Originally published on Tetongravity.com
Elyse Saugstad wouldn’t call herself brave, but all of her friends would. The 37-year-old pro skier from Girdwood, Alaska, has had to be brave in order to build herself up as a freerider back when freeriding was barely even a thing. Elyse is also calculated, focused, and determined, and because of those things—combined with a deep love for sending it—she has enjoyed a decorated career as a professional skier with the awards and film credits to prove it. Her journey hasn’t been a simple one, and she will be the first to tell you that it was anything but easy.
Elyse grew up in the small resort town of Girdwood and made her first turns at Alyeska Resort, Alaska’s largest ski area. Her dad was a full-fledged ski bum and Elyse remembers being pulled out of school on cold, snowy mornings for over-the-head powder days. She also remembers the first time her parents told her she could ski on the mountain without them—she was seven years old. “All of the sudden I had this whole day to myself and it was the first time I experienced the true freedom of skiing.”
Elyse ski raced all throughout her childhood and teenage years. She was good at it. She was ranked top five for her age in downhill and Super G. “Ever since I was a kid I’ve always been a doer,” she says. “I would do well against the boys, and I never thought I couldn’t do anything because I was a girl.” On top of that stellar mentality, Elyse discovered that really liked to go fast and that her ambition and determination could conquer any fears she had. But by the time high school graduation rolled around she was burnt out on racing.
She started college at The University of New Mexico with distant goals of becoming a lawyer. The result? “I missed it too much,” says Elyse. “I transferred to the University of Nevada, Reno, and that’s where I discovered freeriding and found a new passion for skiing.” After college, Elyse moved to Squaw Valley, California. “That’s where it all took off,” she says. “I wasn’t planning on being a pro skier, but then I realized I could hang.”
About a year later she ended up on a date with pro skier Cody Townsend (who is now her husband). They went skiing at Squaw and Cody sent it off a 30-foot cliff—aiming to impress—and when he looked behind him Elyse was sending it off the same cliff. The pair decided to continue hanging out for, ya know, life.
“From the get-go, we have always just been each other’s biggest cheerleaders. Some of the qualities that Cody exudes make me so proud. He is very smart and calculated, but he also realizes that skiing is really fun and is an escape. He is light and it’s great because people can be so serious. He is good for our sport,” Elyse says. In 2007, Elyse went to a Salomon event with Cody. “Their people saw me ski and they were like, ‘Woah, you girlfriend rips,’” Elyse says.
What evolved from that was a way for her to move forward with a ski career. Salomon gave Elyse her first sponsorship, and in turn, Elyse delivered. Elyse won the Freeride World Tour overall one year later in 2008. She won first place at individual stops in 2009, and was voted the tour’s best female line of the year that year as well. She’s been nominated for Powder Video Awards’ “Best Female Performance” every year since 2012, and she won the award in 2013 when her season edit went viral. When I asked Elyse what her biggest battles have been, she told me point blank that it was being a female. “I had a very low glass ceiling,” she says. “The sponsors in the ski industry just didn’t see the same value in women, and you didn’t get the same opportunities.
Yet the demographic of women in the sport has constantly been growing.” She’d try to get into ski movies, but had no success. “Big ski film companies just weren’t taking that many women,” she says. “So I would find really small film companies that would work with me. I just found a lot of different ways to get a camera on me to get the exposure I needed.” Elyse is at a point now where she doesn’t have so many barriers anymore; she can do what she wants. She has kickass sponsors, produces her own edits, goes on expeditions, teaches clinics to women who want to backcountry ski, and does a lot of public speaking. She has jumped enough hurdles and worked hard to get to a point where she is no longer as limited. Now, she can just focus on what’s ahead, which she hopes, is a lot of heli skiing.