Commentary

DON'T HATE KRISTI LESKINEN BECAUSE SHE'S BEAUTIFUL. HATE HER BECAUSE SHE CAN KICK YOUR BUTT-IN PRETTY MUCH ANY SPORT

Updated: July 10, 2012, 3:07 PM ET
By SCOTT DeSIMON

There are assumptions we make about lingerie models, even those known as much for their twintips as, well, their twin-tips. First, when such women enter a room, men are cowed by their sexual allure and you-wish confidence. Second, these models are often flushed from the lingering effects of a pillow fight with underwear-clad gal pals or a hot-tub soak with a Brazilian named Joao. Third? Let's just say that if you're not on the list, don't bother asking. But when Kristi Leskinen, pinup model and freeskiing goddess, slips into the Looney Bean coffee shop in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., wearing a brown Oakley ski ensemble and toting a Subway sack, no one looks up. And while her gorgeous face glows, it's just sunburn from another all-day session on the hill. Where's the runway strut? The silk skivvies? Leskinen smiles, rips into a sandwich with her perfect teeth and laughs. "I didn't start being a girl until a couple of years ago," she says, shrugging. "I'm still catching up." So much for assumptions.

If you've heard of Leskinen, it's probably not because of her mind-blowing trickery in the Superpipe or because she's the first woman to land a Rodeo 720 (two full rotations, inverted). More likely you know her from her gig as the pouting sex kitten in dorm-worthy Nordica posters or as the ski bunny in the February 2005 issue of FHM.

But Leskinen is way more superjock than supermodel. Pick a sport, any sport: odds are the willowy 24-year-old has mastered it. She was regional champ in the breaststroke at 10, set her high school record in the pole vault three weeks after picking up a pole and stood up on her first day surfing. Oh, she was also a top-ranked amateur wakeboarder. But that was all before she discovered twin-tip skis at 18 and unleashed her freeski chops. So when Leskinen rolls into Aspen for Winter X, don't think of her as just another medal favorite in women's Superpipe. Think of her as the best all-around athlete in town. Period.

She's held the title before. From an early age, Kristina Mae Leskinen was obsessed with sports-all of them. She comes from Uniontown, Pa., a small town 50 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, one of three kids in a family where athletic genes run deep. Dad Steve, a 6'8" Academic All-America lineman at Bucknell, signed as a free agent with the Patriots but moved on to law school after he was cut. Mom Karen skis. So when middle child Kristi came along, the bar had been set pretty high. And it wasn't long before she was jumping over it.

Although Leskinen quickly became an accomplished soccer and hoops player, swimming was her first love. But racing for the local rec team wasn't enough. By fourth grade she was commuting 45 miles each way to train with the West Virginia University swim coach. "Kristi was an intensely competitive swimmer," says Steve Leskinen, a local trial judge. "She was so thin from training so much that we finally had to put her in the hospital to gain weight."

When Leskinen was 12, her parents bought a ski condo at the local mountain called Seven Springs. Swimming (along with soccer and basketball) soon became a casualty of her new snow jones. And like East Coast surfers who are forced to be creative with marginal waves, Leskinen made the most of Seven Springs' 750-foot vertical drop. "I get bored quickly, so I started doing tricks and following the boys," she says. Started beating them in moguls comps, too.

The drive to shred didn't end when the snow melted. During summers Leskinen lived on nearby Youghiogheny River Lake, where she played the classic tomboy: pumping gas at the family-owned marina and wakeboarding the rest of the time. When she was 18, a local pro convinced her to enter a few contests. She did, and later that summer finished second at the amateur nationals.

But skiing remained her focus. As a high school junior she attended Vermont's Killington Mountain School, where she trained with the moguls team. "My parents were in the middle of a divorce," says Leskinen. "I didn't want to be at home anyway." As part of her application, she took the U.S. Ski Team Medals Test-a measure of agility and strength-and broke the KMS girls' record.

Maybe it was the divorce that drove her, or maybe it was just her family's expectation that she would excel in whatever she did (at Killington, she was surprised to learn that girls were not throwing tricks like the boys). Whatever the case, Leskinen doesn't philosophize too much about motivations. "I had a big brother who used to throw me around," she says. "That toughens you up, for sure. And I was just really into sports."

After a year at Killington, where she was being groomed for the Olympics moguls team, Leskinen moved to Steamboat Springs, Colo., for the winter of her senior year. She returned to Pennsylvania the next spring to graduate (and to set that pole vault record), but despite scholarship offers in track, she put college on hold and headed back to Colorado after taking fourth in the amateur wakeboard worlds.

By now she was bored with moguls, smitten instead with the gonzo ski videos of Poor Boyz Productions. Specifically, she was hooked on aerials and rail riding, where rules did not apply. "I was tired of people telling me you can't do a 360 in moguls," she says. "I wanted to quit skiing and turn pro in wakeboarding."

She was desperate for a new challenge-and was about to find it.

In 2000, the freestyle U.S. Open came to Steamboat. Because there were no women's events except slopestyle, Leskinen watched and slid rails with her old moguls skis. She also met Jonny Moseley, who gave her a pair of twin-tips. "She had big balls, and I thought it'd be good to get her on film," says Moseley, the 1998 Olympic moguls champion. Suddenly, the door to the spinning, flipping, backward-skiing freeski world was thrown open. Leskinen barreled through it.

After the Open, Leskinen and Moseley headed to Crested Butte, Colo., where they shot footage for a new video. Although her scenes were eventually cut, word spread about the chick who could shred. Then Leskinen hooked up with Poor Boyz director Johnny DeCesare for the freeski flick The Game. Within months of its 2000 release, she was sponsored up and ready to roll, one of a handful of women in a man's world.

In other words, familiar territory.

AT THE edge of town, where the condos of Mammoth Lakes meet the expanse of the Sierras, sits Snowcreek Athletic Club. The gym is usually filled with pro skiers and snowboarders, keeping their edge. Leskinen drops by nearly every day, inventing agility drills and turning every workout into a contest. "I have a blast," she says. "Then I go home and realize I just killed myself."

This December afternoon, Leskinen is taking a snowboarder pal and two visiting wakeboarders through a session. Standing in a circle on the flat side of half-spheres normally used for Pilates classes, the girls throw a medicine ball and try to knock each other off balance. All arms and legs, the 5'8" Leskinen should be at a disadvantage against the compact boarders. But over and over she sends them tumbling. Next comes a drill to see who can jump to a platform 30 inches off the ground. Leskinen easily makes the height. No one else can.

One of the wakeboarders, an Aussie gal with guns like Tyson, proposes a chin-up contest. Leskinen quickly yanks herself skyward 13 times, but the Aussie notches 20. Leskinen takes the loss with a smile, but as the women head off to the whirlpool, Leskinen lingers. When they look back, she is hanging from the bar, contemplating the loss and fighting the urge to ask for rematch.

Given her bee-stung lips, bedroom eyes and flawless form, Leskinen's transition from gym rat tomboy to pinup would seem a no-brainer. But the move to modeling didn't come easily, even after the FHM shoot. "The whole thing felt really awkward," Leskinen says. "It was certainly easier than hitting a 60-foot tabletop. But the person in those photos isn't me. It's just a persona."

Is it ever. Leskinen may clean up nice, but in civilian life the blonde bombshell is part goofball, part den mother. More often than not, this model model-athlete is either home watching DVDs in her Mammoth apartment or serving as designated driver for hard-partying ski and snowboard pals who pile into her Jeep Grand Cherokee, which is decorated with a D.A.R.E. license-plate holder, Steelers decals and a Terrible Towel. Other girl-next-door traits include perfect table manners, using the word "gosh" when something saltier would be expected and rocking a word of the day to stretch gondola conversations beyond "amped" and "stoked." She may be queen of the mountain, but she's no diva. "Kristi doesn't know her own beauty," says snowboarder Tara Dakides. "That's the most beautiful thing about her."

In fact, you might call Leskinen a little square. Regarding music: "I'll listen to anything but techno." Her answer to "What's your style?" (in an MTV interview): "Oakley" (a sponsor). As for dudes, the girl who could have her pick of the lift line claims to have had only one real boyfriend, skier J.P. Auclair. These days? "It's not on my priority list."

What is on her list is skiing and making sure women's freestyle gets some props. And if flashing skin can help, why not? Last winter, women's halfpipe hit the big time with Winter X, Gravity Games and the world championships all adding the event. After three years of skiing mostly in video parts (six vids with Poor Boyz), Leskinen was anxious to return to competition and headed to Winter X. "I'd never seen a crowd like that," she says. "On my first run I heard a kid yell, 'Whoo-hoo, Kristi!' as I took off. I was so excited that I yelled 'Whoo-hoo!' back and totally forgot what I was supposed to do."

She biffed that run, but rallied for the bronze. A month later she won the Gravity Games. Then, in March, she took second at the worlds, behind a gaudy run that went straight air, straight air, 540 with mute grab, 540 next wall, alley-oop, 720. After five years of tagging along with the boys, Leskinen-and women's freestyle-had finally gone prime time.

ANOTHER SUNNY December morning at Mammoth, and Leskinen is on the hill for her daily session. In the lift line she's a social animal, greeting everyone from snowboard pros like Dakides to the guy who manages the snow park. "She's into the scene," says rival (and friend) Sarah Burke. "At contests she'll be talking to everyone and complaining about the pipe. Then she'll come down and blow people away. It's a little frustrating."

Stingy snowfall has delayed the pipe opening, so Leskinen works only on aerials today. With mindnumbing precision she runs the same jumps for hours: 360s and 540s in every permutation. Despite the monotony, she's having a blast. Botched takeoffs are accompanied by Muppetlike yelps of exasperation; perfect executions with a sly grin. Both her focus and joy are palpable, with good reason. Leskinen is fresh off the first serious injury of her career-a mild brain hemorrhage, if such a thing exists. "I came short on a knuckle and hit my head," she says casually, as if she hadn't been off skis for six months. "It was a blessing in disguise," Leskinen says. "I was starting to burn out and needed time off to see if this was what I really wanted to do."

Now she's determined to make 2006 a monster year. Her immediate goal is be the first woman to land a 900 in pipe at the X Games. Beyond that? Let's just say she's making postsnow plans. "I think I'm more aware of opportunities outside the industry than guys are," says Leskinen, who's coy about her plans but just signed with mega-agency Octagon.

So in a bizarre but predictable twist, Leskinen the ace swimmer/soccer player/pole-vaulter/surfer/wakeboarder/skier may wind up making her biggest mark not with her athletic chops, but with another of nature's gifts: looks.

Oh, the irony.

For now, though, there are jumps to practice and sponsors to please. Leskinen will wake up at 7 tomorrow to drive three hours to Tahoe to catch a flight to Park City, Utah. There she'll take center stage in Rossignol's dog-and-pony show, helping move product with her highlight reel and, yes, her face. It's yet another role she's already mastered.

More are sure to come.