The peaceful, metronomic crunch of snow underneath an ascending splitboard provided an appropriate bass line for the melody of musings from the voice on the other end of the phone.
“We got a few inches overnight, so we figured we’d stretch our legs,” U.S. snowboardcross athlete Faye Gulini shared. Climbing from the backporch up Parley’s Summit with her husband is a suitable means of unwinding from a stressful month. As her splitboard shuffled, the former Ski and Snowboard Club Vail athlete divulged — in between tired breaths — her reflections on a Games filled with both jubilation and disappointment, harmony and dissonance.
Her fourth Olympics was not like any of the other three.
“I hate to sound depressing, but this was definitely my worst Olympic experience yet,” Gulini openly stated.
“The stuff going on with our team was pretty detrimental during the Olympics. Getting the appropriate coaching that we needed — we were kind of limited. So, it was difficult.”
Two days before her event, the New York Times reported on the alleged sexual misconduct by longtime U.S. snowboard coach Peter Foley.
In a series of recent Instagram posts, former U.S. snowboardcross athlete Callan Chythlook-Sifsof, whom Gulini considered a close friend, alleged Foley and another member of the team, Hagen Kearney, acted inappropriately and also made sexually and racially inappropriate remarks to her and another female snowboarder in the past.
Foley, who was in China, denied any wrongdoing, but Safesport restrictions put on the coach prevented him from doing his job, face-to-face with athletes, before the biggest races of their careers.
“On top of that, there’s now this investigation, so we’re kind of thrown in as athletes to talk to the lawyers and kind of pick sides or defend one or the other,” Gulini said.
“For me, it was very challenging for my headspace because my experience on the team has been nothing but healthy. I’ve never experienced anything of those sorts.” She made Team USA at 17.
Gulini doesn’t believe any of the accusations are true. “And I think the timing of it was all too convenient,” she stated. “If there was these issues and they were going on a decade ago, they should have been addressed a decade ago, not two days before the Olympic Games.”
Feeling stuck and questioning whether or not to speak up took a toll.
“Yeah, it was hard … feeling like if I didn’t speak up, people were going to be wrongly prosecuted,” she said.
Added to that was the novel isolation permeating the Games. Gulini noted the lack of freedom to support, interact, or simply acquaint herself with other members of Team USA. Daily testing and the constant COVID-dependent decision making all had a cumulative effect.
“It was more challenging than past Olympics have been for me,” she admitted, noting on Instagram that she struggled to sleep during the Games.
Disappointment and jubilation
With a well-established reputation as a technical boarder, the relatively flat 1310-meter Genting Snow Park course, with just 155 meters of drop, didn’t provide many opportunities for Gulini to utilize her strengths to separate from the field.
“I’m probably one of the smallest, so I knew this would be a really challenging course for me,” she said.
“I knew I would have to be smarter than anyone because that was kind of my only tool.”
With technical elements flanking the start, Gulini could get to the front early, which isn’t necessarily advantageous. Larger athletes can make up time quickly in the gravity sport. Nevertheless, she shocked herself with a top-to-bottom win in the first heat.
“It kind of boosted my confidence. I figured if I can get far enough ahead, maybe the other girls can battle with each other,” she thought heading into the quarterfinal.
With World Cup leader and defending world champion Charlotte Bankes on one side and no. 4 ranked Belle Brockhoff on the other, Gulini’s group had the aura of a final. Still, the 29-year-old felt emboldened, knowing she had beaten both athletes in the past.
Meticulously recalling every detail of the run, an ability she attributed to the numerous mental rehearsals required to outsmart the field, Gulini hardly paused as she walked through her quarterfinal race, all while climbing Parley’s underneath the Utah sun.
She jumped to an early lead, but Bankes was gaining by the second turn. She passed the American at the third. “All things I had anticipated happening, so I jumped in her draft,” Gulini detailed. She tucked behind the British champion through the middle section sitting second as the penultimate turn, where goofy-footed snowboarders would be forced wide on their heel side edge, loomed.
“Both Charlotte and I are goofy-footed, so I figured she was battling the same challenges,” Gulini dissected.
Gulini went outside, setting herself up for an inside route on the final bend. Bankes, hearing the American, forced her even further out. The defensive move killed both athletes’ speed. Devoid of exit momentum, Brockhoff and Canada’s Tess Critchlow easily snuck by.
Lacking real estate, Gulini desperately maneuvered behind the leaders. Critchlow bobbled in front, forcing another direction change near the bottom, “and that was it,” lamented Gulini of her 13th place finish.
In a discipline where performance is often condition and course dependent, Gulini won’t strain for outcome justification on behalf of a public tuning into the niche sport every four years.
“If you let that weigh on you and define you, it’s not going to get you anywhere,” she said.
Though most assume the Olympics are an accurate representation of who’s the best at their winter craft, Gulini knows better. “In my experience, it’s almost the opposite,” she argued.
“It’s always these random oddballs that are standing on the podium that have never had a podium in their life. I don’t think the general public sees that, but I don’t care to explain it to them.”
She isn’t about to make excuses about the Beijing course, either.
“I like to think that for all the courses that don’t favor you, there will be that many that do. And I’m sure 100 athletes will hate the course that I love the most — ‘well, this course suits Faye, because it’s technical.’”
She was ecstatic about the individual standing on top of the 2022 podium, though.
“It was really cool to watch Lindsey get the gold,” she said about the 36-year-old, five-time Olympian who committed her infamous Torino crime before Gulini had even tried boardercross.
“I’ve seen her battle for this for five Olympics. I always said in my early years, she’s gonna get a gold, and I think I got a little bit less optimistic about that over the last five years or so. To see her put it all together and have that success and kind of that ‘stick it to the man’ moment, was pretty cool.”
The controversy swirling around U.S. snowboarding added meaning to the victory, too.
“I honestly think it was especially cool because of everything that was going on,” she said.
“Our team was being heavily scrutinized and judged. For us to be like, you know we’re healthy and we’re successful because we’re healthy. You know, there’s nothing going on here and you can see that these athletes are in the right headspace and are performing the way they can. That, I felt, was really cool to be a part of.”
While Gulini will probably not play another game of Phase 10 (a nightly ritual with at the Beijing boardercross house), or have instant oatmeal, Kodiak cakes, or backpacker meals — daily breakfast staples at the U.S. athlete resource center — the real question is whether or not she hungers for a return to the Olympics in 2026.
“I don’t know when I plan to retire, but I know that I won’t make it another Olympic cycle,” she said, the sound of her splitboard still steadily shuffling along. Over the last decade, she earned her master’s degree in accounting, but hasn’t been enamored by her part-time tax work.
“I feel like I haven’t had enough time or freedom to explore many avenues,” she said of other potential interests.
The Olympic experience has her pondering elite coaching.
“I’d like to be that person that can kind of make or break an athlete. Someone who can make that difference between making it either sport versus career.”
This winter, she married Jake Thelen, program director at Wasatch Adaptive Sports, on the tram at Snowbird, where she learned how to ski.
“It was so much fun,” she said of her spontaneous wedding.
“We basically had no plan so there was no plan that could fall through.”
Wanting to avoid the conflict of planning through the COVID pandemic, a friend suggested getting married at the resort. The tiny party of immediate family members hopped on a late tram to the top of the mountain, electing to stay inside for the six minute ceremony when they realized how cold it was on the summit.
”And it was perfect.”
Those words can’t be said about any athletic career, but Gulini is appreciative of those who have made her special one possible, including her host family during those Vail years. “They’re the sweetest,” she said of Mike and Kim Woods, who send her any articles written about her or the team.
“They’ve always been so supportive.”
Gulini’s words perched above the background noise of her climbing back to her Summit Park home. The sun was setting on the day — and possibly a career.