At the Opening Ceremony of the 2022 Winter Olympics, snowboarder Jenise Spiteri walked into National Stadium as the flag bearer and lone athlete for the Mediterranean island-state of Malta, sporting gorgeous, half neon pink/half blue-green, waist-length hair.
She went on to capture fans’ hearts during the women’s snowboarding halfpipe competition when she pulled a bao bun – a red-bean-paste-filled bun – out of her pocket and took a bite while waiting for her scores after her first run in qualifying. Olympians, they’re just like us – at least when they aren’t attempting gravity-defying feats.
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“I actually eat six every day,” she explained to On Her Turf after finishing 21st and failing to qualify for the women’s halfpipe finals. “Two at breakfast, two with my lunch and two at dinner. This morning, I got my two buns, but I was way too nervous to eat. … I took a bite of one and put it in my pocket and kind of forgot I put it in there. As I was dropping in for the run I was like, ‘Oh! I think I still have that in my pocket!’”
But the California-born Spiteri cemented fans’ respect with her message in an iconic and charming TikTok video that was a dozen years in the making.
“Twelve years ago, I moved to Tahoe to pursue my dream of being a snowboarder, and some guys made a post talking all about how by the end of the season, ‘I guarantee she will crawl home to mommy and daddy,’” the 29-year-old Spiteri says in the video, standing in front of the Olympic Rings and holding a printout of the trolling post.
“I’ve waited 12 years to respond to this and now it’s finally the time, so: Dear guys who wrote this, I am not a ‘stupid, ignorant, spoiled, trendy, blind, naïve, helpless, little bitch.’
“Actually,” she adds, “I’m an Olympian,” upon which she crumbles the paper and tosses it through the rings.
It’s been a helluva ride for Spiteri, born just south of San Francisco in Redwood City, Calif., and a lifelong figure skater – a sport that’s also part of her family legacy. Following her grandparents’ emigration from Malta in the 1940s, family patriarch Joseph Spiteri would go on to found SP-Teri, an ice-skating boot manufacturer that has made boots for Olympians including two-time medalist Michelle Kwan.
But Spiteri fell in love with snowboarding at age 18, while attending Sierra Nevada University in the Lake Tahoe area. She grew up wanting to be an actor – something she still does as more of an odd job since choosing snowboarding, including working as an extra on the HBO series, “Euphoria.”
But it was 10 years ago – Jan. 29, 2012 – when she wrote a Facebook post that would change the course of her life, asking everyone and no one in particular: “Wanted: someone to teach me how to ride pipe tomorrow. Anyone available?”
The post got two likes, 10 comments and one share.
Fast forward exactly one decade and Spiteri is taking fans behind the scenes, where her social media highlights pin-trading with halfpipe legend Shaun White and gushing over the Olympic halfpipe silver medal won by good friend Queralt Castellet of Spain.
But Spiteri has been documenting her unlikely journey – which is largely self-funded – from the very beginning. She got the idea to capitalize on her Maltese heritage from a college teammate and garnered the support of the Maltese Olympic Committee, which delivered her opening ceremony outfit with a special message.
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“They said, ‘We know how hard you worked for this and that you really tried, and we want you to have this piece because we know bad you want it,’” she recently told Around the Rings.
While she does receive financial support from the Olympic Solidarity training program, which helps countries build their national sports programs, Spiteri survives on a modest budget, living out of a converted van to offset costs.
“It’s been a big mental struggle, but I just always kept finding a reason to keep going and keep trying,” she said.
The learning curve was … cold. When she woke up one morning to find her contacts suspended in frozen solution inside the case, Spiteri admits it was a “big surprise.”
“I learned how to survive in extreme cold,” she explained. “I toughened up a lot doing that, but I saved a lot of money that I was able to put into training.”
Ultimately, Spiteri hopes her journey is a hopeful example of inspiration, never-give-up grit and a never-too-late perseverance.
“One of my big things that I want to show [people is] no matter where they are in life or what situation they’re in, what opportunities they have or don’t have,” she says, “if they have some sort of dream or big goal or idea, if they stick to it and are tenacious and determined and never let the naysayers or the voice in their own head stop them, they really can achieve anything.”