'The Amazing Race' on CBS: Freeskiing stars Kristi Leskinen, Jen Hudak take the lead
The freeskiing icons talk gaining respect in a male-dominated sport and making the 'Amazing Race'
Kristi Leskinen and Jen Hudak won't be competing at the 2018 Winter Olympics in February, but their ski tracks will be all over the superpipe in South Korea. You don't get women's halfpipe skiing into the Olympics without Leskinen, the O.G. of the women's freeskiing movement, or Hudak, who absolutely dominated the halfpipe circuit at the height of her career.
Instead, you can see both on CBS for season 30 of "The Amazing Race". The duo will compete as #TeamExtreme against the likes of ex-NBA stars Cedric Ceballos and Shawn Marion, competitive eating champion Joey Chestnut and Indianapolis 500 winner Alexander Rossi.
The new season of "The Amazing Race" debuts on CBS on Wednesday, Jan. 3 at 8 p.m. ET, and you can also stream it on CBS All Access.
Hudak, a two-time world champion and two-time Winter X Games gold medalist in the halfpipe, said she had actually gotten far in the casting process for another CBS Show before being approached about doing "The Amazing Race."
"This season, they wanted to find dynamic duos, kind of competitive pairs," Leskinen said. "So they gave Jen a call and they said, 'Do you have any friends?'"
"Basically you, but blonde," said Hudak. "And I was like, I have the perfect person."
Perfect might be an understatement.
If it involves anything competitive, you want Leskinen on your team. She beat out NFL superstar Terrell Owens, former NL MVP Jeff Kent, Olympic gold medalist Bode Miller, U.S. soccer star Brandi Chastain and WNBA legend Lisa Leslie, among others, in ABC's "The Supertars" in 2009. Leskinen may have lost to T.O. in one 50-yard sprint on the beach -- "I think he was jogging," she joked -- but she and celebrity partner Maksim Chmerkovisky of "Dancing with the Stars" fame wound up dusting the whole field.
There's also this crazy story: Leskinen qualified for state in pole vault in high school just two weeks after taking up the sport, then set a new school record. Growing up in Uniontown, Pa., near Seven Springs Mountain Resort, her family also owned a marina and she spent her summers wakeboarding and water skiing. As a teenager, she took second at the US Wakeboard Nationals and fourth at Worlds. She played soccer and basketball, too, but skiing was always her fiercest passion.
She was a promising moguls skier, but Leskinen truly excelled at doing tricks off jumps -- which led her to her first US Freeskiing Open and a fated meeting with none other than 1998 Olympic medalist Jonny Moseley. After watching Leskinen try to slide a rail in moguls skis, Moseley gave her a pair of his twin tips.
"When I got into freeskiing, it was a fledgling sport," Leskinen said. "It was the very beginning. And the first contest I ever went to, I was the only girl that entered it. And that was kind of a shocker to me, and for years, from that point on, it was lobbying event hosts and sponsors and fighting for equal recognition."
It's a battle that Leskinen and Hudak fought throughout their competitive careers, whether it was lobbying for equal prize money at top-tier events like the Winter X Games or pushing back against sponsors and magazines that wanted to market them for their sex appeal first and their skiing second.
CBS Sports caught up with both members of #TeamExtreme to talk about why their vagabond freeskiing careers prepared them well for the craziness of "The Amazing Race," battling sexism and severe injuries in the world of action sports, missing out on their Olympic dreams, and a little Steelers football. The following interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Being freeskiers who traveled the world, you guys had good preparation for this, right?
Hudak: I think that our backgrounds really did prepare us well for this, even though we didn't know what we were going to be getting into. Besides our skiing, Kristi and I are just the kind of people who like to figure out everything we do, no matter what it is. We like to get to the bottom and learn skills, no matter how mundane they might be … We weren't worried about long flights and that sort of thing. And we have systems in place for being able to sleep in weird places at odd hours and dealing with jetlag and all that.
This show is designed to be stressful. How did you prepare for it? And how did you get along?
Hudak: I had respect for Kristi before we went on this journey together, and I just have so much more respect for her following it. I knew that we would be tested, and we talked about it up front before we even started. Like, if you need to yell, just scream at me, it's cool. Like, whatever. We're not going to get hung up on things, because it is stressful at times and you're driving around lost and you have no idea where you are and you feel like everyone is in front of you and you're losing this race and you freak out. It happens. Kristi and I just always knew that we had each other's back and we never doubted that for a second and we were also very aware that we were competing together on a team and we were there for each other. We got along great.
Leskinen: The cool thing about "The Amazing Race" is that each morning when you wake up, you don't know where you're going to be that night, you don't know where you're going to be in an hour, and you have no idea what you're going to be doing. So, there really is no preparation. You just have to hope that everything you've done in your life and the life skills that you have built are going to come in handy.
You were women in a male-dominated sport. What kind of stuff did you encounter trying to break through and gain respect in the world of freeskiing?
Leskinen: We went from a sport where there were absolutely no women involved to, you know, at some point the women can ski, but the men are winning $10,000 and the women aren't winning any money. And then, it'd be like, OK, you're in the X Games. The men are winning $20,000 and the women are getting $2,000. It was a struggle. It was a fight the whole time. I would say it's finally equaled out when our sport got final recognition into the Olympics, because now it's on the world stage. It's in the conversation now that women shouldn't be treated that differently and it's exciting to see now, if you go to any event around the world now, whether it's world championships or the Olympics or the X Games, you have a full vibrant, strong, athletic, exciting women's field.
What are your feelings toward the Olympics? Is it bittersweet? If women's ski halfpipe got into the 2006 Games or the 2010 Games, you'd be competing for medals. Or are you just excited that females are competing on the world stage in South Korea?
Hudak: It's a great question. 2010 was more bittersweet for me, just because I was on the top of my game then. I won every contest that year, and got second in the one that I didn't win. Had it been an Olympic sport then, it's very likely that I would be an Olympic medalist. I tore my ACL in the first Olympic qualifier leading into the 2014 Olympic Games. That was the end of that dream. I thought it was going to be very bittersweet, but honestly it was more sweet than bitter. I think that Kristi and I poured our heart and souls into this sport. I actually got chills just thinking about it.
Leskinen: The only time it grates at you, and it does, is usually if you meet someone for the first time and they say, "Oh, what do you do?" And you explain that you're a professional skier, the next question out of their mouth is, "Oh, did you ever go to the Olympics?" And then like, UGHHH.
Hudak: To see something finally get its debut on that world stage is incredible, and to know that we played a role in these girls' lives and women's lives' that maybe didn't even know that this would ever be a possibility for them. We kind of laid the pathway there. It was really fulfilling just to see the sport and know that you played a role in it. You helped someone else's dream come true. It's a pretty special thing.
Leskinen: In the bigger picture, Jen and I can both fall back on the fact that we really created a sport. We started a movement for women in action sports. And that's a pretty cool thing. I definitely list it among my greatest achievements.
On your blog, Jen, you wrote about the side of being a female athlete where you're trying to promote your sport, you're trying to gain equal respect. At the same time, the way events want to market it you, or companies want to market you when it comes to the business side of things, it's for things that don't have anything to do with your skiing. It's how you look. Kristi, I know you've dealt with some of that too. I'd heard a story on a podcast about these Nordica posters. They wanted to market you as a sexy young woman and you were going to ski shows and signing posters and people thought you were a model, not a skier. Talk about some of the things you encountered as you tried to be taken seriously as a female athlete.
Hudak: It's tough. It was tough early on in my career and I'm just glad social media wasn't around then. … There are other ways besides your athletic abilities to gain exposure and to be used as a marketing tool for these companies. It's really a fine line. My first opportunity to be in Freeskier magazine was to be included in this Women of Freeskiing issue. I was 17 years old at the time when they called. I'd just gone pro and just signed my first sponsored deal, and I was like, Oh my gosh, Freeskier wants to feature me. This is amazing, so I'm going to say yes. Then I'm also a vain teenager who cares about how she looks and appreciates being looked at as if I'm this beautiful woman. I'm not a woman, I'm 17, I'm a girl. But, yeah, it was weird. I was in a bubble bath. And it's distorted. And I was like, OK, am I here because I'm OK at skiing and I'm good looking? Or because I'm really good at skiing? Because the action shot of me, under the caption of it, was: Jen Hudak showing her "man-sized" air in the halfpipe. And then a picture of me in the bubble bath. It was like, wait a minute here. That is women-sized air. And, yes, I'm going very large. And why am I in a bubble bath?
Leskinen: I went through the same thing. You're a female in a male-dominated sport and you're getting recognition, so how do you say no, especially at that young age. Finding our way in the sport I know, for me, also meant finding those boundaries. After I realized what Nordica was doing and what Freeskier magazine was doing at the time, we had to put our foot down. I was like, if I'm going to be in a ski magazine, I'm going to be skiing. I recognize the difference. As a female, it's great to be recognized as a beautiful woman as well. So, if it's an outside-the-industry thing, like I didn't have any problem going to pose for FHM. I felt like that was a compliment, and that was separate. And if that brought more attention to our sport, then I was OK with it. But within the sport, I had drawn like a red line and I was like, no. I'm not going to go to a ski show with a poster and getting questions why I'm there because what we're doing on the hill should speak for itself.
You are #TeamExtreme, and these are extreme sport because you're doing extreme things and the injuries can be very severe. Kristi, you struggled with concussions. Jen, you've had eight knee surgeries. How is your health now that you're done competing?
Hudak: I'm glad I'm not doing this sport anymore. There's times when I miss it greatly and then I start watching the Dew Tour and Grand Prix and I watch all these athletes leading up to the Olympics and it's like every other day somebody's broken a humerus or someone's gotten concussed or someone has a horrible bone bruise or someone tore an ACL. It's just like, what we did was so brutal on our bodies and it takes a long time to recover from it. I'm probably going to have to go in for a ninth knee surgery and that's partly probably residual from what I did in freeskiing for so long. Otherwise, with my health, I feel like my focus on nutrition and my actual health and wellbeing is probably better than when I was competing.
Leskinen: I'm feeling 100 percent. Towards the end of my ski career, I competed as a wakeboarder as well. I still loved to wakeboard. As soon as I was winding down my ski career, I was like, sweet, I can wakeboard now because it doesn't matter if I crash wakeboarding. I got a couple small concussions back to back and that just kind of tipped me over the edge where I was dealing with post-concussion syndrome for quite a long time and did vision therapy and all kinds of other stuff. I'm back to full fitness, but it took a long time and I went through a lot coming to terms with it and dealing with it. At one point you have a doctor who says, "Well, just get used to a new normal," and you're like, that is not an option. But I also feel like I wouldn't change anything I've done for the world. What I do want to do, and what I'm passionate about now, as kind of a female that helped pave the way in these sports, is be a voice for the young girls to help make them safer and make them better. And educate girls what they're allowed to fight for.
Kristi, you're a huge Steelers fan. Is this their year?
Leskinen: I hope so. If we can't beat the Pats with Ben and Bell and Brown and Boswell all healthy, then we don't deserve to ever beat them.
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