The new Executive Director of Carving The Future shares her past and sets her eyes on the road ahead
“Dropping!” someone yelled from behind me. I was sitting at the top of the halfpipe, eyes wide and muscles shaking, as I watched a rider barreling through the crowd to drop into the crazy thing. He reached the first wall and shot up into the air, above the crowd. My heart stopped as I watched him. “That guy is going pro!” someone shouted.
That young rider was Travis Rice. He was only a few years older than me, and he was already a god in the Jackson Hole snowboard world. By the end of his run, I was jaw-dropped. At the time, I was taking a snowboard clinic with Rob Kingwill and I was struggling to ride halfpipe. Rob advised my parents that if I wanted to progress my snowboarding, my gear would need a major upgrade. The boots I was using for my Switch step-in bindings weighed more than ski boots. My dad reluctantly agreed, and I was at the shop picking out my very first Lib Tech the next day.
That day, at 12 years old, I became a snowboarder. I was on the hill riding with my dad or friends every weekend after that. My dad, Tom Neil, was a professional ski bum working in the tune shop at Teton Village Sports. I was lucky to grow up on the mountain, skiing in daycare every day. I learned to love the outdoors; nature fed my soul.
I was also passionate about figure skating and began traveling nationwide. When I was a freshman in high school I moved away from home to pursue figure skating at the next level. My friend Elaine drove us both up to Crystal Mountain almost every weekend to shred. When we were out snowboarding I was free from the pressures of school, figure skating, and reality. There was nothing like that feeling, and I knew I needed more.
I moved back home to Jackson for my last three years of high school and joined the Jackson Hole Ski & Snowboard Club Snowboard Team with the goal of getting good enough to compete. There were other girls on the team, and we fed off each other. Competing was always fun—meeting new people, seeing old friends, and winning prizes and money. It was a world I wanted to be in. I won the Crested Butte Extremes in the junior category and Winterstick Snowboards was the event’s main sponsor. I won a board and Winterstick called me the next fall to ask if I wanted to ride for them. The feeling of landing my first sponsorship was unreal. I had dreamed of that moment ever since watching Travis in that halfpipe years before.
My love of snowboarding continued to grow as I grew as a person. I met the president of the Weber State University Ski Club while studying there. She invited me to partner with her to start the Snowboard Club, a club that is still actively running today! I hired my boyfriend, Dustin, as our assistant coach and he absolutely loved coaching the students. I became even more obsessed with snowboarding and decided I couldn’t pursue competition and school at the same time. I graduated with my Associate’s Degree and called it good. Then I dove headfirst into the world of competitive snowboarding.
Dustin and I created a program for young athletes to come live with us and train called the Wasatch Project. Dustin coached them, and I made sure they were doing their homework. We met so many awesome kids, including future Olympians Jessika Jensen and Red Gerard.
I was competing in boardercross races and loved the adrenaline rush. I was invited to Gold Camp at Mt. Hood to train with the U.S. Team. I raced in events like the Grand Prix and World Cup, and I started entering slopestyle events. My park skills were rapidly improving, and I eventually traded my race board for a freestyle deck.
Snowboarding took me all over the world, competing in events like the Dew Tour and the Burton Open. I even tried to qualify for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics in Russia. I traveled to the World Cup in Spain that year which was my shot to make the Olympic team. I spent all my savings on the trip, only to have the event get canceled due to foggy weather.
It was a rough life being a competitive snowboarder without a travel budget. I also spent a lot of money at the emergency room: I had three ACL surgeries, a broken neck, dislocated elbow, broken back, and various other injuries.
Eventually I decided to step away from slopestyle competition. I convinced Dustin to move to Salt Lake City so I could shred Snowbird daily and compete in Big Mountain events. I got a job at Cliff Rentals and had tons of phenomenal days riding pow. Life was good. But one day I insisted Dustin go to the doctor to get an odd symptom checked out. He ended up getting diagnosed with Stage 3 colon cancer. It was the spring of 2016 and our world had flipped upside down.
I stopped competing and got a job at Natural Grocers so we could afford vitamins and healthy organic food. We eloped to the hills of Sandy, Utah, and after 15 years of dating we were finally husband and wife. A year later we had a baby boy and named him Kiran, which means “Ray of Light.”
“My grief comes in waves: some are ripples and some tower overhead.”
Fourteen months after that, Dustin lost his battle with cancer and the Great Spirit took him. My world crumbled. If it weren’t for Kiran, I wouldn’t have been able to go on. The pain of that loss still hurts, but our son fills my heart. I had dreamed of growing old with Dustin, having two kids close in age, getting back to competing, and traveling the world as a family. But now he was gone and I knew I had to move on, with him in my heart. The emptiness will never fully go away, but some days it hurts less.
The past four years have been the hardest I’ve ever endured. In August 2021, my best friend, Jenna, passed away unexpectedly due to complications with alcohol. Ten days later, my dad took his own life. Our family was shocked and broken. I had just visited him at his home in Jackson four days earlier. So many of my questions will never be answered. My grief comes in waves: some are ripples and some tower overhead before they come crashing down.
When my stepmom decided to sell the home she had shared with my dad in Jackson, I offered to buy it. My heart had never really left and I knew I wanted to come back home. My dad taught me to always follow my heart. A year after he passed away, my son and I packed up our stuff and moved back to Jackson Hole. Kiran started kindergarten, and I am grateful he will have the same opportunity I had to grow up in this beautiful place.
Adam Dowell–a good friend growing up–reached out to me to see what I was planning to do for work. He was looking for someone to fill the Executive Director position for his non-profit Carving The Future. I had been on Carving The Future’s advisory board during the foundation’s first year. I was thrilled by the opportunity to jump back in and make a difference.
Carving The Future aims to get underprivileged kids on snowboards and skateboards. We work with youth in Teton County and on the Wind River Reservation in central Wyoming. We focus on mental health issues and creating a positive, fun environment to help the kids feel empowered and confident.
We strive to get gear, access to terrain, lessons, transportation, and meals to all the kids in our program. The generosity of our donors, community, and sponsors help us give back. This is just the beginning: To date we have helped over 400 kids go snowboarding, outfitted over 200 kids with gear, and provided over 55 kids with scholarships to join other programs.
Snowboarding has saved me many times. Now I’m working to give others that same lifeline. There’s so much more we can do.