Overland Park Snowboarder Fosters Olympics Dreams on Both Side of the Broder
by Japhi Westerfield
AT THE TOP OF STONEHAM MOUNTAIN OUTSIDE OF QUEBEC CITY, CANADA, OVERLAND PARK NATIVE Sandra Hillen crouched down low and tried to get a better read on a crazy shape-shifting wind that couldn’t decide whether to become a full-force gale or remain a measly upslope annoyance. She jumped around to keep warm, to keep loose, to do something with the energy she’d carefully bottled up for this day. But mostly she just waited, and if you’re an elite athlete used to flying down mountains faster than some people drive, waiting can be dangerous.
She’d made it here – to the pinnacle of slope-style snowboarding – because of a gift, an affinity for rocketing down heart-pounding mountain runs interrupted by steep jumps, jibs, bumps, and rails. For years she’d organized her life around time on the mountain. But she was also here because, as child growing up in Kansas, she quickly outgrew the puny sled hills near the Oak Park Mall, watched the Winter X-Games so many times her family hid the remote, and nearly wore out her Playstation playing Cool Boarders 2. When she got her first taste of mountain adrenaline on a prairie ski run north of Kansas City, her fate was sealed. So she stood on that mountain – on the brink of qualifying for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia – because the unusual path that had taken her from Overland Park to Boulder, Breckenridge, and the Cascade mountains also took a very unexpected detour through a country indelibly written into the DNA of her family, though not into the mainstream of elite winter sports.
Sandra Hillen’s mother, Gloria Hillen, was born and raised in Guadalajara, Mexico. Along with her uncle and sister Clara Reyes (founder of Kansas City’s Dos Mundos Hispanic newspaper), Gloria moved to Kansas City as a young woman. Sandra grew up in Overland Park and attended Holy Spirit Elementary and St. Thomas Aquinas High School. She was an exceptionally active kid, driven to sports. She tried basketball and soccer. She was a decent cross country runner. She liked sledding, but like the other kids in her neighborhood, was nothing more than a serious hobbyist. For some reason she had a fascination with mountains and thought she might like alpine sports. But she didn’t set foot above 8000 feet until she turned 15.
Kansas City in the 1990’s was not a nurturing place for budding alpinists. Those years included some of the warmest winters on record, including the winter of 1999-2000, which had an average high of 48 degrees between October and April and virtually no snowfall.
But Winter sports were making their way into the mindsets of Americans whether or not they lived in the Snowbelt. The Winter X games — a melding of MTV and ESPN that showcased a punkinspired array of adrenalinefueled events — came along and helped launch snowboarding into the mainstream. Watching the X Games, Hillen first saw the half pipe, an event with more kinship to skateboarding than traditional alpine events. She also saw slope-style, which combines the acrobatics of half pipe with the downhill velocity of skiing. Hillen fueled her growing attraction to the idea of mountain sports with a healthy dose of Cool Boarders 2, an early Playstation game developed in Japan. She begged her parents to try snowboarding, for real this time, but her parents weren’t the problem.
“We didn’t have much snowboarding in Kansas City,” she said.
Kansas City didn’t have any snowboarding culture, but it did have Snow Creek, a small clutch of lifts and trails carved into loess hills along the Missouri River outside of Weston, Missouri, a tiny hamlet better known for tobacco farming, O’Malley’s subterranean Irish pub, and an annual Apple Festival than the culture of extreme sports or Winter X games. Parents take note: feed your children’s dreams. When Hillen told her parents she wanted to snowboard, they started taking her to Snow Creek. There she got a taste of what the riding life could be. It was like sledding, but now she had control. Snow Creek was great but had its limits, so the next winter her family organized their winter vacation around Sandra’s new passion and made a ski trip to Colorado. It was Hillen’s first actual trip to the mountains, and they exceeded her expectations. She was smitten with the dry brittle air, the dramatic clouds that swirl up like fog and then dump furies of snow, the porcupines that hang out at the tops of beetle-killed white pine. After a few runs on traditional skies, Hillen jumped on a snowboard for the first time. Soon she was riding every winter.
After high school, she moved 500 miles west to Boulder to study film production at the University of Colorado. At the time, Boulder was the center of a running scene started by resident Olympic Marathon gold medalist Frank Shorter which was quietly developing into a trail running mecca that would go viral in the mid-2000s with the release of Christopher McDougall’s classic book Born to Run. But it was also a descent snowboarding town. At CU, Hillen joined the school’s snowboarding team. Though technically not a collegiate sport, the team allowed athletes to learn the sport and train with coaches. Soon Hillen said snowboarding was “consuming my life.” She adjusted her class schedule to get as many days on the mountain as possible. She read zines, hung out with other riders, watched YouTube videos, hit dry land practice hard before the snow fell, and jumped for hours on trampolines. Every day she made sure to do something to improve her riding.
The hard work paid off. She entered her first USASA (United States of America Snowboard and Freeski Association) regional contest in Colorado. At the time, USASA was the only real governing body putting on regional contests in the Rockies. The Winter X Games have made snowboarding popular as an exciting new extreme sport for adrenaline junkies, but regional competitions put on by groups like the USASA helped solidify it as a respected sport.
Hillen quickly made an impact on the scene and towards the end of her college years became a regular on podiums in the slope-style event. By the time she was 23, Hillen had stepped up her game and won a series of USASA events. She created a video resume, landed her first sponsor, and decided after college to spend winters in Breckenridge, a town known for altitude-tipsy tourists, an iconic brewery, two of the best alt format radio stations in America, and a culture of elite competitive riding. She found summer work at High Cascade Snowboard Camp in Oregon. By splitting her time between Breck, Kansas City, and Oregon, she was able to ride and train year-round.
High Cascade Snowboard Camp has a week-long school for adult riders, and one night Hillen found herself talking to a camper named Francis Dirren. He knew of Hillen’s reputation as an up-andcoming rider. After a few beers he asked her if she planned to make a run at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Hillen knew those Olympics would debut her event, slope-style, but she’d never seriously considered it. Though she was improving, USASA events were a level below World Cup, which Hillen hadn’t yet broken into. At least a half dozen girls had more experience and success than Hillen in Colorado.
That’s when Hillen’s unexpected detour came, and instead of slowing her down, it put her on the fast track to a shot at the Olympics. Dirren wanted to know if she was gunning for the Olympic team but not the US Olympic team. His friend Alberto DelaRoca was assembling a Mexican National team in Colorado. Winter athletes from all over the world train in the Rockies, and Mexico currently had no woman slated for slopestyle. Hillen considered it for a moment, then had another beer. The idea might have legs, she thought. If everything fell into place quickly, she wouldn’t have to wait six or ten more years to get enough experience for a real shot at the team. She could be there in time for Sochi. Hillen’s mother was born in Mexico, and Hillen herself had spent several summers there as a child. Since she qualified for dual citizenship, she could represent her ancestral Mexico in the Olympics. If she could qualify.
After a round of tryouts back in Colorado, DelaRoca made Hillen’s case to the Mexican Olympic Committee. They decided to back her. Joining the Mexican national team was a paradigm shift, like a band moving from Stage 5 at Winfield to Saturday night at Coachella. Companies like Zeal Optics, GNU snowboards, Vans boots, Airblaster, Celtek, and Wend Waxworks sponsored her. Hillen doubled down on her training, got a new coach and a shot at her first World Cup competition, which coincidentally was held in Colorado.
People came from all over the world to compete in the weeklong event at Copper Mountain. Eighty women alone entered in slopestyle. In that first competition, Hillen finished 40th. Not dead last or the bottom third but 40th out of 80. In the middle. She was up there. She’d come a long way since her intermural days at CU, but even though she was Mexico’s sole competitor, she needed a top thirty World Cup ranking to qualify for an Olympic berth. So she kept working. She hung out with fellow Olympic hopefuls from Australia, Chile, and Brazil. Even though snowboarding is a solo sport, athletes know the difficulty and danger behind it. Along with the hours spent in the sheer awe-inspiring majesty of the mountains, this creates a strong camaraderie. The group became Hillen’s support system in her quest to make the Olympics.
Nine months before Sochi, Sandra made a whirlwind tour of World Cup competitions in New Zealand, Europe and Canada that would establish her final ranking and eligibility to compete in the Olympics. Each contest lasts a week, split between practice runs, two days set aside for bad weather, and the actual competition. Hillen explained that the weather day is critical. “If the wind is too intense, you can’t get the speed to hit the jump. When you’re hitting 70 foot jumps you need to make sure your speed is dialed in. If you come up short, you’ll get hurt. If you go too big, you’ll get hurt. It’s both an art and a science. You need a couple of days to scout, to navigate in your mind what speed you’ll need, to get the lay of the jump, to talk things over with your coach. After a couple of days you can start to try the runs, and only after that can you gauge what you’ll need to stick it on the day of the competition. It helps you mentally as much as anything. It’s a head game to be up there. You know you can do it, but there’s a lot of pressure. There’s a lot of elements that depend on the weather and what order you get and how long it takes for the girls before you to finish.”
The final competition was held in Canada, on Stoneham Mountain. Hillen was doing well but not well enough yet to make the Olympic cutoff, and the last stop was critical in her quest to make the team. That’s how she found herself stuck on the mountain, waiting for a line of eighty women to make their runs. “It’s pretty tough to stand at the top of a frozen mountain and wait,” she said. “Training days for snowboarders consist of a lot of action, going up and down the mountain, running the hills, doing tricks, warming up and cooling down. Waiting is not part of our normal routine.”
Hillen did well on her runs but in the end finished 45th in the World Cup standings. She was the top snowboarder in Mexico, but narrowly missed the top thirty required for eligibility, so she didn’t make the Sochi Olympics (normal winter events take the top fifty, but since this was the first Olympics for slope-style, only thirty were allowed to compete). It was a disappointment, but she took solace knowing that her friends were on the global stage, and now the whole world knew how great they were. Back home in Kansas City, her family was excited about her accomplishments and proud that she represented Mexico. Hillen said, “At first they didn’t understand the potential I had, but once they saw what I was doing, they said, ‘Holy cow, you’re really good.’”
A film crew from Mexico City came out to shoot a promo for Sochi about Mexico and Latin American countries. The video ran as pre-roll for movies all across Mexico, and her family back in Guadalajara got to see her on the big screen. Since her run at the Olympics two years ago, she still competes for the Mexican national team and, at age 31, is gearing up for another shot when the Winter Games return in PyeongChang, South Korea, in 2018.
Hillen made it back for a playoff game in October in the run up to the Royals 2015 World Series championship. If everything lines up, Sandra Hillen might join some of the Royals as another KC-area athlete competing on the world stage.