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Winter Chill: Olympian Jamie Anderson’s Freestyle Life, On and Off the Slopes

The gold-medal-winning snowboarder is back to compete in the Beijing Games—but first a meditation session, Tibetan singing bowl, and insight into the conveyor-belt mentality that helps keep her going in the sport

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Freestyle snowboarder Jamie Anderson was 18 years old when she injured her body and invigorated her mind. It was March 2009, and Anderson had been having a great day—and a great season—until she crashed during practice for an event in Vermont, jamming her knee into her torso as she fell. She ruptured her spleen, lost pints of blood, and needed a week-long stay in an intensive care unit. The recovery was physically grueling, and one thing that helped her through it was yoga, a practice which “opened the door to mindfulness,” Anderson, now 31, recalled. “Which was, like, the perfect yin-yang to snowboarding.”

Anderson was speaking over Zoom a couple of weeks ago, in a virtual meditation session attended by about a dozen riders, writers, and sponsors. This session was designed for Anderson—a two-time Olympic gold medalist and a nearly-two-decades-long X-Games legend—to share some of that blessed mindfulness with slightly-less-enlightened people like me. (When I saw that the email with the Zoom link recommended I create a comfortable, sacred space for the session somewhere in my home, I panicked a little before retreating to the only zen-ish spot I could find, a giant bean bag next to my kids’ bunk bed.) Wearing a red patterned robe and her long hair down, Anderson appeared onscreen from a home in South Lake Tahoe, the area where she grew up. (She now spends much of her time in British Columbia, where she lives with her partner, Tyler Nicholson, a pro snowboarder himself.) She held up a metallic “singing bowl from Tibet’’ that she’d acquired on a visit to Hawaii, and then she circled the bowl’s edge with a wand to summon a warbling howl that fell somewhere between the trill of genuine crystal and the call of a humpback whale.

Anderson told us she had a specific reading that she wanted to share: “A little energy-clearing meditation from a really great teacher, Lady Portia,” she said. “Lady Portia is one of the Lords of Karma, where she holds the balance of mercy and judgment. She helps those who want to balance heart and head.” Tending to various candles and oils and crystals, Anderson encouraged everyone on the Zoom to make ourselves cozy, cooing “I’m just going to turn down this light here” in her sunny Cali lilt. I lit my own candle, balanced it on a stack of books about trucks and dinosaurs, and felt better already. This wasn’t the first time I had been personally soothed and delighted by Anderson’s earth-child presence, after all.

In 2014, I was in Sochi, Russia, for the Winter Olympics and watched Anderson deliver an enchanting and unforgettable press conference. She showed reporters a “mantra bead” necklace that she said had been infused with “sacred energy” by a yoga teacher in Breckenridge. She talked about burning sage before her event. (“She’s a bit of a hippie from Tahoe,” one of her fellow competitors said of Anderson.) She gave a shout-out to an octogenarian neighbor from back home whom she identified as “my spirit-grandma.” But what was most incredible about Anderson’s appearance was that it wasn’t just a bit of sideshow whimsy—it was a world-stage curtain call.

Earlier that day, Anderson had soared through the skies and stuck her landings on the snow, earning the gold medal in slopestyle in what was an Olympic debut both for her and for the event. “It’s like playing,” she said afterward. “We’re pretty much snowboarding on a playground up there.”

In the years since that victory, Anderson has kept up her free-spirited success in her freestyle competitions, standing on two more Olympic podiums in 2018 and racking up more X-Games medals—eight golds, nine silvers, and four bronzes—than any other woman. This weekend, she’ll try to win again, in large part by trying to home in on her best self. “It’s not just being, like, a physically strong and active snowboarder,” she explained in January. “I really think it’s mind, body, spirit, and aligning all those things together.” With every shred of her soul, she seeks to stay grounded. With every fiber of her body, she flies.

Anderson grew up one of eight siblings in an area adjacent to both the evergreen shores of Lake Tahoe and the granite cliffs of eastern California’s Sierra peaks. The kids were homeschooled, and much of their education occurred outside. “It was literally my day care,” she said when I asked about the unfussy local resort Sierra-at-Tahoe, where she and her siblings roamed free. (Sierra-at-Tahoe was Anderson’s very first sponsor; others since then have included Red Bull, GoPro, and Dakine.) “As soon as we got some hand-me-down gear, Sierra was right in our backyard.”

Anderson followed in the tracks of her older sister, Joanie, who boarded competitively in, among other events, the rough and tumble discipline of snowboard cross. The first time Jamie appeared in the X-Games, she was only 13. And when she was 16, she and Joanie became the first sisters to win gold at the same X-Games.

That background might be part of why Anderson so excels at slopestyle, an event that, at its best, feels like a bunch of pals egging each other on Jackass style, or like a festive snowball fight where the projectiles are the humans. Slopestyle, which has both skiing and snowboarding divisions, contains multitudes: various rails to grind, jumps to launch from, and contours to toy with, all boarder’s choice. The event combines the gracefulness needed to make big clean turns with the audacity required to be a good park rat.

And above all else, it plays really well on TV. That’s a big reason why snowboard slopestyle joined the Winter Games in Sochi (where the course included a giant and extremely telegenic matryoshka doll) and has been given a primo first-weekend time slot ever since. Slopestyle is one of numerous freestyle events added to the Olympics over the years, from the 1998 introduction of the halfpipe to the 2018 inclusion of big air. (Big air, for which Anderson won silver in Pyeongchang, is pretty much exactly how it sounds: like making the whole plane out of the black box.)

If the goal of, say, a more old-school downhill race is to get ever faster, the motivation in a sport like slopestyle is to go ever bigger. There is a collegial ethos of creative oneupmanship among competitors. As Anderson described it: “You’re, like, the homies of the people you’re competing against.” Which means you constantly want to impress them with new tricks.

In Sochi in 2014, Anderson’s winning performance against said homies featured a Cab 720, which involved two full rotations. Fast forward to early this January at a Grand Prix event at Mammoth Mountain: Anderson landed her first Cab switch double cork 1080 in slopestyle competition, her hips impossibly twisting right up until the very last instant as she inverted twice and revolved three full times. “I’m really proud of that,” she said afterwards to NBC, having won the event, “but I kinda just hucked, hoped, and prayed, and when I stomped it I was kinda shocked.”

Leading the Zoom meditation session a few days after winning Mammoth, Anderson sounded simultaneously tired of and motivated by the energy required to remain in the top echelon of her sport. “There’s been times where I’ve been really insecure and scared of trying new tricks and scared of competing,” she said. “The jumps are gigantic. The weather’s usually pretty terrible, and you have a million variables. Maybe for us girls, we’re on our frickin’ moon cycle! Maybe we’re just, like, not in a good mood, or we don’t feel like being in the cold.” When that happens, Anderson said, she tries to fall back on some of her tried-and-true mindfulness techniques.

“I’ll usually, like, go take a moment, maybe in the trees, go pee, get my nerves out and do a little alternate nostril breathing,” she said about her starting line strategy. Another thing that helps her is to visualize “an aura of white-gold energy” around herself. “And if I’m really screwed,” she said, “or like, freezing cold—South Korea was so cold!—I’ll do the breath of fire.” She demonstrated the technique, her nostrils flaring like a dragon’s. Competing at the Winter Games in so-cold South Korea in 2018, on a day marred by such howlingly windy conditions that more than 80 percent of the athletes’ attempts ended in wipeouts, Anderson went conservative, stayed upright, and won her second gold medal. It may not have been pretty, but it worked.

The Olympics is always a high-stress event, but when it comes to this year’s Games, even the typically simple question of whether to show up at all has been a highly fraught decision for athletes. We are in the midst of the third year of a global pandemic. The host country has been implicated in unthinkable human rights abuses. But earlier this winter, Anderson spoke with the Associated Press about her reservations and her ultimate decision to compete, concluding that “me not going isn’t going to make the world any less corrupt.” She brought up her conflicted feelings again on the Zoom call without being prompted and said she’d been doing a lot of journaling to work through it. “I kind of have been having some breakdowns about the Olympics,” she said. “And so I write a lot.”

Anderson has done a lot of contemplation lately about what her life might look like when she eventually does step back from international competition. Over the past few years, she has started tackling another kind of freestyle snowboarding: big-mountain backcountry journeys, the kind that involve a lot of hikes and helis in places like Alaska and British Columbia. In 2017, she was part of a movie, Full Moon, with a host of established women backcountry shredders, an experience that made her feel like a rookie again. “It’s a whole different type of snowboarding,” she said in the film. “It’s like starting a new sport within a sport you already know.” In 2019 she put together her own backcountry production, Unconditional.

While immersing herself in the mountain landscape this way may be relatively new for Anderson, it still comes naturally. She grew up tied to the landscape around her, and she still loves to walk barefoot in a meadow near her house when she visits Tahoe. “I call it ‘meadow-tating,’” she said, making air-quotes over Zoom. “I just like to birdwatch and look for the eagles and hawks.” (Shortly before she left for Beijing, Nicholson proposed to her in the meadow.) Her ritual became even more meaningful after this past summer, when the Caldor Fire in South Lake Tahoe threatened both Anderson’s family members and the places where she grew up. (Her father, a retired firefighter, stayed home and wielded a garden hose during the blaze, while her beloved Sierra-at-Tahoe resort was able to keep some—though not all—flames at bay by deploying its snowmaking infrastructure.)

For now, Anderson is trying to focus on the things she can control, which unfortunately do not include the conditions at the Olympic Games. Earlier this week, she described the hard-packed, unforgiving “snow” on the entirely man-made course in Beijing as “gnarly” and “pretty bulletproof ice.” If there’s one thing Anderson has learned over the years, it’s that the only way to prepare for such uncertain terrain is to equip oneself to handle life’s stressors from every angle—and especially from within.

When she travels for her work, Anderson tries to keep her suitcases to a reasonable weight. But it can be hard, on account of the gear, the frankincense, the essential oils, the incense, the amino acids, the vitamin C, the green powder (“it’s called Tonic Alchemy, and it’s for radiant health”) and, sometimes, the Tibetan singing bowl, which is quite heavy but worth having around. “For the Olympics,” Anderson said, “I think I’m going to bring, like, all my medicine tools because I want to make sure I’m vibing on a good frequency.” (At her Sochi press conference eight years ago, Anderson was asked if she had issues bringing her prayer beads and “medicinal bundle” through Russian airport security. “They didn’t even question it,” she said then. “They knew it was good vibes all the way.”)

In Beijing, Anderson’s biggest competition will be Zoi Sadowski-Synnott, a 20-year-old New Zealander who finished second to Anderson early last month in Mammoth but won gold in both slopestyle and big air at the X-Games in late January. It is youngsters like her who help keep Anderson moving forward, even when the realities of doing so kind of suck. Recently, Anderson was trying to learn a new trick “and it was almost stressing me out so much that I barely wanted to go snowboard,” she said. She prepped and prepped, and finally Nicholson told her to go for it—she was ready. (“Just go off!” were his words.)

“So I do it,” Anderson said, “and I fully got so broke-off, landed on my back, I had ice burn all over. And then I was pissed! I was like, you know, fuck these tricks, I hate pushing myself, I hate being hurt.”

Anderson got over it quickly, though, even if her body was still a little bit bruised. One of her favorite mental tricks is to imagine her mind as an escalator or a conveyor belt upon which thoughts simply roll right on by. “After it settled for a day,” she said, “I realized you have to do things to get out of your comfort zone. I could chill forever and do the same tricks. But like, I wouldn’t be evolving.”