Snowboard Cross—besides being a mother’s worst nightmare—is a snowboard discipline where four competitors race down a steep mountainous slope through a course of cambered turns, steep berms, lengthy drops and long jumps at speeds up to 35 miles per hour.
Or, in Faye Gulini’s words, the sport is simply “a race to the bottom.”
Perfecting that race to the bottom has been the focal point toward which Gulini, a member of the U.S. Snowboarding SBX Team, has driven her career over the past 10 years.
Gulini grew up in Park City, Utah, where she began snowboarding at 11 years old. Almost immediately, she was competing in slopestyle and boardercross competitions—two disciplines that test a competitor’s ability to hit jumps.
Learning to hit jumps as a child—before maturing to an age where the fear of injury could overcome her desire to take risks—made all the difference for Gulini.
“My confidence on big jumps came from always riding jumps when I was growing up,” Gulini says. “It gave me a head start on other girls.”
At 14 years of age, Gulini chased her racing dreams to Vail, Colo., where she attended the Vail Ski & Snowboard Academy. The academy’s sport-specific school model, which prioritizes mountain training for snow sport athletes, was perfect for the young racer. (Gulini opens up about how the school helped her balance schoolwork and snowboarding.)
“Everything picked up from there,” Gulini said of the move. “I was competing consistently. Getting results. Traveling. That’s when everything kicked off.”
Gulini is now 21, and her decade-long career includes 17 World Cup starts, four top 10 X Games finishes, and an Olympic appearance at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, where she represented Team USA.
She was the youngest SBX racer at the Games and one of the few SBX racers who did not sustain an injury during the Games. Nearly 75 percent of female snowboardcross athletes suffered injuries, according to the Associated Press. But her lucky streak ran out one month after the Olympics. That’s when Gulini tore her ACL during a practice run in Mammoth Lakes, Calif. The injury forced her to sit out for seven months, but she says the mental side effects of the crash lasted even longer.
“It was so tough to figure everything out again,” Gulini says of her gradual comeback to the sport. “The biggest thing is learning to be confident again when you’re racing. It’s so hard to do that when you’re coming back from an injury.”
It’s not the jumps or the speed that scare Gulini, it’s the other competitors. In SBX, one person’s error can cost another racer her season.
“You can do everything right and still get taken out and injured,” Gulini says. “You have to worry about not only yourself, but how can you be the fastest while still avoiding other people, and other people’s accidents.”
When Gulini isn’t traveling around the world competing, she spends time at home in Park City. With a mountainous backdrop, she stays in shape outdoors through regular hiking, biking and trail running.
When asked what’s next for her, Gulini says, “I want to compete in Sochi in the 2014 Olympics. I’d like to end up on the podium, but if not, I’m happy just going there and giving it my all.”