Bridging The Gap: The Next Wave Of Women’s Snowboarding

By Tawnya Schultz

Stay tuned for TWSNOWGIRLS.com dropping soon.

It's a trick list that most dudes don't have. Kelly Clark became the first woman to land a 1080 in the pipe at the 2012 X Games; Hana Beaman set down a backside 720 off the Baker Road Gap; Elena Hight did an alley-oop double backside rodeo in the pipe; Kimmy Fasani received mad play from her double backie in the backcountry; and Jess Kimura proved why the ladies deserve street cred with her part in Capita's Defenders Of Awesome. Straight up, women's riding is going off.

Could you? Hana Beaman way out on a backside 720 over the Mt. Baker Road Gap. PHOTO: Scott Sullvan

Getting to this level hasn't been easy. Men have always held the spotlight, partly because more of them ride than women. But whether it's in competition or filming in the streets and backcountry, women aren't slowing down. Here's what the ladies at the forefront say is coming next and how they can keep progressing.

Owning The Arena

According to contest killers like Spencer O'BrienJamie Anderson and Kelly Clark, the state of women's snowboarding is at an all-time high. Competitively, the ladies are becoming more aggressive and more focused on pushing their riding. And since many of them are friends, they're constantly pushing each other to progress. Long a fixture on podiums, Olympic halfpipe silver medalist Gretchen Bleiler knows firsthand what it means for women to be involved in big-time events. "I've been a contest rider for more than 10 years now, and I've seen how certain events have helped progress snowboarding," she says. "The exposure that these events bring to riders is huge, and as the riders feed off of one another, this helps progression."

With such clear benefits, it's hard to understand why fewer women are getting invited to events, organizers are slashing prize money, and some women's categories are getting axed all together. Last season, the Dew Tour eliminated women's events from its contest circuit, and fewer women were invited to contests in general.

Spencer O'Brien feels strongly about what this means for the future. "We're very fortunate to be a part of a sport that offers equal prize money to females, but recently events have started to pull away from this standard," she says. "It worries me to see only eight girls competing at Winter X, 6 Star TTR events offering half the prize money, and new events completely cutting the women's side. It's a slippery slope, and I would hate to see women's snowboarding take a step backwards rather than forwards. As amazing of a time it is riding-wise, it's very precarious from an industry standpoint."

Ladies takeoff? Not for Spencer O’brien. Sending it deep at Montafon, Austria. PHOTO: Frode Sandbech

With Dew Tour eliminating women's events last season and a smaller field of ladies invited to compete in general, one concern is course format. Are the jumps and setups for slopestyle contests too gnarly for the chicks to hit? O'Brien doesn't think so. "The jumps are getting bigger, but the way they're being built is getting safer. There's no physical reason why we need our own course."

Kimmy Fasani agrees but thinks there should be options. "It all comes down to safety and speed," she says. "If there's enough speed to comfortably clear the jumps, then no, there shouldn't be two courses. However, if contests fail to have smaller options and girls cannot clear the jumps, that's not fair, either."

Two-time TTR champ and slopestyle ruler Jamie Anderson thinks women may have a more difficult time in the contest circuit because of individual goals. "Women tend to think about and care for our bodies more then men," says Jamie. "Instinctually, men are very competitive and thrive off being the best. That's why they progress a lot faster than women."

Some of the challenges the ladies face stems from the way they're wired. Assistant Professor Troyann I. Gentile, who researches sport psychology and exercise physiology at Lindsey Wilson College in Kentucky, drops some knowledge. "There are two types of sport goal orientation: Task and ego," he says. "People with task-oriented goals focus on mastery of skills, working hard, developing and improving from one point of time to the next. On the other hand, an ego-oriented person focuses on surpassing or exceeding the performance of others and is not necessarily concerned with best effort. Females are more task-oriented than males." Simply put, it's part of why guys are faster to step up to tricks like triple corks, while women progress differently.

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Gentile also suggests that women may be dealing with confidence issues. "Females on average tend to be more affected by criticism, while males are less responsive to criticism of their mistakes than they are to statements that call their skill and ability into question."

While confidence never seems to be much of an issue for halfpipe slayer Kelly Clark, she believes women should follow their own path. "We don't need to fit into the mold made by men," she says. "We need to progress and be supported for who we are."

This doesn't mean that the genders should be divided in competition, since creating exclusive tours and courses would only hurt the sport in the long run. "I think the more women and men separate, the worse it is for the sport," says ex-Olympic snowboarder and 2009 World Halfpipe champ Tricia Byrnes. "Events are best when both sexes are present and it's just snowboarding, not men's snowboarding or women's snowboarding."

But how different are men and women, really, when it comes to boosting out of the pipe or spinning off booters? The general belief is that men are better snowboarders than women because they're stronger, but the gap may not be as big as you'd think. "Females have approximately two-thirds of the potential strength of males," says Gentile. "However, the measurement of strength in absolute terms leads to many wrong ideas about how great that difference is. Based on a "strength to lean body mass" ratio, women are about equal to men."

If the two sexes are supposed to share similar strength, then what can account for men riding at such a higher level than women? Part of the answer: Society. "Our culture traditionally views strength as masculine and a small, frail body as feminine. Girls have historically been discouraged from participating in athletic activities and strength development," Gentile explains. "Such stereotypes, formed early in childhood, can influence behavior and limit women's ability to express their full potential." This crucial fact means that women could be on a similar skill level as men had they been given the opportunity at an earlier age or relieved of such cultural pressures all together.

Men do have some built-in advantages, however. "Men have more testosterone, which can be part of aggression on some level, but I believe the way we socialize our athletes plays a large role in how they act in sport," says Gentile. "I don't think it's either nature or nurture, rather, both nature and nurture. As we see more women participating in sports and being supported to do so, we'll see less of a divide between the sexes."

The idea that women aren't as good as men may never go away in snowboarding, and it's a hurdle that they'll continue to jump over.

"It would be a bit freakish if a woman was beating Shaun White and Mark McMorris in contests," Burton Women's team manager, Susie Floros, says. "Where the level women's professional riding is at, they've gained the respect of their male peers, while still being free to be feminine at the same time."

Radical Backcountryists

Pros such as Marie-France RoyAnnie Boulanger, Kimmy Fasani, Hana Beaman, Robin Van Gyn, and newcomers like Helen Schettini prefer testing and progressing their skills in the backcountry—and they've made a living by doing it. All began as competitive riders, but each found opportunities with male film crews and companies that supported their backcountry pursuits. For Fasani, filming with Standard helped her land double backflips and ride the best lines of her life. "With more and more women pushing their limits, it's clear we're trying hard to progress," says Fasani.

The backcountry learning curve is especially steep. Helen Schettini takes a course in slough management. Whistler backcountry, BC, Canada. PHOTO: Ashley Barker

With the level of riding rising, it inspires others like Hana Beaman to try bigger tricks and new approaches. "Kimmy, Cheryl [Maas] and Torah [Bright] landing double flips really made everybody realize that women weren't going to let double corks be a 'guy only' thing," says Hana. "With the ladies trying doubles, it reignited a push for all of us."

Last season Hana worked with her sponsors to support the P.S. webisodes, which showcase her abilities to throw down backcountry bangers like a backside 720 off of the infamous Mt. Baker Road Gap (check episode eight). "I've been fortunate to have a lot of different crews and filming projects come my way while I was competing, as well as a really supportive snowboard family," says Beaman. "I find when I'm around people who encourage me I do my best."

Another backcountry slayer who continues to push women's riding every season is Marie-France Roy. Even a neck-breaking injury in the backcountry two seasons ago hasn't held her back. She's busted her ass to get where she is, but she credits her sponsors for letting her film and ride the terrain she wants. "I'm lucky to be involved with brands that believe in women's snowboarding. If it wasn't for Rome, I'd probably still be doing contests. I know so many other sick girls that would benefit from an opportunity like I had."

Lucky and fortunate are two words consistently used by the girls who have had the opportunity to film in the backcountry. While, yes, even dudes have to fight to get in films, more are supported to get out in the backcountry compared women. But overall, the opportunities for where women can and want to take it are endless.

The Streets Are Ours

 

Enni Rukakarvi not only kills it on the slopestyle course, but she also looks pretty comfortable on this sketchy rail. Photo: Ville Lahtinen

Making an impact as a woman in the streets has always been tough, but a few girls like Jess Kimura, Desiree Melancon, Marie Hucal, Gabi Viteri, and Leanne Pelosi have consistently tackled the concrete jungle. It's a difficult place for ladies to gain exposure, and getting past the fear of hitting sketchy, high-consequence features in the dark with bone-chilling temperatures can be nerve-racking. On top of that, it's rare to see girls hitting rail spots with guys and it's as if they've had to distance themselves in order to get noticed in the first place. A few all-girl film companies such as Misschief and Peep Show have tried to fill this role over the years, but haven't lasted. But with the ease of dropping edits online, ladies have more opportunity for exposure than ever. "Filming is definitely a growing aspect of women's snowboarding," Beaman says. "The Internet lets girls who don't have sponsors or a film company backing them gain recognition and make a career out of snowboarding." With new projects like Too Hard from Danyale Patterson continuing where Peep Show left off, and Jess Kimura's Barely, these ladies are paying their dues in the school of hard knocks. The same formula for progression in contests and in the backcountry applies equally to the streets—there are a few leading the charge and they need support. Leanne Pelosi has one solution along those lines that could lead to more ladies hitting the streets. "I'd like to see ESPN include women in Real Snow," she says. "There are a handful of girls killing it out in the streets and backcountry, and it would be pretty rad to showcase that."

Looking Ahead: The Next, Next Wave

Smooth spin, grab held. Jamie Anderson is leading the women’s front with moves like this silky frontside 720. PHOTO: Chris Wellhausen

While blowing up in women's snowboarding may still be an uphill battle, those leading the way are on the right track. Aside from progression, one of the main goals is to get more girls involved in snowboarding, and many female pros are using social media to connect with other girls. Plus, sites like burtongirls.com and Oakley's Perform Beautifully Collective (oakleypbc.com) are at the forefront of joining women together through online communities.

"Companies are seeing that riders are becoming more relatable to people," says Beaman. "We're more than just a snowboarder or a pipe rider; we're multidimensional, which I think really resonates with the average woman rider. Spreading awareness of snowboarding to girls is one of the biggest things brands can do. Let girls know that they can do it, and make product that works for them so they have a fun experience."

All of these riders interviewed encourage women to join together and support each other for the greater good. "Women in snowboarding need to support women's snowboarding," says Fasani. "As long as each girl's goal is to progress the sport, we're all working towards the same thing."

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