Since earning gold in the 2014 Sochi Olympics in the Women’s halfpipe event, Kaitlyn Farrington has taken on a new chapter of her life—a fight for the planet.
BY BELLA BUTLER
Kaitlyn Farrington picks up a rock and flings it into the Whitefish River. A smile cracks on her face as the stone skips, wrinkling the reflection of golden cottonwoods and willows on the water. She’s on a walk in Riverside Park in Whitefish, Montana, her home for five years now. She stands at the very edge of the river, where several feet of dry beach reveal the high-water mark from a dramatic early-season flood.
“It’s crazy how low the water is,” she observes, picking up another rock.
Dressed in Vans sneakers and a black T-shirt, skipping rocks on the beach, it’s easy to forget that Farrington became a household name across the U.S. when she unexpectedly won gold in the 2014 Sochi Olympics in the women’s halfpipe snowboarding event.
In many ways, her life now is worlds away from what it looked like then. Farrington lives a few blocks from downtown Whitefish in a little yellow house she owns with her partner, professional skier Chris Logan. She has a garden where she grows tomatoes and squash, and a garage where she sometimes makes candles—one of her newer hobbies. Sometimes she and a few of her girlfriends will ride their motor scooters to the nearby state park (they call themselves the meep-meep crew) to swim in the lake.
Not long after her success in Sochi, Farrington suffered an injury that revealed a lifelong spinal condition and ended her competing career. She still snowboards, guiding even in Argentina during part of the Montana summer, but she’s what she and her doctors call a “grounded snowboarder,” meaning the athlete that made a name for herself throwing record-breaking flips and spins can’t leave the ground on her board.
Even in this new chapter, scraps of Farrington’s accoladed history stick to the page: the ample stock of snowboards from her longtime sponsor, Gnu, stored in the garage rafters; a collection of international pins traded with other athletes during the Sochi Olympics resting on a side table in her house; her gold medal, tucked between piles of clothes in her bedroom closet.
With these vestiges as a reminder, this athlete begins the next part of her story—a fight for the planet.
Farrington is one of more than 200 professional athletes that make up the athlete alliance for Protect Our Winters, a nonprofit founded in 2007 by pro snowboarder Jeremy Jones with a mission of mobilizing the outdoor community to act against climate change.
When discussing climate change herself, Farrington speaks in anecdotes.
“I always go back to my halfpipe days; when I feel like I first saw it was the  Vancouver Olympics,” she said. “They put hay bales to make a halfpipe. And the snow was really bad in Vancouver that year because it was so warm, and they had tubing coming down through the center of the pipe to drain the water because the snow was melting so fast.” Fast-forward two years to a test event in Sochi, Russia, and Farrington remembers most of the events being canceled when there wasn’t enough snow.
These first-hand accounts of climate change are part of what make the athlete alliance an effective tool in POW’s work, according to Jones. When the mountains are the stage for your career, you get an intimate look at how quickly winters are changing.
“Real, tangible stories I think are important to bring vibrance to the issue,” Jones said.
In recent years, POW’s focus has been heavily anchored in politics. In 2022, for example, the organization ran several campaigns to inspire voter turnout, including a touring film festival called Stoke the Vote, and a Run to Vote campaign in partnership with exercise tracking app Strava that drove more than 25,000 people to run or cycle to the polls.
POW has also established somewhat of a lobbyist role for itself in Washington D.C. Jones has testified before Congress numerous times on behalf of legislation dedicated to climate action, and the nonprofit frequently sends representatives from its athlete alliance to Capitol Hill to advocate on a more personal level with senators and representatives. Farrington has traveled to D.C. on two such trips with POW.
Most recently, she joined a cohort of Olympians from POW’s crew on a lobbying mission to advocate for the Inflation Reduction Act, a more-than $700 billion federal investment that makes combating climate change a top line item with $369 billion designated for clean energy, clean transportation and green technology. President Joe Biden signed the bill into law on Aug. 16, 2022.
Farrington said these trips to D.C. are an opportunity to connect with politicians through storytelling. As a mountain athlete, she’s borne witness to climate change; this is her chance to testify.
Although her name is an asset in getting politicians’ attention, Farrington has found that she’s made the biggest strides in some of these meetings by identifying with them as everyday people. POW doesn’t work in an echo chamber, Farrington said. While many of the people with whom she’s met were on the fence, or even averse to the legislation she was advocating for, the hope is that they find common ground over their shared love for the outdoors. That love is a powerful catalyst for conversation.
Farrington lives in Montana now and Utah before that, but she grew up on a cattle ranch south of Sun Valley, Idaho, in a little town called Bellevue—or as Farrington calls it, “the boonies.” Despite their remoteness, skiing was a huge part of the Farrington family—she describes her parents as “ski bums,” who got her and her sister into the sport at a young age.
“They both worked on the ski hill for the winters just so we could get family passes and be able to afford to be skiing every weekend,” she said.
Farrington switched to snowboarding when she was around 12 and started competing at 14.
“To pay for my snowboarding, we’d load a cow up on, I think, Wednesdays and take it to the cattle sale, and that cow’s profit was my way of traveling to these different contests [on the weekends] and kind of funding my snowboarding,” she said.
Even though Sun Valley didn’t have a halfpipe or terrain park, Farrington started competing in slope style and halfpipe, taking all the practice she could get at other venues. And she got good. The U.S. Olympic team picked Farrington up as a rookie when she was 17.
“That was kind of my first moment of realizing that I could make this a career,” Farrington said. And she did.
Farrington moved to Salt Lake City in 2008 and followed winter elsewhere throughout the year to train. After coming up short of qualifying for the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, Farrington qualified for the 2014 Olympics in Sochi. She wasn’t expected to win, but the young rookie from rural Idaho was on fire.
“We always say as an athlete you have your on and off days, and that day happened to be one of my best days and I was on that day,” she said. Farrington cruised through her winning run with apparent ease and the confidence of a 24-year-old who knew she might’ve just made history.
“I will be shocked if the judges don’t put her into the lead by virtue of that nonstop insanity,” one NBC announcer said as Farrington clicked out of her board. And they did—Farrington received a score of 91.75, beating the former women’s halfpipe gold medalist by a quarter of a point.
When she pulls her medal out now from the shelf in her closet, it’s slightly tarnished, but its weight still carries the grandeur of that moment for Farrington, and for the country she was representing. It’s a stature that she’s still reminded of when she dons the medal on Capitol Hill and tells the story of that winning run.
“I like to think of my Olympic time as my past life,” she said. “And so it’s kind of funny when I have to talk about it again, because it’s not something I talk about that often. And so going to D.C., it’s like going back in time and reliving that surreal day, and to be able to share my story and then talk about something bigger that I’m passionate about now kind of makes it’s another surreal feeling.”
While her rural Idaho upbringing and love for fishing helps level her with politicians, it’s her athletic clout that earns her a seat at the table. Jones said next to their stories, the athlete’s platforms are the power of the athlete alliance.
“Those gold medals just unlock the doors to Congress like nothing else does,” he said. “And we’ve seen it time and again because she’s an American hero and our lawmakers totally react to that. And nobody’s more powerful than these people that represent our country on the global stage and succeed. And so yes, they unlock doors for us that we otherwise couldn’t know.”
Farrington’s success has also afforded her a platform with perhaps more weight than even a gold medal: a robust social media audience. Farrington has nearly 20,000 followers on Twitter and another nearly 42,000 followers on Instagram. POW launched before most social media even existed, Jones said, but POW’s athletes’ accounts have allowed the organization to begin quantifying its impact. With so many big names on their alliance—some with hundreds of thousands of followers—their reach is extensive. Farrington said she’s proud to be a part of that.
Though her Olympic days are behind her, Farrington has continued to stoke her love affair with snowboarding, and by proxy, with winter. For 10 years, from age 17 until she moved to Montana, she chased snow year-round, living in a perpetual season of white.
“I don’t think I could not have winter as … a part of my life,” she said. “… I love snowboarding, I like powder, and so it just comes with the territory.”
Back on the banks of the Whitefish, she skips another rock and turns on her heels to leave the park. Dry leaves crunch beneath her feet, a hint that winter is coming. The season she tethered so much of her life to plays a different role for her now; no longer the foundation for her career, but perhaps something even bigger. The POW logo on her black t-shirt is a reminder that while no longer riding for the U.S., she’s playing for a different team now: that she’s devoting her story and her honors to protecting our winters.
Bella Butler is the managing editor for Mountain Outlaw.