The It Girl A knockout combo of skill, swagger and, yeah, sex appeal has turned Tara Dakides into snowboarding's brightest star

January 21, 2002

I know I don't turn 16 till New Year's Day, but you should give
me a chance. The way you ride just turns me on so much.
--screen name Boardpunk, in a Web chat with Tara Dakides

Even under a brilliant midday moon and at the foot of a powdery
paradise, Tara Dakides is not happy. Ostensibly she's training
for a competition in Europe, but from the look on her face and
the slump in her shoulders--not to mention the snowy residue of
a spill on her backside--Dakides, perhaps the world's finest
female snowboarder, is plainly disgusted with her two newest
rides. Her bindings are too wide for proper control and the
boards, stiff as a shot of Cuervo, have thwarted her every move
down her hometown hill in Mammoth Lakes, Calif. After two
disappointing runs Dakides has had enough.

As she stalks through the parking lot, she talks quickly,
shedding her misery like too many layers of clothes. "If I can't
do any better than today, I'm not going anywhere," she mutters,
shaking her head. "It's too early in the season, and I haven't
had a chance to work on any tricks. I'm not going to go over to
Europe and kill myself." She leans against her snow-white
Cadillac Esplanade, exasperated and spent.

All of which means nothing to the gaggle of teenage boys
standing five cars away. One spies her, then another and
another, until all are nodding excitedly in her direction. The
5'5", 26-year-old Dakides, clothed in the curve-obscuring canvas
threads typical of her sport and with her long hair hidden under
a wool cap, couldn't look less like snowboarding's It Girl. Yet
the boys stand transfixed, mouths agape, as Dakides stews
nearby. When they finally muster the courage to walk by, they
can't help but rubberneck and whisper. It's clear from Dakides's
blank, brooding stare, though, that she has no idea they were
ever there.

Variations on this encounter--awed onlookers stopped in their
tracks, Dakides completely oblivious--have played out all
morning: at the coffeehouse, around the lodge, in the lift line.
Now as before, Dakides remains unaware of the attention. As the
boys exalt at their good fortune (teenage cool be damned!),
Dakides studies her boots, kicks at the snow.

"Ah, let's go get a sandwich," she says, and she's off.

Truth be told, Tara Dakides would have every right to a big
head, were it at all in her nature, and not only for her four
Winter X Games gold medals--a total she'll be looking to add to
this week in Aspen--and 12 additional first-place finishes in
major competitions. During the Big Air finals at the 1998 Vans
Triple Crown competition, her revolutionary, balletic backflip,
a trick no woman had attempted in competition, fundamentally
changed women's snowboarding, a mostly terrestrial endeavor to
that point. It also altered the perception that female riders
were less capable than their male counterparts. "A bunch of the
guys were having drinks and watching the women's contest on a
monitor," recalls Dakides's boyfriend, two-time Winter X Games
gold medalist Kevin Jones. "I knew she'd been consistently
hitting flips in practice, but when it happened on the screen,
all hell broke loose in that bar. She'd made her mark, and we
all knew it."

Given all that, along with the calls from Conan O'Brien and
Howard Stern, and the magazine spreads of her in various states
of undress, and the requests from the video-game folks and pinup
poster photogs, Dakides could be forgiven if she were to develop
a chosen-one complex. In many ways that's what she's become: the
face--and body--of her sport, possessed of the magic crossover
appeal.

It helps that she's beautiful: deep green eyes and toothpaste-ad
grin; a hyperathletic body, biceps bulging and abs rippling. The
adornments are vestiges of a rebellious, punk-rock
youth--pierced nostril and belly button, and an intriguing
tattoo that snakes from her lower back around her torso. (It's a
dragon's eye connected by scaly tether to an androgynous human,
curled in a still-incomplete lotus flower. Don't ask.) Shirtless
quartets of admiring males with T-A-R-A spelled across their
chests greet her at finish lines; online chats often leave
Dakides fending off marriage proposals and other, more salacious
offerings.

"She can be a star," says Nova Lanktree, president of Lanktree
Sports Celebrity Network, an agency that places athletes in
commercial projects. "Not long ago she would've been just
background talent. Now a good-looking extreme athlete is what an
advertiser wants." Mountain Dew and Vans seem to think so, as
does Hollywood: Disney had wanted her for a lead role in the
snowboarding flick Out Cold, but her schedule interfered.

Beneath her growing global image, though, is a populist appeal
that is quaintly local--there's a pie named after her at the
pizza joint in town, and you can order a custom latte at the
Looney Bean with a simple "what Tara has"--that speaks to a
soulful character equal to her devilish charm. What's more,
despite the burgeoning fame and an income estimated in the
mid-six-figures, Dakides's standing among her peers is ironclad.
Two years ago she won two coveted TransWorld Snowboarding
Riders' Poll awards, based on votes of her fellow riders; last
year she won five, including best overall rider. It's a respect
she craves, for it proves to Dakides, as she draws the trick gap
between the genders ever narrower, that she can win fans on
talent alone.

"It used to be that women had to measure themselves against the
dudes, but not anymore," says top pro Barrett Christy. "Tara is a
big reason why." Adds 2001 Winter X Games bronze medalist Jenna
Murano, "She's such a powerful rider that sometimes girls will
come up to her and say, 'I didn't even know you were a girl.'
She's always ridden that way--aggressive, hard and fast."

"I never thought I'd get anything because of snowboarding,"
Dakides says with a throaty laugh as she surveys the living-room
clutter of her three-bedroom Mammoth Lakes house. "The only
thing I hoped for was my own pro-model board. Now I walk into my
garage, and I'm head to toe in my [signature] stuff. It's
crazy." She picks at a slice of cold Tara Dakides left over from
the previous night. "It's pretty embarrassing," she says,
offering a bite. "But the pizza's good."

It will always be the riskiest leap of her life. In 1992, at age
16, her blissful Mission Viejo childhood undone by her parents'
messy divorce, Dakides, a high school dropout, sold her stereo
for $300, bought a bus ticket, and--with her snowboard gear and
some clothes--headed for Mammoth. She arrived after 2 a.m., with
one number to call, that of a man who'd tried to pick her up
months before. "I got lucky," she recalls. "Turns out he was
cool. I got a job with a woman he knew, and I met a lot of my
good friends."

She'd been snowboarding since age 13, and a youth spent on
gymnastics mats and skateboards served her well. Still a bit
rough around the edges--short on cash, she shoplifted her first
snowboard outfit--Dakides found a home in Mammoth Lakes, thanks
partly to a network of strong, independent women. She began
picking up sponsors who would provide a free pair of goggles
here, $100 there. "It was great," she says. "Here was this
delinquent sport, perfect for a delinquent like myself."

"Snowboarding for Tara has been one big growing lesson," says
longtime friend and former pro Rachel Turiel. "The last few
years it's gotten tougher. Sponsors want her at all the events,
all the parties. Everyone wants a piece of her. But she's so
strong. When you're around her, you can't help but be inspired."
Consider what preceded that historic '98 backflip: In '93 she
tore her left anterior cruciate ligament, which kept her off a
board for five months; upon her return in '94 she attempted the
flip for the first time and broke a thoracic vertebra, nearly
paralyzing her; and in '96 she was abruptly dumped by her
sponsor, Morrow, in part because she wasn't meeting its
expectations. That tested her resolve. "After I hit the
backflip," she says, "I believed in myself again. I could look
for new challenges."

She used the backflip for the last time in her double-gold
performance at the March 2000 Winter X Games. At the Sims World
Snowboarding Championships a month later she graduated to the
tougher backside rodeo, an off-kilter, tumbling flip with a
board grab, and won titles in Big Air and Slopestyle (her other
specialty, a slalomlike event with jumps and slide rails). As
inspiring as Dakides has been to her competitors, her technical
expertise has proved dauntingly difficult to replicate. Equally
hard to match is her exacting nature. She relentlessly drops
F-bombs during poor practice runs; in competition she's a
brooding loner, always idling before her heats--no matter how
bitter the weather--outside the warm confines of the riders'
tent. "I tried being nice, but it always felt forced," she says.
"I just had to be me."

Ask politely, and she tells "that story," which teaches one
thing: As superstar athletes go, Dakides is among the least
self-conscious you'll ever meet. Just before the 2000 TransWorld
awards in Las Vegas, she bought a pair of very tight pants; she
found them so exotic that she promised her friends quite a
performance should she win something. As she finished her
acceptance speech, she strode from the podium, turned her
derriere to the crowd, and invited them to "check out my ass."
"After that," she recalls, "it was 'Ass, ass, ass,' all night
long."

It's clear Dakides gets the joke. (Her cell-phone voice-mail
greeting is in absurdly over-the-top surfspeak: "Really? ...
Really? ... Wow, that's rad ... soooo killer. Like, totally
awesome bitchin' stoked ... yeaaaah ... [Beep].") When Dakides
and Turiel sit down to turkey burgers, Dakides has no napkin and
so excuses herself, returning with the next best thing: a
fistful of toilet paper. Still, the frivolity masks a fierce
drive, one Jones would like to see her tap even more. "She gets
so hectic now that sometimes she can't snowboard enough," he
says. "But she's so good, she'll miss a week and still win. It's
scary to think how much better she could be."

Though Dakides is unsure how much longer she'll compete, she
says "having three more years like the last three would be
great." She takes pride now in knowing how to pace herself,
aware that her oft-ravaged body can absorb only so many more
spills. "I don't feel invincible anymore," she says, sitting in
the lodge, adjusting a substitute board. "And I still wanna
shred when I'm good and old."

Which is to say, she wants to be like her 91-year-old
great-grandmother, still alive and kicking (and driving and
fishing) in California. Says Dakides, "She told me that when she
was a girl and she wanted to play with the boys, she had to
sneak a pair of pants out of the house to wear. Just so she
could play with boys. Unreal."

With that, she cuts through a crowd of skiers and out the door,
tiny and ferocious, and turning heads, always turning heads.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOEY TERRILL Cold cure Teen boys melt at the sight of her, but Dakides is equally admired by her peers. COLOR PHOTO: IAN RUHTER/GREEN COWBOY PHOTOGRAPHY Air stylist As Dakides narrows the trick gap, her popularity has soared, leaving her juggling the many demands on her time. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOEY TERRILL [See caption above]

"She's such a powerful rider that sometimes people will come up
to her and say, 'I didn't even know you were a girl.'"

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)