Elena Hight talks about the pressures of growing up in the spotlight, winning the first stop of the Natural Selection Tour and her new pro-model with Jones Snowboards
Winner of the first stop of the 2022 Natural Selection tour, Elena Hight has proven yet again why she is one of the best snowboarders in the world. After growing up in the competitive snowboard world, the halfpipe champ decided to step back from the manic competitive scene and focus on exploring the beauty of backcountry riding.
“Her grounded attitude combined with her natural talent on a board is a force to be reckoned with”
Despite snowboarding being her full-time job for nearly two decades, Elena’s excitement for it doesn’t seem to be waning. Her grounded attitude combined with her natural talent on a board is a force to be reckoned with.
We sat down with Elena just a few days after the NST in Jackson Hole, where she was clearly still feeling the aftermath of the punishing course. “It was a beat down,” she tells us. “That course was definitely challenging on the body.”
“It’s taken me some time to find my personal balance of what I love in snowboarding and not be pulled in too many directions”
Elena’s journey into snowboarding began when her family moved from Kauai, Hawaii, to Lake Tahoe, California. At only 6 years old, Elena strapped into a snowboard for the first time. It wasn’t snowboarding that was going to take her to the Olympics, however, but gymnastics. “I really loved gymnastics and as a young kid I always wanted to be an Olympic gymnast, but I wasn’t as good as I ended up being in snowboarding, I’m not really built for it.”
Over time, Elena’s Olympic dream shifted from gymnastics to snowboarding. “I think the moment I realised that I wanted to be a competitive snowboarder at a high level was in the 2012 Olympics when I watched Kelly Clark and the men’s US team sweep the podium. It was in Park City, and I remember watching that and thinking ‘Wow, I can go to the Olympics for snowboarding, this is so cool. I want to do that’.”
As Elena began to pursue her goals in competitive snowboarding, the pressures that came from it weren’t easy, especially at such a young age. “I definitely had a different upbringing than a lot of kids. I just wanted to be a snowboarder and to be in that space so bad that I grew up really quickly. Being in the spotlight brings its own pressures, but I was surrounded by so many good people, so they really helped me keep a good head on my shoulders.”
Regardless of the headway society has made toward gender equality, we’re still far from the finish line, and growing up as a female snowboarder came with its own challenges. “I think as females in society we have a different set of pressures, and part of that is us being expected to have a specific look and being marketable,” Elena explains. “There’s this whole other set of pressure for females that aren’t necessarily there for the guys. It’s about their [the men’s] athleticism and you see it across sports, it’s not just snowboarding.”
“I had so many wonderful people around me. I was at the younger end of my friend group, so I was able to be guided by these people who ended up being my older sisters and brothers and I’m so grateful for that”
“Especially back in the day I definitely felt that snowboarding highlighted the women who were good at snowboarding but also marketable — that they could sell, and that had a specific look. I think our industry has grown and there’s a lot more accepting and promoting of all sorts of people, which I love.” Elena continues “And I think that’s the thing about snowboarding: we all come to it because we want that freedom to express ourselves in different ways and the industry needs to support that.”
As snowboarders, we have an appreciation for the freedom and fun that comes with it. For professional riders, there’s also a risk of that passion fading away when tapping into the competitive scene and having to deal with all the pressure put on you as an athlete. After 18 years of being a professional snowboarder, Elena’s had her fair share of ups and downs when it comes to her relationship with snowboarding.
“Whenever you turn your passion into a career it’s going to create more pressure than if it’s just your hobby and you’re just doing it for fun. When it becomes your job there are parts of it that you do not love but you have to do and there’s more pressure because now others sponsor you and there’s money on the line and expectations from yourself and from others. I’ve gone through a lot of rollercoasters, letting that kind of take over and not loving snowboarding as much.”
“Whenever you turn your passion into a career it’s going to create more pressure than if it’s just your hobby and you’re just doing it for fun”
“It’s taken me some time to find my personal balance of what I love in snowboarding and not be pulled in too many directions. Knowing my own boundaries so that I can keep the love of it. It’s different for everyone to be able to walk that line but I feel like I’ve found a balance now and I really really love snowboarding as my passion but also as a job.”
But finding that balance in work and life took time. Especially when the lines were blurred from such a young age, under the spotlight of the media and snowboard industry at large. “Those teenage years when you’re just trying to figure yourself out anyways but then everyone’s watching… I would say I had an awkward stage there for a while, you know you’re testing things out. My biggest thing was dying my hair. I would always change my hair colour during that period, and would always get comments on it and I was like I don’t know what I was doing… I had every colour hair, I was platinum blond, black, red, purple… It was all over the place.”
Having the right mentors, friends, and support network around you makes all the difference though. As Elena explains: “Thankfully, I had so many wonderful people around me. I was at the younger end of my friend group, so I was able to be guided by these people who ended up being my older sisters and brothers and I’m so grateful for that. People like Gretchen Bleiler, Kelly Clark, Tricia Byrnes… And Danny Kass was always a really big mentor. Many of the older riders really took me under their wing and were like ‘we know you’re in your awkward stage, we’re going to make sure that you make it’.”
A few years back, Elena decided to step back from competitive snowboarding, after 16 years on the circuit, and steer her interest towards the backcountry. She had always been drawn to this side of snowboarding as she saw it as a place where she was able to progress and push herself in new ways. But she felt unsure about how to make the shift.
“It’s free-flowing, you follow the snow, you are with your crew collectively deciding where you want to ride and what you want to ride and how you want to ride it”
“For so long I was in such a regimented lifestyle. In competitive snowboarding you have contest dates and practice times, you know where you’re going to be all season long and what you need to do. You have this schedule that you stick to. Moving into the backcountry, it’s the complete opposite of that. It’s free-flowing, you follow the snow, you are with your crew collectively deciding where you want to ride and what you want to ride and how you want to ride it. Making that kind of shift has definitely taken an adjustment.”
She continues, “Just being able to spend so much time in the mountains, connecting with nature and learning all these new skills on my snowboard that go along with backcountry snowboarding has just completely captivated me and I’ve been committed to touring and spending as much time as I can on my splitboard and getting into bigger mountains.”
Whoever tuned in to the first stop of the Natural Selection tour at Jackson Hole, could see that Elena’s commitment to the backcountry paid off. But her nearly two-decade past as a professional halfpipe rider, played its part too, “The Natural Selection Tour is a challenging event. You need a lot of different skills to be able to excel in it and I would say my background definitely helped me. Being used to standing in the start gate and managing those nerves… I did it for a long time, so I feel like I have the tools to do that. And specifically, at the Jackson event, the snow was really tough and being a half pipe rider for so long I feel like one of my skills is having really good board control and managing hard snow and really tough landings, so I think that really helped me there.”
The Tour has definitely taken the snowboard community by storm, and Elena hopes it will act as a catalyst in exposing the more to backcountry riding, “The world has become really familiar with competitive snowboarding – halfpipe and the slopestyle – but a lot of people are still unaware of what backcountry riding really is and it’s such a big part of our industry and our sport so I think this contest has the opportunity to really shine a light on that side of snowboarding and the riders who have dedicated their lives to that. It’s a huge step for snowboarders. Everyone loves to ride powder with their friends, and this is just an enhanced version of that that people get to watch so I think it stokes people out.”
In 2018, Jeremy Jones phoned up Elena to invite her out on a splitboarding trip to film Ode to Muir. “I ended up not making it into the Olympics that year and he was putting together this trip for this film and he reached out to me suggesting I’d go on the trip with him. The trip was kind of a catalyst for me to retire from competitive snowboarding and really pursue big mountain riding. My eyes were just opened to this new possibility within snowboarding and I owe a lot to Jeremy.”
“They are pushing the boundaries of what it means to create an eco friendly brand and doing the best they can, to be as green as they can, and leave a smaller footprint while still making really amazing snowboards”
After the trip, Jeremy invited Elena to join the Jones team which made sense to her, not only because of her transition into the backcountry but also because Jones was a good fit for her as someone who feels passionate about climate change.
“As a snowboarder, I get to spend a lot of time outside in nature, and I’ve definitely noticed the changes in the climate over my career and how that’s affecting, not only snowboarding, but also the bigger picture: the economy and our wildlife, and just seeing so many effects of it around everything, from lack of snow to wildfires… I’ve seen the changes happen year after year in the mountains so for me being able to educate myself about that and use my voice to hopefully rally people to make changes is super important to me.”
“I have this amazing platform through snowboarding, so I hope to do a little bit of good along the way and with those causes being so important I definitely want to align with partners who also feel the same and who are doing their part to at least try to be better in the space, and work towards a smaller impact. And Jones Snowboards really are at the forefront of that. They are pushing the boundaries of what it means to create an eco friendly brand and doing the best they can, to be as green as they can, and leave a smaller footprint while still making really amazing snowboards so it feels really good to be aligned with them.
Jeremy is such a leader in our space and Protect Our Winters has really elevated all of our voices so much and given us a space to learn about climate change and also speak about it and try to actually make a difference at a meaningful level.”
“It’s a really amazing powerhouse board and I like to ride it in all conditions whether it is groomers or park, or in the powder, so it’s become my go-to board”
“Jones came to me and wanted to do a limited-edition Elena Hight pro model, which is a huge honour, and I chose the Stratos board. It’s a new model in the Jones line and I’ve just completely fallen in love with it. It’s a really amazing powerhouse board and I like to ride it in all conditions whether it is groomers or park, or in the powder, so it’s become my go-to board.
I worked with a French artist, The Minimalist Wave, on the artwork. He does this really beautiful line art of swells and tides in the water and with my life being so centred around the mountains and the ocean I wanted to incorporate the two. We worked together on using his line art and keeping it black and white because I love the simplicity. I’m really stoked on how it turned out and honoured to have my own pro model with Jones.”
Check out the Jones Women’s Stratos Snowboard below
Jones Women’s Stratos 2021-2022
No prizes for seeing this one coming; the all-conquering Jones Stratos is now available for female riders too. They didn’t waste any time, either, with the original board only entering its second season.
It makes sense, of course; if you’ve essentially cracked the code for the ideal all-mountain board, why not ensure that even more riders can get it under their feet? Whether deep in a carve, floating on pow, or high in the air, the Jones Stratos is right at home; and in 2021/22, it’ll find its way into more homes than ever.
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