When top U.S. freestyle skier Kristi Leskinen drops into the Aspen superpipe this January at ESPN's Winter X Games, expect the following: an audacious rodeo 720 (two backward, off-axis flips) and an ear-to-ear grin (even if she biffs).
Well, maybe that's pushing it. But these days Leskinen, 24, has a hard time losing her smile. After four years of hounding X Games organizers, the Uniontown, Pennsylvania, native has gotten what she wants: a chance to compete. A gifted athlete with a penchant for alternative sports (at 18, she placed fourth at the amateur world wakeboarding championships), Leskinen was stuck on the X Games sidelines while freestyle remained men-only. Her trick for amping up the buzz for high-flying females? Taking off her skis—and some clothes, too.
In 2001, a year after she scored her first role in the ski flick The Game, Leskinen posed for a sexy Nordica pinup. The exposure had a surprisingly powerful side effect. "She showed that there actually were girls in this sport," says Denise Jaworsky, 22, a top-ten finisher at the U.S. Open. "It inspired others like me to join in."
Leskinen then began relentlessly pestering event managers for inclusion; finally, in 2005, the X Games hosted its first women's freestyle contest. (Leskinen took third.) But her success hasn't kept her from appearing in more fleshy photo shoots, including a lingerie spread in FHM in February. "If it can attract more interest in the sport, that's never a bad thing," she says. "If it draws more women, that's a great thing."
Still, Leskinen is hardly considering a career makeover. "I'm not a model," she insists. "I'm a skier."