Elyse Saugstad starts with throwing a snowmobile down off its trailer. Then she flexes a little muscle, tugging on its recoil starter just once before the sled roars to life. With that, the seasonal Santa Cruz resident is off on a mission to conquer the untouched powder beds and rugged big mountain skiing in Whistler's backcountry.
This is Saugstad's life as a professional skier. Set it to a booty-shaking punk song, and it's also the gist of her self-made film segment "La Petite Ninja Skieur," which she recently entered in Teton Gravity Research's new $100,000 Co-Lab video contest.
Saugstad is the only woman entered in the wide-open contest that pits men against women and adults against children. And while she seems to know no fear on the slopes -- where she flies off rock outcroppings and makes 40-foot drops -- she admits she found that aspect intimidating.
"Part of the reason I didn't consider this contest in the get-go is it's guys-against-girls. There are no gender categories," Saugstad said. "To know that I would be going up against some of best men in the ski industry was a bit daunting.
"Then it hit me, why not?"
So Saugstad is throwing down with the boys, hoping she can muscle her way into the top 18 by the time online voting closes on July 18 and the top 12 when finalists are announced Aug. 9. The 12 finalists' segments will be combined into a DVD by TGR, a producer and marketer of action sports films.
"I think I have a really solid chance of making the final," she said. "The response from the core ski industry has been super positive."
Count TGR co-founder Todd Jones among those impressed.
"We were baffled and excited. It was awesome," he said. "When we saw it, we were like, 'Holy (smokes)!' We did a screening for our staff of about 15 edits to show how cool some of the edits were -- these are people who have seen a lot of edits -- and people were blown away by her. I think her segment would make any film in the ski industry."
It's not up to Jones, though, or any other ski industry big-wig. The motto of the contest is "of the people, by the people and for the people," and TGR has taken a decidedly hands-off approach. All initial voting is done through social media. After the cut of 18 plus three wild cards is made, it is up to the entrants themselves to pick the winner of five subcategories that TGR has yet to reveal and the $100,000 grand prize.
The overall winner will be announced during TGR's world premiere in the fall.
Jones said that when TGR came on the scene, action sports film production was expensive and exclusive. With the advent of DSLR cameras and YouTube, however, more and more people have been able to get in on the action, shooting and editing their own videos. Rather than try to fight that movement, Jones said TGR decided to experiment with it.
Last fall, the company announced it was creating "an open-source, freeskiing contest" that would let anyone with a camera or a GoPro try his or her hand at making a ski-flick-worthy segment. The contest is modeled in part after the company's own Grom Contest and the Billabong XXL Big Wave Awards, which have evolved into the Academy Awards of big wave surfing.
"We are challenging our own model of making a film. It's kind of a weird experiment to see what happens," Jones said. "We were absolutely amazed at the quality of submissions, with Elyse's being one of the standouts."
Saugstad's segment is entirely her brainchild, though she didn't initially set out to make it for the Co-Lab contest. She instead dedicated her season to compiling footage impactful enough to earn her Powder Magazine's Best Female Performance award, an honor she had been nominated for several times but had never won. Unsure how to get her footage -- which was shot, among others, by her husband, Santa Cruz native and pro skier Cody Townsend -- in front of viewers' eyes, she decided to produce her own video segment.
She organized the clips and listed the shots she wanted to use before handing them over to editor Matt Sheridan. Then, she set out to find a song with the proper feng shui -- she couldn't resist "Fight and Kiss" by We Are Wolves -- and secure the licensing rights to it.
"It feels pretty cool," she said. "A lot of times in sports when you're an athlete and part of it, you don't have creative rein at all. You don't even know what shots are in the movie. You go to a movie and see it for the first time all year and sometimes you're like, 'OK, that's an interesting vision.' It felt so great knowing that I had put in all the effort to make it happen. It feels really rewarding."
And Saugstad has already reaped some rewards for the effort. Though she isn't the only girl among the 40 entrants -- 10-year-old Sofia Tchernetski also submitted a segment -- she does lay claim to being the only woman, and that has brought her exposure on ESPN and other media outlets.
It doesn't hurt that Saugstad's skiing is also on par with the best of the men. Her segment, which highlights her female finesse as she make lofty drops and beautiful, curvy lines through untouched powder, currently has the fifth-most votes.
"I was surprised that on Year 1 we would see a girl challenge the boys," Jones said. "I thought it took a lot of ambition and courage. Now we're seeing it pay off. ... She's getting lot of exposure and her edit is amazing."
ON THE NET
TGR Co-Lab opensource freeskiing video contest
WHEN: Now through July 18
WHAT: 40 freeskiers of all ages and abilities compiled 2- to 5-minute videos
VOTE: Once a day through facebook
PRIZE: $100,000 for winner, top 12 included in Teton Gravity Research DVD