By Jack Tarrant
LONDON(Reuters) - Julia Marino will head to next month's Winter Games as a major medal contender, yet the American snowboarder may not have been on the plane to Pyeongchang at all were it not for a twist of fate during her teenage years.
Marino emerged seemingly out of nowhere two years ago and has transformed herself into a major force in the discipline, with the 20-year-old leading a vibrant group of American freestyle snowboarders looking to take the Olympics by storm.
At the age of 18, Marino leaped into the limelight when she won the Big Air World Cup event at the iconic Fenway Park baseball stadium in Boston, arriving as an alternate but seizing her chance when fellow American Ty Walker withdrew.
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Marino's stock continued to soar at the 2017 Winter X Games in Aspen, where she became the first female snowboarder to win medals in two categories -- gold in slopestyle and bronze in big air.
However, speaking to Reuters at a team freestyle camp in Stubai, Austria, Marino admitted that the extra attention heading into an Olympic year was causing her some anxiety.
"But it is a good kind of stress," she added quickly. "It is fun to have that and it is not something that psyches you out too much I guess, it just pumps you up and it is just a little adrenaline high that makes you want to work harder."
For young athletes, constant acclaim can become a little overwhelming, particularly in an individual discipline, but Marino says the U.S. team dynamic, which groups all the coaches and athletes together, has helped steady the nerves.
"When you ride with someone, I think you progress at a faster rate because one, you are having fun and two, when you see something that they are doing, you want to do the same thing and then you guys just build off each other," Marino said.
If all goes to plan, Marino will lead a group of young snowboarders to their first Olympics, with teenage prospects Chloe Kim, Hailey Langland and Chris Corning all expected to make the team at the expense of more experienced riders.
Marino long believed she was destined to one day compete at a Winter Games but had it not been for an incident on a family holiday when aged 13, she could have been on skis instead.
Growing up near New York, her family regularly embarked on winter holidays in Colorado where, despite an early flirtation with snowboarding, the young Marino was an avid skier.
Marino admits that she was so passionate about improving that she pushed herself and her equipment to the limit, and during that fateful trip, her "girlyish" skis snapped while attempting an audacious jump.
Despite his daughter's pleas to rent another pair of skis, Marino's father John stood his ground and unwittingly changed her choice of sport for good.
"I asked if I could rent another pair of skis as it was the first day of vacation and I wanted to keep skiing but my dad was like 'no, you have a perfectly good snowboard at home and you are going to use that the rest of time,'" Marino said.
"I was really bummed about it but then as soon as I started getting into it and accepting the fact that I am going to have to snowboard the rest of the trip I really started to enjoy it."
The rest, as they say, is history. Marino says she has only donned a pair of skis once more, something she will not be attempting again after falling flat on her face and promptly reverting straight back to her board.
That Colorado incident may have sparked a chain of events that finishes on a podium in South Korea but while Marino and her father are refusing to get too carried away, the U.S. team may well have found their star of the future.
(Reporting by Jack Tarrant; Editing by John O'Brien)