Leskinen participated in swimming, basketball, soccer and track & field at Laurel Highlands.
“I really preferred soccer,” Leskinen stated. “I stopped swimming when I was 13 or something because at one point I was hospitalized because they were worried I wasn’t gaining any weight.
“I was swimming with West Virginia University when I was 13. I was swimming two miles a day, no wonder I wasn’t gaining weight.
“My grandparents got a condo at Seven Springs and that was when my parents had forced me to take a year off swimming. I was still playing basketball, but skiing had kind of taken over. I was leaving after school on Friday’s and skiing Friday night and all day Saturday and Sunday. It was something that I really loved and really enjoyed.
“I actually quit playing basketball because school was canceled and everyone was set home early. All of the practices were canceled as far as I knew, but apparently girls’ basketball wasn’t. Coach called and said, ‘Why aren’t you at practice?’ I didn’t know we had practice and he had said on the spot there’s a time when you are going to have to choose.”
Leskinen may have been able to pursue a career in college athletics after she graduated from Laurel Highlands in 1999.
“I actually got inquiries from a couple of different universities about track & field,” Leskinen revealed. “I did the high jump, but my senior year was the first year that they allowed women to do the pole vault. I came back from going to school in Colorado late into the track & field season and I just started pole vaulting. Having pole vaulted a month, I qualified for the state meet.”
Skiing and wakeboarding soon became Leskinen’s driving passions.
“I got a couple of letters from schools about track & field and I remember having zero interest,” Leskinen explained. “I probably would have liked to have played soccer in college. I was the kind of person who was going to do something active.
“I had skied at Junior Nationals and Nationals for mogul skiing. I was showing some promise there, and I think that the idea of making the United States Olympic team was attractive. The summer after I graduated I competed in the Nationals and World Championships for wakeboarding.”
Leskinen discovered PoorBoyz Production ski movies, the emerging world of freeskiing and her sports career path changed.
“Growing up in southwestern Pennsylvania and skiing at Seven Springs actually afforded me a benefit that other girls didn’t get,” Leskinen said. “Skiing around the country you think of Colorado and California with these huge mountains and they definitely would have an advantage, but there is one area in which they didn’t and that was Seven Springs was open at night.
“I got to all day Friday and all day Saturday and Sunday. The mountain was quite small, so the runs are short. Pretty quickly your skills outweigh what the mountain has to offer, so the young girl growing up at Seven Springs as soon as I conquered all the runs and there was nothing I couldn’t do on the mountain.
“Then you start building jumps, and so I started doing tricks on jumps and that’s what I wanted to do. When I went away to Ski Academy in Vermont or to the contests in Killington, that opened up that door I quickly realized that other girls weren’t doing the kind of jumps that I was doing, and it was because they grew up on mountains that offer so much more challenge so they are still picking up skiing skills.
“Meanwhile, I’m picking up skills in the air. When I went to Vermont to ski moguls I was a pretty average mogul skier, but I did better tricks. I always excelled in the air. When I saw freeskiing, which was basically just the tricks, it was a no brainer.”
Leskinen became a trailblazer fighting for recognition in the male dominated sport of freeskiing.
“I could speak for hours on the barriers I had to break through to get recognition,” Leskinen said. “The first contest I turned up for, I was the only girl there at the US Open of Freeskiing in 2000. It was that event where I met Jonny Moseley and others, and they were so nice. Moseley gave me a pair of twin tipped skis because he recognized that I had some ability.”
It is largely because of Leskinen that women are now invited to compete at all freeskiing events around the world. World Championships, X Games and Olympics are never held without a full and competitive female field.
“I wouldn’t trade my position as a pioneer in the sport for the world,” Leskinen offered. “What was incredible is watching a sport come full circle. Watching a sport that I was literally the first girl to show up at a contest, fighting for equal prize money and equal recognition. Now to see it at this point where there is no contest without a full women’s field.”
Leskinen won a bronze medal in the Women’s Superpipe at Winter X Games IX. She was the first woman ever to pull a rodeo 720-two rotations, head pointed to the earth. She was named one of the Twenty Greatest Adventure Sport Athletes of today by Faces Magazine in fall of 2005. She appeared on the cover of Powder magazine’s Photo Annual in 2004.
Here are some other big moments: 2009, third place, Homecoming; 2009, fifth place, Dew Tour Slopestyle- Mt Snow, Vermont; 2009, second place, Aspen Open Slopestyle; 2008, third place, European Open Slopestyle- Laax, Switzerland; 2008, second place, North American Open; 2007, second place, Nippon Freeski Open; 2005, third place, Winter X Games Halfpipe; 2005, second place, US Open Halfpipe; 2005, first place, Gravity Games Halfpipe; 2004, second place, US Freeskiing Open Superpipe-Vail, Colorado.
Freeskiing is a tough and dangerous sport. Leskinen lost her best friend in a tragic accident. Canadian freeskier Sarah Burke died in 2012, nine days after crashing at the bottom of the superpipe during a training run in Utah.
Leskinen retired from full-time skiing in 2013. She suffered from some injury problems, including symptoms of post-concussion syndrome. After many months of visual and vestibular therapy, she was able to get back to full fitness.
“Nobody gets out of these extreme sports without stories, without injuries,” Leskinen reflected. “I had a brain hemorrhage in 2005. I was fortunate I recovered. For me, it was the combination of both wakeboarding and skiing that led to the
“After I had my experience with head injuries, and when Sarah crashed, I got on a plane and spent nine days with her in a hospital. She died after a brain injury and that hit pretty hard. When it hits that close to home, it’s just too hard to think that it won’t happen to you. When you start thinking what could go wrong, then that little bit of doubt has inched in and you don’t belong up there anymore. I recognized that.”
Leskinen had a winning performance on ABC’s “The Superstars” in the summer of 2009. She and her family’s hotel business were the focus of an episode of “Treehouse Masters” in 2014. She appeared as a guest investor on CNBC’s “Adventure Capitalists” in 2017. Most recently, she was half of an all-female team with fellow freestyle skier, Jen Hudak, as the pair was featured on season 30 of “The Amazing Race” on CBS.
“The Superstars was actually kind of a highlight for me,” Leskinen stated. “I had watched the Superstars late at night when I was a little kid. It is basically taking professional athletes from certain sports and forcing them to compete against each other in an enormous range of sports. With my history with other sports, I was like, the more sports you can throw at me, the better.”
Now in her 30s, Leskinen has been married for five years to Russell Thornton. She spends most of her time in Arizona.
Leskinen is excited about the Fayette County Hall of Fame induction because it’s home.
“I’m not where I am today if I didn’t grow up in Fayette County,” Leskinen said. “I don’t take that lightly. The opportunities I was afforded by living in a place that had four seasons and allowed me to play so many different sports that allowed me to become the athlete that I am today.”
Leskinen feels blessed to look back over a great career that is still evolving in so many areas.
“I’ve been unbelievably fortunate,” Leskinen stated.