When Jackie Paaso was a young mogul skier, her motivation and drive stemmed from a dream to go to the Olympics. As she phased into big mountain competitions, her eyes were set on the podiums of the Freeride World Tour, where she has competed for the last nine years. But for Paaso, a goal is not just a measuring stick for progress and achievements. It's a lifeline. Setting goals and dreaming big are tools Paaso uses to fend off depression—the skier has recently opened up about her suicide attempts in 2004 and 2009—as well as find happiness and meaning, and simply keep moving forward.
Among her recent achievements, Paaso just wrapped up a two-year film project with fellow FWT athlete Eva Walkner. The film, Evolution of Dreams, is a mini biography of the two competitive big mountain skiers who, combined, represent a dozen years of competing and 25 podiums. Walkner won the entire Tour twice, in 2015 and 2016. The movie follows their pursuits on skis from the beginning, when they were racing at a young age, to the starting gates of the FWT, to the broken bones and torn knee ligaments, to the glory of summiting and skiing the Eiger in Switzerland.
To tell their stories, Paaso and Walkner did all of the legwork. That's not typical. A lot of biographical ski films about men are produced by independent filmmakers who let the athlete focus on the skiing, and biographical ski films about women are rare. For Evolution of Dreams, Paaso and Walkner found the money with their sponsors. They hired the filmmakers. They mapped out the logistics, which included navigating avalanche terrain. They produced and directed the entire movie—and then got in front of the camera, too.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Evolution of Dreams is about two women, but it's not labeled as a female ski movie. Why did you approach the movie that way?
There are a lot of women who are doing really incredible things, but when you label it as a "girl's ski movie," that label takes away from [the movie] a little bit. We wanted to make something that could relate to everyone and a broader audience. Of course, we want to inspire women, but we want to inspire anyone with this movie.
Gender plays a big role in professional skiing, though. In ski movies, there's usually limited spots for women. And in the Freeride World Tour, women compete separately from men. So how has gender affected your own skiing and competition?
One of the reasons why I stayed in competition is because I didn't feel like there were many opportunities for me in the film world, not because I didn't want to film. I feared that if I quit competition that could potentially be the end of my professional career. All my friends were already filming and so it felt like all of those token spots were already filled up. That's part of it.
And there's a bit of frustration amongst the competition world. I hate to say this, but the reality is we [women] are not the main event—the ski men are. There are so many factors that go into that. Sometimes we're going last and the conditions are just awful. Or sometimes we don't perform as well as we could. When you have such a small field [of competitors], it only takes one person to have a mediocre run, or maybe everyone pushed it and crashed. It's hard to ski the same way as the guys do, especially when there are 20 hungry guys out there so one of them is going to have the run of their life that day, no matter what.
But there are women who are pushing it and doing some amazing things. We wanted to put that out there, but we didn't want to put a label on it.
Let's talk about female friendship. The movie shows camaraderie and support among the athletes on the Freeride World Tour. How do you navigate friendship in a competitive environment?
You're not going to be friends with everyone just because you're on the Tour. But I think everyone respects each other. I have an immense amount of respect for people that are good skiers. Of course, I'm a competitor and I want to win the contest. But if I'm not going to win, and Eva is on top of the podium, then it's because she skied better than me. Knowing that she's up there and that she pushed me and the rest of us makes all of us better skiers.
[Eva and I] have different strengths, and we figured that out while filming together. I can see what's possible, whereas she's good at analyzing things. I respect her and her skiing, and she respects me. We have that kind of relationship. We're friends, but we're also competitors.
What was it like behind-the-scenes for you and Eva to work on this project, with the extra push to produce and direct the film as well as be the athletes?
I'm really happy I did it. I will do it again—I'm a bit hesitant because we're still doing it, the promotion part. It was hard. It was really hard. There were tears. There were moments when we couldn't stand each other, or we were extremely stressed, or terrified because I kept injuring myself. We learned a lot.
It's one thing to compete against somebody. It's another thing to involve money and deadlines and having to produce and make things happen and organize people and all the different logistics to make a movie, while performing at the same time.
So we were stressed. It was not easy, but it was really important to us. It was our baby, in a way. We fought through the hard moments. We learned a lot about each other, like you do when you go into a business with somebody.
What attracted you to the Eiger?
The idea came from Eva. She knows all the iconic mountains in the Alps, since she grew up in Austria. She was naming a bunch of different areas and lines, and I was like, 'OK, yeah, sure.' But when she mentioned the Eiger, of course I had heard about that mountain.
The Eiger has this massive history behind it. It's just this massive mountain. It's a bit more than just looking at a couloir that maybe is more difficult to ski. The Eiger just hits you in the face. It ticked all the boxes that we were looking for.
In the movie, you were both transparent about mental resilience, and how that plays a role in your skiing. Continuing the conversation, how do you manage depression in the mountains, especially when you're going after big achievements like the Eiger?
I'm the kind of person that needs to have goals and needs to constantly be achieving things, big or small. It doesn't always have to be the Eiger. It's just working toward something. And that fends off my depression. The training to do the Eiger, the actual process of doing it—that's where I'm in my element. It keeps me happy and it keeps me motivated for life.
I have to have things to work for, and that was the idea with the whole story. Everyone can relate to that, even if they're not skiers. Having goals in life keeps us moving forward and motivated for the next day.
Every goal comes with a set of challenges and unforeseen complications. When you tore your MCL, how did you navigate that setback?
That was really hard. And sometimes it's still hard. I wanted to have this amazing freeride segment to add to the movie, but that was cut short. It was heartbreaking for me because I'd love to have the opportunity to film with MSP or TGR or who knows, maybe I'll make it happen on my end again. But that was a huge blow.
The first couple of weeks were the hardest, especially when I was limited to what I could do for rehab. I was back home in Sweden. I had the comfort of some amazing friends. They knew that I needed friends and people that love me. That was a huge benefit.
As soon as I could start pushing it a little bit more in rehab, the motivation to come back as soon as possible helped me overcome that disappointment and fend off any depression. I guess I should be proud of myself for being able to push through that, because it could have been so much easier—especially for someone with my history—to have put myself in a hole.
Now that the movie is finished and making the rounds before audiences all over the world, how do you feel about it?
I was at a premiere yesterday, and I'm really happy. But the more I watch it, the more I can find things that I think can be better. And that's just who I am as a person. It doesn't matter if I win by 10 or 100, I can always find something. It's really annoying. But when I try to put that personality flaw aside, I'm really happy.
The feedback that I've heard from people so far is the most important. People have been able to appreciate how honest both of us were in sharing our story. It's not all big, crazy lines. There's so much more that goes into it. It's all ups and downs. I received some really amazing and kind and great feedback from all different types of people—big fans of freeriding and some that are just learning about it. And that was the goal.
Find out where you can see the film, Evolution of Dreams, here.