Little kids don’t snowboard. There’s a practical reason for this. Snowboard companies, unlike ski companies, rarely manufacture boots or boards small enough for toddler types. Bunny slopes remain full of pizza-stopping tots making broad turns unmolested by speeding carvers on boards. Had she spent much time on the bunny slopes, Aspen Haight would have been the exception to this rule. But Aspen Haight spends her time higher up the hill.
The hill in question is Colorado’s Keystone Resort, where Aspen’s mother Jill Baker-Haight, a former border cross competitor, outfitted her daughter with prototype Burton boot and started teaching her to slide at just 14 months.
“My husband and I have never been on skis,” Baker-Haight explains. “I wouldn’t have known how to teach her to ski!”
But it’s not as though Baker-Haight had bigger plans than that. She didn’t expect the fame that rapidly came Aspen’s way. She didn’t expect the lift line gossip — “People were constantly, ‘Is that Aspen? Is that Aspen? Is that Aspen? How old is she? How old is she?’” — or the consequences of posting a video of Aspen boarding to the internet. That clip, made for Keystone’s Kid of the Week program, shows a 1-year-old sliding down the crisp Colorado powder. It has been viewed over 177 thousand times.
“Once she was featured on that, it just blew up like worldwide,” says Baker-Haight. “All the European sites picked it up and all the Russian sites. It just exploded.”
Considering how precocious she is — Aspen can handle double black diamonds — fans can be forgiven for believing that it’s all natural talent. And, yes, there’s a lot of that, but there was also a lot of training, which came with age-related challenges. The first of which regarded concerned turning. She didn’t do it. “If you were a 20-year-old starting, then you would start out by trying to do it the right way,” says Jill with a laugh. “You can’t relay that information to a 14-month-old. She just rode straight until she ran out of real estate.”
Aspen got better because that’s how practice works. She was on the slopes for over 100 days a year and it showed. But lately that has changed and with that change have come new challenges. “If we still lived in Breckenridge, she probably would be competing by now,” says Haight-Baker. “But we moved and now it’s about an hour-and-a-half to the slopes. That is not conducive to competition. We used to go 120 days a season; now we’re lucky if we get 30.”
How is Aspen going to overcome this disadvantage to become a great competitive snowboarder and go to the Olympics and land on a Wheaties box? She’s not. The new challenge isn’t commuting. It’s swimming. That’s Aspen’s new sport and, yes, she is very good at it. She competes against 8-year-olds most of the time, but the occasional race pits her against 13-year-olds. She doesn’t win those races — that would be genuinely concerning for the teens — but she’s improving rapidly. Because of her slope experience, she knows how to compete against herself. She has a talent for improvement.
Despite gaining fame on the board, Jill hopes that Aspen pursues both her passions equally, if not the swimming wholeheartedly. Part of it is that she sees how her daughter has taken to the water in a way that isn’t just visually impressive, but also competitively astounding. The other part is born from her own personal experience: Baker-Haight got beat up by the slopes. She doesn’t want that for her daughter. “There’s a lot less risk involved with an Olympic swimmer than there is with an Olympic snowboarder,” she says. “I am so beat up and banged up. My knees feel like they’re 80. I’ve had head injuries.”
And, no, it’s not as though Baker-Haight is demanding that her daughter make an Olympic squad. The kid wants it. The kid is obsessed with Missy Franklin and Katie Ledecky and Lindsey Jacobellis and Jamie Anderson and all those medals. “She talks about it all the time,” says Baker-Haight. “I think that maybe deep down somewhere, it’s ingrained in her that she has potential to get there.” But, whatever the end result, Aspen is currently enjoying competition in all forms. She does gymnastics, dances, and plays both tee-ball and basketball. She excels at everything so maybe she’ll have even more choices. It’s just hard to know what that will look like because she’s still so young.
One thing that Aspen has made clear in her five years is that she’s not going to let anything stop her from trying new things and improving at the things that she loves. She may not be an Olympian just yet, but she’s already got the mentality.