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JUMPIN' INTO SNOWBOARDING

When Alexis Hopkins told her mother she wanted to take up snowboarding, Mrs. Hopkins was worried. "I said `No, snowboarding is too dangerous.' " Alexis, being 12 years old and desperate, began to pout.

Her mother held firm. Alaina Hopkins says, "I kept saying, `No, you're going to get hurt.' But she kept pouting. Finally I got sick of watching her."And that's how the youngest member of the U.S. Women's Snowboarding Team got her start.

The U.S. Women's Snowboarding Team is based in Utah, formed three years ago by Kathy Dean, Salt Lake City, and Brigiette Larsen, a Park City native. Fifteen of the team's members live in Utah; 10 live in other states.

The team is young and growing fast. So is the sport. "Snowboarding was kind of easy to learn," Alexis Hopkins says. "It felt like skateboarding."

Now, one week past her 14th birthday, Hopkins is finishing up her first season of competition. "I just got back from the U.S. Snowboard Association finals in Vail," she reports. Competing against girls her own age from around the country, she took second place in the giant slalom and second place in the half-pipe competition.

The snowboard slalom is just like the slalom ski race. The half pipe is a freestyle competition, conducted in what Hopkins describes as a "big ditch in the snow." It looks like the kind of place skateboarders compete, like a long pipe with the top half cut off.

And in fact contestants are judged on turns and jumps that look a lot like what skateboarders do. "We ride up the walls," says Hopkins. "We're rated more on technique and tricks than speed. I go up and grab my board."

Hopkins took her first lesson through a school-sponsored program. (She attends Riverview Junior High in the Murray District.) "She loved it from the first day," her mother says. "She'll do anything to be able to snowboard."

Her parents have come to appreciate their daughter's devotion to this new sport. When they told her she'd have to keep her grades up in order to be able to snowboard, Hopkins made the honor roll.

"When she asked for a season pass to Brighton, we told her she'd have to earn half the money, and she did," her mother says.

Mrs. Hopkins says her fears are calmed. Watching Alexis' technique improve, Mrs. Hopkins has come to believe snowboarding is as safe as skiing.

She likes the way older girls on the team coach her daughter, she says. "They'll ride together - that's what they call it, `riding' not `snowboarding' - and then they'll sit down and talk about their turns and how to get through the gates. They help each other."