Freestyle Snowsports and its Transition to a Genderless Culture

Photo creds to Sofie Hjort

Words by Milo McSenderson (with a brief input from the Mrs)

 

 

Freestyle snowsports is still in its infancy relative to most sports – individual and team – that fill our screens on a regular basis. While behind the curve in its broadcasting rights, and general exposure, freestyle snowsports is paving the way in gender equality across many aspects. We are seeing massive progression towards a genderless culture in the sport we know and love, and the last few winters have experienced this progression more than most others.

We wanted to take some time to dig through the archives and celebrate those that made things happen in a world that seems miles away from the one we see today in terms of equality. This is an opportunity to celebrate the vast progression we’ve seen in recent years, explore how the face of the sport has changed plus highlight those that are supporting the movement. We’re also sending a big shout out to the grassroots and larger crews who are doing big things for women in the sport.

Few others represent sharing the passion for women’s snowboarding more than Corinne Mayhew, a household name for those in Tignes, and her Women’s Progressions Sessions – discussed in further detail later. Corinne’s CV is an impressive one, being one of the first women to reach BASI Level 4, working with the likes of Team GB Park & Pipe and the Navy, as well as many iterations of women’s ride days including Splitboard camps in the Tyrol. Corinne very kindly offered to share her insights on the changing face of women in snowsports with me, which I will in turn be sharing with you guys. As well as the snippets that we’ve integrated into this article, we will also be supplying the full Q&A as some extra reading if you’re so inclined to check it out! 

There has been a long-standing narrative of women in action sports performing at a lower standard than men; being less equipped to excel. This is often attributed to a patriarchal view of women in society. The ability to bear children being used as a justification for ideas of biological inferiority. This adverse interpretation has been perpetuated in the realm of sports just as in the rest of society.

While self-preservation may be more on the biological agenda for women that doesn’t make their riding any less gnarly - or the female scene any less relevant. Moreover, any projection of the narrative of ‘less’ in context to women in sport is often proliferated from the male side of the sport. This narrative is one that does not exist or apply to a huge majority of women. This is a pattern that has echoed through society and one that has been fought against long before we first strapped planks of wood to our feet to slide down mountains.

The sport has been dragged by the sheer power of will closer to equality and it’s important to recognise those who have done the dragging and sending from day one. Time to take a look back at some pieces of ski and snowboard history and the women who wrote it. And we’ll have a sneak peek at the women who are leading the charge into the future.

Freestyle snowboarding has had mainstream recognition for a lot longer than skiing with attention being devoted mainly to racing; aerials and moguls also gained Olympic status in 1994 and 1992 respectively. Snowboarding’s first freestyle inclusion in the Olympics dates back to 1998, 16 years before ski halfpipe and slopestyle were included. Although men’s halfpipe snowboarding in its first Olympic year had more than twice as many competitors as the female discipline, 64 compared to 26.

Prolific in the 90s, freestyle snowboarding has had its fair share of pioneering female successes. The likes of Victoria Jealouse, otherwise known as Canada’s First Lady of First Descents, made huge inroads into the scene earning herself plenty of film spots as early as 1993 in Totally Board 3, against an all-male backdrop. Victoria has bagged multiple spots in movies for big names like Teton Gravity Research and Runway Films. Victoria’s segment from TGR’s 2006 film Anomaly is massive, from burly backcountry booters to spine-tingling lines. This is the real deal.

Nicola Thost is also someone we want to mention early on, she earned herself the first Olympic Halfpipe gold in Nagano ‘98 and has had a competitive career for nearly 20 years after that. Swapping vert walls for freeride faces, Nicola bagged 2nd place in the Vallnord-Arcalís Andorra stop of the 2017 FWT. Her career’s longevity and variety is absolute madness and is worthy of some serious love.

The GNU B-Pro first released in '96 is the longest-running women’s pro model snowboard. Named for Barrett Christy and in production for an almighty 20 years, this situates her firmly in the snowboard hall of fame. Winning many events across all freestyle disciplines Barrett holds the title for most female X-Games medals. Barrett’s prowess is not limited to freestyle competitions. Appearing in several women’s only snowboard movies; Our Turn and Hardly Angles, in 2001 and 2002 respectively, for White Knuckle Extreme. A more recent appearance in Full Moon that also stars Victoria Jealouse in an all-female cast depicting the past, present, and future of the sport. This is another one to add to your educational watch list if you are not already familiar. Barrett’s long career is a historic one and has certainly left its mark on the sport.

Now onto the skiers. For me, Sarah Burke was the first female name I remember ringing through my ears as I filled my young brain with waves of ski content. Taken from us far too soon but not before she left an indelible mark on the ski industry. Winning superpipe in the 2001 US Freeskiing Open and coming second in slopestyle. Sarah competed against men in the field alongside Kristi Leskinen, as two of the only women to do it. In 2004, Sarah lobbied ESPN for the inclusion of women in the X-Games – in 2005 women’s skiing was added. Sarah’s efforts helped pave the way for the inclusion of women's halfpipe in Sochi 2014 too.

Her impact on the world of skiing will never be forgotten. This paragraph is not nearly enough space to do justice to the tale of Sarah Burke and I beg any of you reading who don’t know how amazing she was to do some research, I’ll even make it easy for you with this hyperlink.

Known for carrying the torch of female freestyle riding from Sarah and burning it just as bright is Kaya Turksi. From dominating the X-Games with 8 slopestyle golds in a 4-year period, two epic Level 1 segments, and being the first woman to stomp a switch 1080. Kaya and Sarah both walked away with golds in the 2011 X-Games, each in their respective specialties, Sarah’s 900 in the halfpipe was way ahead of its time. Kaya claimed the three-peat at X-Games 2012, dedicated to Sarah, stomping the switch 10 on the final hit. For Kaya, like many other female riders, Sarah Burke continues to be a massive inspiration for boundary-pushing in the sport. 

After discussing our own favourites from the industry, we also let Corinne ponder similar thoughts and let us know what impact she found certain athletes have had from a personal perspective;

“On the grand scheme of things, people like Anna Gasser who’s chucking triples and Katie Ormerod who’s become the first Brit to win a World Cup on snow. That’s amazing, she’s a female snowboarder from Yorkshire, it’s nuts. Women can see that other women have made it possible to achieve those things. It makes it easier for women to have a go because lots of other women are doing it now, they’re not the only ones, 15 years ago when I first started snowboarding I’d be the only girl in the park, but now there are so many girls in the park and that’s great and it’s the stepping stones of progression.”

Having looked back at the history of the sport it’s also pertinent to look to the present and the future. With riders like Kelly Sildaru absolutely crushing the scene at such a young age the future of women’s freestyle skiing is in safe hands. We also witnessed the first triple ever stomped by a woman last season, big ups to Anna Gasser for raising the bar yet again and quashing any doubters of the sendiness of women. Another totally standout part from 2019 was Maria Thomsen’s street cut from Isle of Snow this was fully buck wild start to finish and yet again serves as a true stamp on the female stake in snowsports. We all know how burly street riding is and Maria chews up the streets in this film full of absolute hammers. This part really does speak for itself in so many ways it’s again one I urge you to just sit back and watch, and then watch again. And maybe a third time for good measure.

 

 

It is evident that much of the world of freestyle skiing has been male dominated for quite some time. Even in shifting times, they’re still male dominated. MSP’s All In, boasted a 4 to 4 split of male and female riders yet this year’s Return to Send’er featured none at all. It must be noted that many of the crew that featured as a part of All In were committed elsewhere for the season, or injured. Level 1’s Romance was also lady-less this year. Tatum Monod, one of the industry’s leading female talents was out with injury last season and would normally feature in Matchstick and Level 1 offerings.

The shift in focus away from male dominated ski media is persistent and plentiful. I wanted to take a moment to highlight some of the recent productions we’ve seen that have taken a female lens to skiing. Laura Obermeyer’s 2019 production JYOSEI is a true service to the women of skiing. Eight women travelled from around the world to the land of deep snow and sushi to put together this masterpiece. The whole trip looked insane, from backcountry riding to the streets this film was absolutely smashed by all involved. Check out all the sick chicks that made this film happen too of course!

The chicks only part from Faction’s movie The Collective showcased the female side of their monstrous team exceptionally. The team ranges from veteran to the sport Sarah Hoefflin to the future of women’s skiing Kelly Sildaru. All the chicks riding for Faction are making massive waves in the comp scene – with 58 pro-level medals between them – as well as crushing it elsewhere. For a four minute edit this is jam packed with awesomeness, Caroline Claire has that afterbang on lock and beautiful grab selection, the rest of the crew are firing on all cylinders. With a heavy dose of heavy slams and feel-good factor thrown in this is well worth some watches.

 

 

A Land Shaped by Women, is another production I feel mention worthy here. A Red Bull production which follows Anne-Flore Marxer and Aline Bock, two FWT competitors in their winters journey through Iceland – the UN’s number one ranked country for gender equality. More of a reflection on equality and policy than your typical snowboarding film, but with beautiful cinematography, splitboarding and surfing this is a great watch. Anne-Flore and Aline talk to women across Iceland and throw in a good amount of history alongside important messages all round. This production beautifully marries the sport we know and love with a great conversation of equality and is well worth your time.

What ties all these productions together, aside from the obvious all female casts, is the pure joy and vibes that ooze out of your screen through every second. You can feel the atmosphere all these trips have had and this is something rarely missing from women’s only segments; the same cannot always be said for the male dominated counterparts. This links nicely back to the rejection of the ‘narrative of less’ I have presented as a mission statement of this article.

There is a paradigm shift in motion in the world of skiing as we know it. A move towards a genderless culture. We’ve seen examples of this in a few key areas of the sport. Not least the gender pay gap. Whilst this has been endemic in the sporting community it is notably better in the world of winter sports. The Burton US Open, a snowboard-only competition operating since 1982 has always paid both male and female contestants equally. As has the Dew Tour which completed its first season in 2008 for both ski and snowboard contestants. Whilst the Winter X Games has also had equal potential earnings from first to last place since 2009.

This move towards equality has been seen further in recent seasons with the Freeride World Tour offering equal prize purses for men and women this season. Level 1’s notorious Superunknown video competition had its first female finalist in the 2018 competition with 28-year-old Rosina Freidel which opened up a female spot in the finals for all subsequent Superunknown. A full interview with Rosina after her selection for finals can be found here. We also have Kings of Corbets Couloir becoming Kings and Queens with Veronica Paulsen landing the first female backie into the cute this year (top three ladies hits here). Nine Knights has become a gender-neutral Audi Nines (with a brief stint as Nine Royals). These shifts are really awesome to see in the changing face of snowsports. 

Grassroots crews have been making their mark all over the snowsports scene. Women only sessions run across the world and provide an awesome environment for development. It feels appropriate to promote some of the awesome work these crews have been doing for the sports we love. Having just got back from my truncated season in Tignes/Val D’Isere I got to see first-hand the huge impact Mayhew Snowboarding had on the local community. Women’s shred days and socials were attended by every lass I knew in resort without fail. You’d pass the park on these shred days and the vibes were off the chain. The crew easily amassed 60 strong on several occasions and it was clear for all to see what a ground for progression Corinne has created in the Tignes community. Having never been able to attend myself, for obvious reasons, I have the word of many ladies to say that these days were some of the best on the hill.

Those spending winters over in Avoriaz/Morzine have the pleasure of Gypsy Snowboarding to provide such joys like girls shred days and après. A few of the AfterJam team have witnessed the solid work that this crew does and hold them in very high regard. They seem to be able to roll a training session, a competition, and an après all into a couple of hours, and it’s class to see.

There is arguably no better person to ask his or her opinion of on these shred days the founder of an institution such as Mayhew Snowboarding, and here what Corinne has to say:

“The main focus is that they meet other girls to ride with that are a similar level to them. I’ve been doing it for 5-6 years now but there’s been a few cases where seasonnaire girls are here on their first season and have come along and didn’t know anyone. Then for the rest of the season I’ll be teaching in the park and I’ll see them all riding together and a couple of them have gone on to be park shapers in Austria or Australia and all sorts! That’s given them access to something they would have never come into contact with otherwise. Keeping it positive and maintaining the fact it’s about friendship and having fun means then they can push each other a lot; maybe more guys can push girls. I think that’s my focus fundamentally and then beyond that it’s giving them new tricks and new techniques.”

There are some other big names making a huge impact on the women’s side of the sport. Heida Birgisdottir is definitely a big name (and a mouthful if you’re not a native Icelandic speaker). She’s also the founder of one of the most prolific clothing brands in the industry, Nikita Clothing. Rider owned and designed for women sending it Nikita clothing went from Heida selling hand-made kit out of a skateshop in Reykjavik to be an international staple of skiwear. Founded on the principle of providing street and snowboard clothing that women liked and wanted rather than big brands simply producing their men’s lines in smaller sizes. Nikita clothing is now an international brand and for good reason. Anne and Aline talk in more detail with Heida about the founding and growth of Nikita clothing in A Land Shaped by Women and I urge you guys to check out her story further.

Alongside this, many other female crews are out there making massive waves for the community and it’s awesome to see. Crews like Too Hard Squad have been making their mark on the streets over the years. Focusing on dropping a movie each winter and generally being a really rowdy bunch. Their films show riding hard in the streets and sending it hard after too. While their party attitude may be looked down on by some sponsors, they have been hailed for providing big stoke and inspiration for other ladies to get out the streets.

Fancy Rutherford of Too Hard says that, “snowboarding on rails in the streets is hard for anybody but especially for us, we have that innate mother instinct. Somehow you gotta block it out and be like I’m strong enough to overcome this.” Inspiring shit!

I know first hand the parks and big mountain intimidating without having a further sexist barrier to overcome to access these areas of the mountain, and it’s great to see the stoke that these companies and crews are generating and the smiles they create.

The battle for gender equality is a global issue but we’ve tried to condense it solely to its context within snowsports. Although there are many mountains still to climb and much left undone it’s fantastic to watch the sport we know and love transition to a genderless culture. I don’t have enough time to shoutout to everyone doing huge things and putting out massive segments but just watching any current freeride, slope, big air, or pipe runs from the women at the top of their game shows undeniably how awesome the scene and the send is. Just keep your eye peelers on any rowdy content and you’ll see female riding is in very capable hands. The only way is up and we are fuckin’ ready for it!