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Episode 116: Pro Skier Elyse Saugstad on Letting The Skiing Speak For Itself

​"The most exciting thing in skiing is women."

We're HONORED to have legendary professional skier Elyse Saugstad on the podcast this week to talk about her career, how she finds creativity in skiing, how the treatment of women in the ski industry has evolved, and what the future of skiing holds.

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Episode Transcript

Lisa: Hi, welcome to Outside by Design, the podcast about the intersection of business and creativity in the outdoor industry. This is Lisa and my creative agency, WHEELIE, hosts this podcast because it's so fun to collaborate and learn about what other people are doing, creatively or athletically. And I'm extra excited about today's episode. Because the interview in this episode is with one of the women I respect the most. Out of all the women on the planet, which is a big thing to say. But... I’ve followed this person for years and I appreciate how she shows up. She takes herself seriously, but not too seriously. She's calculated, but still knows how to assess risk. And she really knows how to let it rip. So please enjoy this episode with the amazing pro skier, Elyse Saugstad.

In this episode, Elyse speaks about her career as a professional skier, what that has looked like, how much of it fell upon her to create and get video parts. And her story is one of leadership, initiative, reality, and making her own dreams come true.

So I think it's pretty badass, just like Elyse. So. Grab your headphones and buckle your boots cause this one's good.

Lisa: Elyse, thank you so much for being on our podcast today. I'm really excited that you're here.

Elyse: Thanks for having me.

Lisa: The first question we ask every single person is to describe where they are and what they're looking at.

Elyse: I am in Tahoe city. I don't really have much of a filtered view of the Lake, but almost. It's a sunny-going-kind-of-cloudy day. But yeah, just hoping that we actually get some snow out of this next storm that's coming through.

Lisa: Nice. I'm based out of Whitefish, Montana, and it is actually sunny outside. It's amazing.

Elyse: Montana's a beautiful place when it's sunny.

Lisa: Mhmm. Sure is. I'm excited to talk to you about the short film that recently came out about you called On My Own Terms and I guess for our audience, if you want to give a brief synopsis of what the film is and how it came to be, I think that would be awesome.

Elyse: Yeah. So On My Own Terms is produced by Teton Gravity Research. The short film came about because of COVID, really. Last year I had a trip slated to go to Alaska with them that would have taken place in April. And because of COVID, we didn't end up getting to go. And because the way production companies work, you get in movies because your sponsor contributes funding for you. And since they didn't have anything to show for it, working with TGR, they talked to my sponsor, Scott, who was the partnership. And came up with the idea of like, “Hey, well, let's just do a short film on Elyse. Let's figure something out.” And Scott loved the idea. And so we came up with On My Own Terms.

And one of the people at TGR, Katie, she came to me with a few ideas and I threw back at her, let's try and revolve around this project I did called the Co-Lab project. It was actually… this was long before I ever filmed with TGR, but the Co-Lab project was a TGR… Well, it was a contest. And the ultimate prize was a hundred thousand dollars. And then the top 10 or 12 entries into this contest got into their own special TGR film. So that is what we came up with, because putting that together was kind of... on my behalf of coming, doing this Co-Lab project was a bit of an adventure, so to speak.

Lisa: What was that like for you as the athlete, also, to be the... I guess, head creative on it.

Elyse: Yeah. So, you know, in this day and age and... it seems pretty straightforward that the athletes can be their own brain behind whatever content they're creating and putting it out there with social media. But back in 2012, when the Co-Lab project was introduced to the ski world, or the Co-Lab contest, that's when it seemed like it was just kind of gaining footing of athletes creating their own content to put out edits and whatnot on the internet. So with that, they came up with this contest of any athlete can submit an edit. I don't remember if there was many parameters to it other than... yeah, just put together your best skiing, make sure you have license for the music, and let's give it a go. And then what would happen was, at the very beginning, when you submitted the edit, they put all the edits together on their website and the audience, the people that just logged in, got to vote for their favorite edits.

And when this contest happened, I didn't really consider it at the get-go. And the reason is because I'd be going against a bunch of guys. And I knew that, like I knew who was going to be entering this contest. And I even knew some guys with some small production companies behind them were going to be entering this contest because it's a hundred thousand dollars grand prize, which is, you know, that's quite a bit of money.

But as my ski season went on... and I had this goal - and this is what On My Own Terms really goes into, but - was that I really wanted to... I had this goal of winning best female segment and just giving myself the ability to put together a segment that I could be nominated for the Powder Awards, because back then, at the Powder Video Awards, the way you got to be nominated for a best performance was you had to be a part of a production. You had to be part of a movie, basically a movie that came out on DVD. And that was pretty hard to do. You could make an edit and put it out on the internet, but that wasn't a part of an actual, produced DVD movie. And so because of that parameter, it was really hard to just put something together on your own.

So, you know, then I thought about this contest, and as I'd mentioned before, besides winning the hundred thousand dollars, they would make a movie of the top 10 or 12 edits and put in a movie and I thought, “well, that that's my goal right there. If I can somehow get into the top 10, then I will have a segment in the production movie, which could be nominated for a Powder Award.”

And so I went ahead and entered the contest, and it was about 50 or 60 people or so. And there was only one other female that entered. And as the contest went on and the audience voted for their favorite skiers, it was getting whittled down. And I made the top 10, I actually made like the top five, I was voted as top five favorite of people that were watching these edits, which was really, really, really, really cool.

And so I... I did it. I was able to make my own mish-mash short edit film, to compete against a bunch of guys.

Lisa: That's so awesome. I love that you just took care of it. [laughs]

Elyse: Yeah. At first, it's just, when you think of this, you just think of like, well, how can I go up against a bunch of guys? Like, just in the world of sports and in general, women... we don't have quite the same physical abilities as men. And in a contest like this, you know, that people are throwing down their gnarliest skiing possible, you know, like doing the hardest tricks and skiing the hardest lines.

And, you know, considering that my... now husband, but, uh, back then… oh, actually, no, Cody and I were, we were freshly married at that point, when the collab came out. But you know, I'd been skiing with Cody for quite a while, and there's physical differences between us. You know, he definitely can jump bigger cliffs than me. So the fact that I could be going up against people like him, you know, you would hope that this resonates with an audience and especially with an audience that is probably pretty male-centric.

But like I said, it kind of dawned on me, like, what do I have to lose? And I was skiing really well and it was fun getting out there and trying to just ski my butt off. I was going out in the field with, with other guys, that's generally how it's always kind of been, there's not been a lot of women to get the chance to work with. And the few that there are, are pretty spread out. But in the quest for putting together this production, I didn't have much of a budget by any means. And I was going out in the field, basically with buddies, guys that would have… we’d have a camera between us and we’d take turns filming each other.

There was even some days that Cody came out in the field with us because Cody, I believe, was filming with Matchstick that year. And so when he'd have a few days off from that out, or some free time, he would come out with us and he had a camera. We had just got a camera as well. And so some of the shots are his. Well, the edit is in black and white. And the reason for that is because you had a bunch of different hands filming ski footage and the coloring and just the frame rates and all those things were a bit different.

And I think the editor… I had this buddy that we passed it along to, Team 13. He actually has a legitimate, amazing business based in Salt Lake, but he's a good friend of ours that Cody and I had worked with for years. So he happily took on putting this edit together for me. And his idea was like, look, like, this is all over the place. Let's just make it black and white and it'll come together a little better. And, you know, the whole focus of this edit, too, was I really want it to just be about the skiing. Because a lot of times, especially when you watch these bigger production company movies, like TGRs, there's a lot of beautiful cinematography behind it that can really make shots sing. And make ski shots that weren't… you know, the kind of an average ski shot if you saw it in person, but because of the way it was filmed, it just really comes to life. And it's so amazing.

And so with this, I thought, well, the focus has to be the skiing. You know, if you have really, really good skiing, you can make this work. And so the focus was the skiing we put it in black and white, and that's how the edit came to be.

Lisa: I love that. I love that it's the creative process. It's not the creative product. You know, and just hearing your process and turning it black and white and adapting and changing and kind of going with what weather was available. And, you know, it's just such a... especially in winter, it’s such a process and it sounds like you're really open to what's actually in front of you.

Elyse: Yeah. Well, what do you have to work with, right? Like how can we polish what you have to work with? What are the assets here? And that was the goal.

You know, it would have been great to have had some of those shots be shot on some really nice cameras and by cinematographers that really know what they're doing. But, you know, at the end of the day that wasn't an option. So how can we get around that and still put together something that would be fun for people to watch?

Lisa: I love that.

Elyse: Thanks.

Lisa: At WHEELIE, the creative agency that I own, we always talk about how creativity exists because there's a problem of some kind and then Curiosity. So creativity is born from curiosity plus conflict of some kind.

Elyse: Right.

Lisa: You know, and it sounds like you, yeah, you got curious, what can I do with what I've got and turn it into something beautiful And it worked.

Elyse: Yes.

Lisa: Oh, I love that.

Elyse: Yeah, it really did. It came full circle. I ended up getting nominated for Powder’s best female segment and I won. And it, it was so incredibly fulfilling. I… yeah, it was so incredibly fulfilling getting to be a whole part of that process. And it's neat when... there's a lot of times as a skier, professional skier, and you're a part of these productions, you're not really involved in any creative whatsoever. And so the fact that I went through that whole process on my own - and of course, I mean, I relied on a lot of help. There's no way I would've... could have done it without all the help that I received from all my friends. But, the fact of the matter is, I got to be more involved and learn and take away from that. Which is, which is really great. You know. It's always fun when you have a job that you're passionate about, that you're able to go beyond your original job description and see what it's like doing different parts of what it takes to... well, to make a movie, for instance. So.

Lisa: In your opinion, as a skier and also from the creative side as well, what makes a great segment?

Elyse: Well, there's a lot of different components that can make a great segment. Sometimes, you know, the action can really, really stand out, but there's times too, where if a production doesn't edit the action in a way that helps the shot stand out, it'll fall flat. I would love to give an example of a negative example, except that just is not very nice. So I won't do that, but I'll give an example though, on the flip side of a positive example, where…

So a couple years ago, I filmed with Matchstick Productions for a movie All In, and the focus was on a couple of us female skiers and Angel Collinson was one of the other athletes besides myself. And Angel is really well known for her hard-charging skiing in Alaska. She's an amazingly beautiful, just get-after-it skier. Well, the segment they did with her for her personal segment was based at Snowbird, which is where she grew up, and they… the skiing that she did was just skiing around the resort and it wasn't even necessarily powder skiing. And they put a poem to it that Angel wrote, her talking about her relationship- her fond relationship with skiing. And the segment was just absolutely beautiful.

Now, it didn't stand out because she had some crazy action that Angel's known for, but it stood out because there was a different element to it than what we normally see, you know, with her explaining her special connection to skiing and her, just, you could see the love for skiing without her having to ge so-called rad.

So, there's different ways that it can be achieved. It just, you know, it comes back to that word that is definitely overused in our industry right now, but yet it really, really means a lot is authenticity. How authentic, sometimes, can this creative production that we're seeing in front of us be. Is it really authentic? And if that shines through, that can make all the difference and it doesn't have to be based on ability sometimes, you know, like of just what people are doing for actual skiing.

Lisa: I love that. And I'm super curious to ask you this, because I first heard about you - I was living in Crested Butte - and in 2008 you won the Freeride World Tour. And I just remember being like, “Holy shit, look at her ski.” And, you know, throughout the years, like you've evolved and gotten married and you're just this really awesome, like, woman, right? This has been years going on. So how has your authentic expression of yourself as a woman and as a skier changed and evolved over the years and how, like when has that felt to you like, “yes, this production company nailed it, or I nailed it.” Like how, how has that looked for you?

Elyse: I think for me... this is a hard question in a way for myself, because I think that a lot of times when... these days, especially when I work with production companies, a lot of it is just focused on my skiing and not so much necessarily, always getting in front of the camera and being chummy in front of the camera. Because maybe when we're out in the field, I can be a little more serious. And not... like not crazy serious where you're like, “Whoa, you really need to take it down a notch, this is really intense.” It's just, I kind of focus on hand and I don't get playful in front of the camera. Like, my husband, for instance, [laughs] who gets like, you know, sometimes it's just like, I'm sitting on the other side is rolling my eyes like, “Oh my God, honey” but people love it. And that's part of his persona that comes out in front of the camera.

And for me, I think I really focus on, I've always had this mentality of, just really trying to showcase that women are just as good of skiers as men and that we should be taken seriously. And I think that some part of that fight of trying to gain equality and recognition by our industry is just showing up and getting the job done. And not relying on... it's so easy for women to fall back on, you know, what they look like and presenting this kind of character that just, you know, like, “I'm a pretty face and that's why I'm here.” That is just something that's prevalent in human nature and in women's sports all across the world. So I think I really try and make a point of trying to go beyond that and just let the skiing speak for itself and thereby gaining... once it's kind of established, they're like, okay, your, your skiing is legitimate. Then you can come to the table and talk about, well, you know, “I think I should have, I should be paid the same as the other male athletes that are on this team. You know, there's no reason that I shouldn't be paid the same.” So.

Lisa: How has that, how you've shown up changed throughout your career as you've made yourself really like a prominent figure in the ski industry? Like, has that level of authenticity been able to shift a little bit as you've grown and shifted too?

Elyse: Yeah, I mean, I think like... maybe just a little more relaxed. But I think that the times have shifted, you know what I mean?

Lisa: Yeah.

Elyse: Like it's just, I can have these conversations because people are more receptable to them. Back when I was on my first major sponsor, and this is around the time with winning the Freeride World Tour and winning best female performance. And I just was not… the sponsor that I had was not receptive to women in skiing the same way it was to men.

And I... I had conversations with them that were just pretty flabbergasting. Like, for instance, I was told by a team manager that they were taking me off the international team and part of it had to just do with some funding. And the first things to always be cut with marketing and funding was women's stuff, the women athletes. And when I was discussing this, like, well, God, I just won the tour, and what do you mean I can’t be on the national team, like I even just filmed with a French film company. And so I am like very international and just trying to give that, that real, like, obvious argument besides the fact that it just seemed like for a female skier, my trajectory was on the way up and I should be recognized as an international athlete versus just an athlete by a country.

And things have changed nowadays too. How teams will recognize our athletes. But I was told by the international team manager that, “no one cares about women in Europe, Elyse. I'm sorry, but no one cares.”

Lisa: Ooh.

Elyse: And it's... I mean, that stung bad. But like how, how do you reply to that? You know?

Lisa: How did you reply to that?

Elyse: I think I really didn't say much to that one. Honestly, what do you say? It was kind of like, okay, well, you made your point. I don't know how I can argue with that because you feel pretty set that women are… not even second rate to men right now as a marketing piece for your company. Even though women are a definite part of the snow market.

Anyways, you know, like this day and age, if I had that same conversation with that team manager, I don't think it would go like that at all.

Lisa: No.

Elyse: I don't think he would say that. And that's just where we are in the times, you know, things luckily have changed. It's just, I think back then it was a little bit... it was more difficult because I felt I was pretty passionate about, you know, women should be getting the same opportunities as men. And I could see our value, you know, like at the end of the day, I realize, you know, skiing is an industry, it's a business and you need to make money.

And if you are treating part of your clientele, like they don't really matter, well then yeah. They're not going to buy your product. So... because it comes down to authenticity, you know, like how can... customers can be pretty privy to the fact, if a company is treating them like an afterthought or not. It's just back then, a lot of the companies all treated women that way. So I think women didn't really necessarily have options. And that whole idea of the pink and shrink it really came out of, I think that was kind of the awakening around that time of, well, this is the way you treat women, you just pink it and drink it. So we've evolved quite a bit. Thank goodness.

Lisa: Yeah, yeah. It is good to see progress like that and have more options and quality options, equipment that doesn't fall apart.

Elyse: Yeah, and actually can, one, look cool and two, perform very well. And it's like, there's a lot of companies that can… will spend time figuring out how to make something really durable for women, but yet maybe be slightly different that works better for women.

So. You know, we still have a little ways to go. I know, being an insider, that there are some companies that still are making half-ass decisions when it comes to women's products, but there's some companies that have found a lot of success with women's products and realize that it's a really valuable market. And in turn, they put a lot of effort into it. So.

Lisa: That's cool. How do you, how do you navigate that with sponsorships and your insider access? When a brand is kind of blowing it, like, do you say anything or do you just kind of move on to what is a good fit?

Elyse: Well, right now, I mean… as an athlete, it's not like you're trying to make constant moves within different companies. I feel like, you know, about... I don't know, it's probably like the last five or six years of my life I've been with pretty much the same companies now that became really good fits. It took a little bit to get there, but I feel pretty happy and that the companies I work with, it's a really like a positively- a mutually positive relationship.

So I can see other companies doing things that aren't super awesome. But for the most part who I'm working with, I feel pretty good about. So it's not like something I have to deal face on quite as much I used to.

Lisa: That's awesome.

Elyse: Yeah. And that part of that, you know, comes with like, well, it was, it was partially just the trajectory that I was on, and because I was a female that kind of would speak up - and it’s one of the things where I wasn't speaking up publicly, you know, it's not like things you would hear me say in a magazine article or something, it was more like just behind the scenes - and that kind of would burn some bridges a little bit, because I would come to the table with like, “Hey, let's talk about, you know, making women more important.” And women that were successful with those particular brands are ones that didn't really speak up. And it's not that they had to, it's just that sometimes people, we're all different, some people just don't have that nature of… they're okay with just going along and they don't want to rock the boat so to speak.

But that's one thing when you get to know me is I don't have a very good poker face. [laughs] That's what Cody says, I have a terrible poker face. So if it's something that I'm not behind, it’s hard for me to fake like I'm behind some decisions. But, you know, you gotta move through things deftly. You can't just, you can't be brash. It's trying to be smart about picking your battles and how you go about it.

Lisa: Love that. Calculated. Classic.

Elyse: You gotta be as a woman.[laughs]

Lisa: Mhmm. You gotta be. Is there anything I haven't asked you that you'd like to share with our audience?

Elyse: Oh, goodness. I don't know. I feel like, you know, as these go, I feel like I've just listened to myself talk quite a bit. But that is the point. Yeah, I… I just, I got to say that like, On My Own Terms, wrapping it back to that, at the end, you know, it... it brings up the point that I'm really excited about women in skiing right now. And I'm so glad that that was put in the edit because I really am. I think the most exciting thing in skiing is women. When you watch the Freeride World Tour right now, it's what the women are doing. You know, because there's a lot of progression going on and the competition is just getting thicker and thicker and it's so fun to watch.

I think in the whole Freeride scene, like, all these movies now are not just having the one token female anymore. So as a female, you don't stand out just because you're a woman, you have to stand out because you're bringing something beyond that to the table. You know, whether that be with your skiing, personality, with that, et cetera.

You know, like last year's Matchsticks movie with... they had all kinds of women in it and I'm really proud because I think the All In movie with Angel, Michelle Tatum, and myself was the catalyst to help showcase that a lot of women in a movie can carry a movie. But Matchstick's latest movie, my most favorite part in the movie - and I don't think this is just because I'm female - was the blondes. You know, like, there's a lot of guys that would say the same thing. They really stood out in the movie, which is really, really exciting. So the fact that... I guess I've been able to be a part of this and help foster it is really exciting and gratifying.

Lisa: Have you had the opportunity to film with very many women behind the lens or is that still very male dominant?

Elyse: That's pretty male dominated. TGR has a female or two that... well, there's only one actual filmer that I've worked with, I think, that's a female and that's Jill at TGR.

But two years ago, the Winterland movie, the entire... the entire editing crew was female. So that's behind the scenes, unfortunately it's not literally behind the lens, but behind the scenes. Which is pretty cool. You know, being a camera woman is not- is not easy. I'm very aware of that because the amount of how heavy your gear is, and being out in the conditions that we're out in, it's a daunting task. And I can see why not that many women are super into, or they haven't been in the past, like women - just in our sport in general it’s been so male dominated. And then it's only a small slice that get really excited about getting behind the lens, too. So I'm sure we'll see that change. But man, those bags that those guys carry around, you know, we joke that it… I'm sure your audience is very familiar with the saying of like, it's like carrying a midget on your back.

Lisa: Yeah. Yeah.

Elyse: You know, it's not easy. Right. It's very, very commendable. So hopefully we'll see that change, but it's a little slower than women in front of the lens. But on the same token, you know, I think it's just the more visibility that women are seen to be quote unquote, a part of the whole process, I think that will inspire more women to also just want to be a part of the process behind the lens as well. If that makes sense.

Lisa: It certainly does.

Elyse: Yeah.

Lisa: Yeah. I think it's so important to get women behind the lens and hard to find. Definitely hard to find. And camera gear is heavy and yeah. Especially mountain biking, having to be able to mountain bike through technical terrain with all that gear on your back. And it's, it's intense.

Elyse: Yeah. So, and you can imagine, it's the exact same thing with skiing, you know. The terrain that you're in is not mellow terrain. Like, if you were just going up on the resort and lugging around some camera gear, that's not so bad. But when you get out in the back country and you're getting deep and you're having to lug all this stuff around, it's really difficult.

And I'm not saying that women can't do that cause that's, you know, anything but, it's just that it is one small barrier for women. Like when I - just using myself as an example - I'm not a very large woman. I'm 5’ 5”. Yeah, I'm strong, but I'm not carrying that kind of weight on my back versus my 6’2”, 290 pound husband is quite different.

So that's just some physical matters that come into that, that can create larger barriers for women. But, man, there are women that do it and I commend you and I think there's going to be more so.

Lisa: Cool. Awesome. Well, where, where can people follow you online?

Elyse: Elyse Saugstad. @elysesaugstad, that's pretty much across all platforms on Instagram and Facebook. And I have a Twitter account, but I don't really use it. I try to… I’ve gotten intp this phase where I’m just trying to limit social media interactions - or not interactions, but just social media time. You know, as great as it is and as inspiring as it can be for all of us and a reminder to get out there and play and have fun, you know, there's also the negatives of it too. So we try to limit that.

Lisa: Yeah, seriously. It takes effort these days, I think, to balance it all. But.

Elyse: Yeah.

Lisa: Yeah. Cool. Well, thank you so much for your time and your insight, and I really loved this conversation, so thank you so much.

Elyse: Yeah. Thank you for having me. I really appreciate it. It's great to be on your show.

Lisa: Thank you so much for being on the podcast, Elyse, you are a freaking rock star. Thank you for your time. And to our listeners, I hope you enjoy that. You can follow Elyse online, her handle is E-L-Y-S-E-S-A-U-G-S-T-A-D. Elyse Saugstad.

Also to our listeners, thank you so much for being here. This podcast is very time consuming to create, edit, book, record, it takes a lot of effort. So if you want to support the podcast, it would be amazing if you'd leave a five-star review and a comment that really helps it get into the ears of more listeners.

Thank you so much and have a great day. Bye.

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