Take 5: Jenise Spiteri, the first Maltese national snowboarder
January 22, 2016
If you follow Jenise Spiteri on Instagram, you'll notice she has no problem hashtagging Walmart in her latest batch of park photos.
"I found these in the boy's section for cheap," she tells me on a cold and overcast day at Breckenridge, pulling at the fabric on her camo snowboard paints. "I'm wearing my Roxy jacket today because it's so cold, but the rest of my kit is all Walmart. My friend, she rides for Target, and we've been joking about picking up Walmart as my clothing sponsor: 'Jenise Spiteri rides Iceburg' or something."
She laughs, and we drop into the Park Lane rail line for photos. At 23 years old, the native of Redwood City, California is already a pro at self-promotion. She started appearing in commercials as young kid and then moved onto modeling and more acting as a teenager. For years, she thought her calling was in Los Angeles with thousands of other stars-to-be.
Then she discovered snowboarding.
She attended Sierra Nevada College in the Lake Tahoe area and fell in love with the sport, quickly entering rail competitions before switching over to halfpipe. She's a Mammoth Mountain snowboarder at heart, someone who's more familiar wearing jeans with a tanktop than a puffy and facemask for laps through the terrain park.
To be honest, I never would've noticed that her camo pants cost a measly $20 at Walmart. She rocks it, just like you'd expect from a part-time model. (She still takes small projects when she takes a month off in fall and spring.) She's also just about the only model/sponsored snowboarder I know who's trying to court Walmart.
Recommended Stories For You
"I just can't do that out here," she says of wearing plain-old denim jeans at windy Breck. "They just freeze."
Who knows — Walmart just might hop on board with her. Just before Thanksgiving, she moved from Mammoth to Breck for training in the halfpipe. It's part of her push to qualify for the 2018 Olympics as the first — and still the only — member of the Maltese national snowboard team. Her parents are Malta natives, and, after meeting with the Mediterranean nation's Olympic committee this fall, officials agreed to support her as an athlete. They even asked if she knew anyone else of Maltese descent to join.
But balmy Malta isn't known for snowboard pants, and so Spiteri is tagging Walmart between laps through the Breck pipe and park. Soon she heads to Mammoth for the first World Cup halfpipe qualifier of the season, followed by another in Park City and a third in Japan. Those are her key to the Olympics: without a top-30 finish in the World Cup, she won't make the cut.
Before leaving for Mammoth, the Summit Daily sports desk talked with her about her Olympic hopes, her move from Cali to Colorado and why it's vital for young pros to promote like mad on social media.
Summit Daily News: You've been in town training for a few weeks now. How are you feeling so far? Working on anything new? I saw that you started at the Rev Tour qualifier when it was in Copper a few weeks ago. (She got a DNF on her first run.)
Jenise Spiteri: Yeah, Rev Tour this year didn't go how I had wanted it to. I had a couple off days in a row and didn't have my pipe equipment with me because I had just gotten back from Switzerland the week before. It was just a weird day, but I'm happy that I'm based here now. In the past, I would go and do Rev Tour then head home and be without a pipe for a month. It sucks to get in that motivated mentality — be ready for competition and know what I need to work on — then have to leave the pipe. Halfpipe is just a hard event to train for. It's so hard to get on a pipe early in the season, so, in the past, like last year, I had three pipe contests before I was even able to start training. That's really the big reason I moved out here. I went home last year and was thinking, "This is stupid. Why am I taking an entire month off?"
SDN: Do you consider yourself a competition rider, or are you more drawn to filming and photo shoots?
JS: Right now, I'm more of a competition rider. I would like to eventually have some time to just focus on filming and photos, but the level of halfpipe competition right now is so high. If you really want to do well, you have to focus on training. I started as a competitive figure skater — I've been doing that my entire life — so I've always had that competitive spirit.
SDN: OK, so you're used to training hard for figure skating. Do you enjoy the "pipe jock" thing?
JS: Yeah, I like it. Competition fuels me. It keeps me going because it always means that there is something new that I can work on, something to do better. If I do well in one competition I know exactly what to work on to do better the next time. I like being able to progress like that.
SDN: Did figure skating prepare you for pipe riding? It's so insanely acrobatic these days, almost like skating.
JS: Figure skating would've translated to skiing better, probably. But with all the spins and jumps in ice-skating, I'm good at getting rotations — I can do that, I know what to do. It's just the style and technique with snowboarding that is tough and different. When I started snowboarding, I would spin with my legs completely straight. Now I just need to learn how to get low, basically not look like a figure skater (laughs).
SDN: Part of why I ask about filming is that you also have a background in acting and modeling. How did those lead to snowboarding?
JS: I started acting and modeling when I was really young in San Francisco. That was always a passion of mine growing up and all the way through high school I thought I'd move to L.A. and do that. But senior year was when I discovered the community of snowboarding. In the past I'd just go for two days a year with my family, but them I discovered that community. I think I had a subscription to Transworld (Snowboarding magazine) and saw the photos from Japan, all of that, and thought, "Wow, people can travel the world and do that for a living." I still do love modeling and acting, but really my only shot to do something with snowboarding is right now. When I'm 40 years old and my knees are shot then I can go back to acting.
SDN: Do you get a chance to do much acting or modeling these days?
JS: I tend to snowboard 10 months out of the years, so, when I have my vacation months, I'll do some extra work on TV and movies as a little break in Los Angeles. It's funny because it's such a completely different world. The snow sports industry is so small that everyone knows everyone else. About two years ago, I was in San Clemente surfing for a week and went to a taco shop and ran into a bunch of people from Transworld. It was kind of weird to have that wherever you go.
SDN: Do you miss acting and modeling and skating? Are you happy that you decided to pursue snowboarding now? Like you said, this might be your only shot.
JS: I miss acting sometimes. It's usually after I hurt myself snowboarding when I think, "If I was acting, I wouldn't be hurt right now." But I know it's something I'll come back to eventually. It's weird. When you spend so much of your life doing something — I spent 14 years doing acting and modeling — it will always be a part of you. But I think my experience with that helped. So much of snowboarding now is about being able to present yourself well, being able to talk and give interviews like this one.
SDN: Definitely. Pro snowboarding and skiing are all about self-promotion now with Instagram, Vimeo, Twitter …
JS: And entrepreneurship. It's about starting a business. If I say my snowboarding career is a business, I need to know how to market myself and brand myself. If athletes have careers these days, it's as much about business as it is skill on the mountain. A few seasons ago, I did a show for The Travel Channel called "Bikinis and Ski Slopes," and I hosted an episode in Mammoth. They filmed me snowboarding, went across town, had me eat at a few restaurants and it was cool to combine the two things I really love. I would love to keep doing that after I finish competitive snowboarding. That is just such a cool way to combine both passions.
SDN: Would you be interested in hosting something like Dew Tour?
JS: Yeah, I talked with the girl who was there doing that last year. I think it's cool to be on the ground, talking with athletes like a correspondent. There are just so many directions you can go in with competitive snowboarding. Everyone knows this isn't a lifetime career — you won't be competing into your 30s and 40s.
SDN: Talk about your connection to Malta. In two years, you hope to be the country's first Olympic snowboarder. How did that come together?
JS: It all started in the 2012-13 season. I was competing for fun, just having a good time with travel, talking about the Olympics and who's going to go and if you have a shot. My friend, Kyle, who is a halfpipe skier, told me that I should go to the Olympics because I'm Maltese. I had never considered that before. I had never dreamt that big — the Olympics are just so big — but that really planted the seed.
I called my dad in California to contact the Maltese consulate. We tried to get it together for the 2014 Olympics, and, looking back, I'm glad that didn't happen. I don't want to go to the Olympics to just go. I want to go and give it a fight, and I think I can do that now.
SDN: I imagine it takes more than a country's backing to make the cut for the Olympics. What do you need to do in competition before 2018 to earn an invite?
JS: When it comes down to just the legality of everything, to make it to the Olympics as a woman, you have to be in the top-30 of the World Cup Tour, have a top-30 placement at the World Cup. I want to come into it more like top-10: If I can get to the Olympics in the 10th place on the World Cup, that would be a perfect position. This year, I'm doing all the World Cups I can. It's just so I can get a feel for that tour, that schedule, have more time against those other athletes.
SDN: Have you had the chance to compete against the women you'll likely go up against in the Olympics?
JS: Last year, when I was in was my first year going against people like Kelly Clark and all those other top pros (in World Cup events). I was kind of intimidated at first when I got the invite — I wasn't sure if I belonged there. I actually talked to Kelly Clark about it, telling her I was invited but not sure, and she was so supportive. She made me feel comfortable about it, let me know that we all start here at some point. This first World Cup I probably won't do well, but at least I'll know what to expect.
SDN: What about the travel schedule for qualifiers? Along with self-promotion you spend a ton of time hopping around.
JS: I've been doing this for five years now, and I'm used to having a new place be home for three months of so. I'll probably stay here in Colorado until that Mammoth Grand Prix, but, after that, I'll be going all over the place. It takes some getting used to, but I've definitely learned to live with less, live with what I need. When I first moved to the mountains, I loaded my dad's truck totally full (laughs). Now I have two suitcases and a couple bags for cosmetics and snowboard gear.
But the reason I wanted to snowboard was to see the world, have these experiences, so I can't look at the travel schedule as a negative. That's why I got into this. I see my friends from high school settling down in houses and apartments and getting careers started, and I'm just living in a new place every few weeks. It makes me wonder what would've happened if I had a steady and stable and predictable life, but I figure that when I'm a grandmother, I'll hopefully have good stories.