion that I get out of it,” she said. “What I think the judges want is definitely coming secondary to what I want to get out of snowboarding.”

Hight’s snowboarding career actually began on a surfboard. Born on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, baby Elena was tandem surfing with her dad, Mike, shortly after she learned to walk.

Her family moved to Idaho, then South Lake Tahoe, Calif., when Elena was 6, and she quickly learned to snowboard. Two years later, she began competing in local events. When she was 13, she became the first female to land a 900 (two-and-a-half revolutions) in competition.

“My outlook on snowboarding has always been about pushing my own limits and really trying to see what’s possible for me,” she said. “Taking those steps to try new tricks and do things that have never been done is where I get the fun from snowboarding.”

Before she was licensed to drive, Hight regularly made the finals of big snowboarding events and was landing on U.S. Grand Prix halfpipe podium. In 2006, at age 16, she made her first Olympic team and finished sixth under a sparkling blue sky in Torino.

A silver Olympic ring became part of her jewelry. She wears it on a finger next to a ring with a frog — a family heirloom, she said. Hanging round her neck is a Drusy quartz crystal, thought to dissipate negative thoughts and emotions.

She also wears a ring that says “Carpe Diem,” the Latin phrase for “seize the day” made famous by Robin Williams in the 1989 movie, “Dead Poets Society.”

“It’s one of the quotes I live by,” she said.

Hight hoped to seize the day at the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games. But on a cold night — after a warm afternoon of qualification runs that left the halfpipe rutted and “wavy” — she fell on both runs in the finals. The only metal she took away from the Games was another Olympic ring.

Elena Hight picks up some air over the halfpipe during the
Chevrolet U.S. Snowboard Grand Prix on Dec. 14, 2005 at
Breckenridge Ski Resort in Breckenridge, Colo.

 “It was kind of a heartbreaker,” she said. “I actually fell on a couple stock tricks. I definitely took a lot away from that and have been working on making sure that I don’t do that again.”

Her passion for the sport and love of the outdoors kept her motivated. And paradoxically, the rider known for her relaxed attitude began pushing the sport.

“Snowboarding is all about if you can envision it, it’s possible,” she said.

At the 2011 Winter X Games, Hight finished third (her second X Games medal). A year later, she was on the X Games podium again, this time in second place. Less than two months later, at the 2012 Burton U.S. Open, she linked frontside and backside 900s and became the first person in 18 months to beat Kelly Clark. It was a narrow victory but it interrupted Clark’s streak of 16 wins.

When asked what it will take to continue beating Clark, Hight joked, “Take her out at the knees.”

Hight watched the men doing double corks in the halfpipe, and the trick — a back flip and a 180-degree turn done twice — became her focus. Except rather than facing down the halfpipe at takeoff the way most of the guys were doing their double corks, she would face up the ‘pipe, adding a degree of difficulty to her double cork. The trick might be enough to unseat Clark, who was the first woman to land a 1080 (three full revolutions) in the halfpipe.

“Since I was a little girl, my focus has always been to push myself as hard as I can and try to push the limits of what I think is possible. Trying new tricks like the double and doing larger spins and more inverts, that’s always been my route and what I’m good at. That is what each of us is trying to do, highlight our strengths.

“And that that’s the way that we’re going to take Kelly out at the knees,” she added, laughing.

By the 2013 Winter X Games, Hight was ready to try the double backside alley-oop rodeo in competition. In her first run of the finals, she flew down the halfpipe and nailed the trick, the last one in her run.

Watching video of Hight’s run, Shaun White reportedly commented, “Wow, that’s actually better than mine.”

And especially better because White had yet to try his double backside alley-oop rodeo in competition.

Hight scored 90.00 for the run and was in the lead until Clark, with a huge frontside 1080, scored 90.33 in her third and final run. Even though she won, Clark was impressed with Hight’s run.

“What Elena did for the sport will forever go down in history as one of the most powerful groundbreaking moments in history,” Clark said after she had time to reflect.

Going into the 2013-14 season, Hight has more determination and drive than ever — to qualify for the Sochi Games and hopefully win a medal.

Assuming she does qualify, where will she put her third Olympic ring?

She flexed her fingers and said laughing, “I think it’ll fit somewhere on here, don’t you?”

Peggy Shinn is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.