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Friday, January 25, 2013
Being Roz G

By Wayne Drehs

ASPEN, Colo. -- At some point Friday night, shortly before she is about to drop into the 22-foot X Games SuperPipe, freeskier Roz Groenewoud will reach into her pocket, pull out a tiny tube of bright red lipstick and spread the provocative rouge across her lips for all to see.

It would seem like no big deal, something millions of women do every day. But for the 23-year-old defending X Games Ski SuperPipe champion who goes by Roz G, the application carries far greater meaning. It's not about getting attention. It's about being herself. Combined with her performance in the pipe, it's about sending a message. To the kids who used to make fun of her in Ecuador, where she lived for a few years during her childhood. To her teenage teammates in Canada who teased her sense of style. And to the critics who don't believe women can excel in a male-dominated field.

"Don't Let the Lipstick Fool You." That is the title of WNBA star Lisa Leslie's autobiography. It might as well be a mantra for Groenewoud.

"One of Lisa's quotes was, 'I'm a fierce athlete, but I still remember my eyeliner,'" Groenewoud said. "Red lipstick is powerful in a lot of ways. For me, it's a way to show that strength and femininity aren't mutually exclusive."

Over the years, Groenewoud has sometimes struggled to be accepted by her peers, but as a young adult, she has figured out who she is, who she wants to be and how she fits in. If you haven't heard of her, you will. She is one of the stars in one of the Olympics' newest winter sports -- ski halfpipe, along with ski slopestyle, will debut at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

The last time Groenewoud brought her skis and lipstick to Aspen, she did so just days after the January 2012 death of her friend, teammate and mentor Sarah Burke. She describes last year's X Games in Aspen as one of the toughest weeks of her life, with everyone asking her to detail her relationship with her sport's fallen star. When Groenewoud went out and set the highest score in women's Ski SuperPipe history (93.66), the questions amplified. She repeated her victory at X Games Tignes in France last March and went on to win the AFP World Championship overall title for women's ski halfpipe.

This year, Groenewoud isn't talking much about Burke. Instead, she is focused on what she came to Aspen to do.

"I want to grieve more personally now," Groenewoud said. "And I felt like I said what I had to say about Sarah. I'm fully aware that my career will be forever tied to hers. She was a big part of my life and a big part of my career. But I just couldn't do it anymore."

Spend an hour with Groenewoud a few days before the biggest competition of the year and you'll realize she isn't like most professional athletes. The gold-medal favorite in Friday's Ski SuperPipe is the daughter of a geophysicist who loves mathematics. She travels with a Rubik's Cube that she pulls out to stimulate her mind when she's bored. In a college molecular biology course, she wrote a case study about the origin of life. It was eventually submitted for peer review.

Groenewoud grew up dreaming of becoming a microbiologist, a war correspondent or an astronaut. In September, she underwent immersion therapy to help her overcome a lifelong fear of needles. Her latest chatter about her post-skiing career is to become an orthopedic surgeon. It's a far cry from the dumb-jock stereotype she says some younger athletes tend to fulfill and she has always wanted to avoid.

"It's just not something I ever wanted to do," she said. "That's not me."

But refusing to conform to the stereotypes has brought some challenges. When Groenewoud was 8 years old, her father's job moved the family to Ecuador. Growing up in Calgary, Alberta, she loved sports and enjoyed everything from competitive gymnastics to playing neighborhood soccer with her friends. But in Ecuador, girls and sports didn't mix.

"I was told very quickly, 'Girls don't play soccer. Girls don't play sports,'" the 5-foot-10 Groenewoud said. "I signed up for after-school roller hockey, and the boys on my own team would push me down."

"It was shocking to get down [to Ecuador] and have everything that she was be slammed," said Groenewoud's mother, Shanne Matthews. "From the fact that she did sports to the fact that she was tall to the fact that she was reserved and was a good student, all of these things that we were so proud of they held against her."

Groenewoud kept much of her frustrations away from her parents, Matthews said. Not until four years later, when the family returned to Canada, did she open up about everything that had happened. "She called it her four years of hell," Matthews said.

Even upon returning to Canada, teenage life wasn't always easy. In junior high school, Groenewoud enjoyed shopping at secondhand stores with her older sister and putting together unique outfits unlike anything her classmates would wear. While her friends at school appreciated her creativity, when she tried to bring her vintage style to the ski hill, it was met with scorn.

"They would tell her she was not dressing like a skier," Matthews said. "That the way she dressed was stupid. She felt this pressure to not bring those clothes into the ski world."

Eventually, Groenewoud caved.

"It just got brutal enough that I acquired another ski outfit that I would take on ski trips and would wear around the team," she said. "It just wasn't worth it. But I told my mother that when I won the X Games, I was going to wear whatever I wanted."

After Groenewoud won her first X Games gold in January in Aspen, Matthews reminded her daughter of her bold proclamation -- not like it mattered anymore.

"When she was young, she thought that success would give her that freedom," Matthews said. "But when you're 23 and you've worked hard, you have a right to be yourself no matter what you've accomplished. She's learned. She doesn't need a medal to be herself."

All the adversity, Groenewoud said, has helped her remain strong while she and the other female competitors fight for respect in the male-dominated action-sports world.

It's a topic she and Burke used to talk about all the time. It was Burke, after all, who played a pivotal role in helping get ski halfpipe in the Olympic Games.

"Men show up, do their tricks and they're adored. It's just not the same for women," Groenewoud said. "There's often a lot of hate against the women skiers on the online forums and even at the top levels of the industry. I'd like to continue to be part of the push to get past that."

Come Friday night, after gliding through the pipe and catapulting herself into the air with as much amplitude and style as she can, Groenewoud will look into the television cameras and, if all goes well, smile. Her trademark lipstick, maple-leaf bandana and the cursive, red "Sarah" sticker atop her helmet will all be impossible to miss.

In competition, she will attempt to control the seemingly uncontrollable. It's the nature of her job. She wouldn't have it any other way. After Burke's death, Groenewoud questioned whether the risk was worth it. She came back with a resounding yes.

"I decided life is not any fun without adrenaline rushes," Groenewoud said. "I'd rather be skiing than not skiing, whatever the consequences are. You just have to try to take care of your body."

Her parents understand. "She's never taken the easy road," Matthews said. "And I think there's something about that which appeals to her. We've always told her to follow her heart, to find the things you love and do them with all your energy. That's exactly what she's done. To be true to herself. To be her own person. That's what makes us proud."

Wayne Drehs is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at wayne.drehs@espn.com. Follow Wayne on Twitter @espnWD.