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

By Tawnya Schultz

Stay tuned for 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.

Hana Beaman, Snowboarding Photo, Mt Baker, Women's Snowboarding
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.”

Spencer O'Brien, Snowboarding Photos, Women's Snowboarding, Snowboarding Pictures
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.

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.”