Be forewarned this post is huge, but it’s a topic that really means a lot to me. I decided to write my thoughts on the matter after the release of this article by Kristi Leskinen on ESPN.com advocating for smaller jumps and women only courses at major events. Read both, read neither, do as you wish, but feel free to voice your thoughts in the comments below.
In 2006 I began competing on the pro circuit. I competed in events like the Vans Cup, US Open and my first ever Winter X Games. At every single one of these events there were smaller jumps, next to the normal ones and they were always dubbed “the ladies tee”. Every event there were big debates over what should be scored higher; technicality and progression on the small kickers or clean and simple on the big jumps? How can you judge a contest fairly when a small portion of the field is hitting a different course? Almost every time there were complaints about the judging and about who won.
My entire career I’ve stood strong in my opinion that there shouldn’t be small sides at contests, even at my very first X Games I stepped up and hit the bigger jumps. Of course I was scared, but that was the direction I wanted to take my snowboarding in. In 2008 X Games eliminated small sides from the slope style, forcing every girl in the competition to hit the same jumps. There was a lot of protest in the beginning and the level of riding suffered as women adjusted to hitting bigger jumps on a consistent basis. The following year Dew Tour came onto the scene and debuted in Breckenridge with one of the biggest courses, very early in the season and with no small sides. The following two Dew Tour events also didn’t have small sides and all the ladies stepped up to the plate and made it happen. In all honestly this stunted the progression of women’s slope style for a few years, but now, four years later, we’re seeing the highest level of female slope style riding we’ve ever seen. Technical tricks and big spins on the same jumps as the boys. No more ladies tee. We’re finally getting the respect we’ve worked hard for and I couldn’t be prouder to be a female in snowboarding right now.
I guess this is why I become distressed when I see articles like the one recently written by freeskier Kristi Leskinen on ESPN.com advocating for smaller jumps and women only courses. She makes some valid points and conducted a survey polling people across skiing and snowboarding. She believes, and apparently the majority of women believe, that the jumps are too big and that girls are getting hurt more often then men because we don’t have our own course. These results surprised me because the courses this year were on point at almost every event and from what I saw the women thrived in this environment. The level was upped at event after event and the riding we saw at X Games in Tignes was by far the best from a full field of ladies ever. Leskinen also points out that all traditional sports and even some action sports offer women some sort of difference in the way their sports are run. Women golfers hit from closer distances, surfing has it’s own tour, tennis has shorter matches, girls play softball not baseball, the list goes on so why shouldn’t girl snowboarders and skiers have separate courses and separate events that are tailored to our needs? It’s a valid question, but how do these women only tours and sports differ from the men?
Women’s golf has the LPGA which is entirely separate from the PGA. They hit from closer tees and on courses that are anywhere from 700-900 yards shorter than the men’s. It’s been this way for years, as has the extreme gap in prize money. The total tour purse for LPGA in 2010 was $41.4 million while the men’s PGA tour purse was over $250 million. Women are considered too weak to play the same greens as men, their swings not fast enough or they’re game not sharp enough and there’s a thousand stats to prove it. Despite this common thought that women physically aren’t strong enough to tee off on a men’s course, they’re still allowed to play on tour if they can make the cut. A few women have tried over the years, but no woman has ever played regularly on the men’s tour. Michelle Wie hopes to change that, she’s publicly stated that she dreams of playing in the PGA Masters, one of golf’s most prestigious competitions. Michelle has it made, lucrative deals from sponsors like Nike and Sony and a place on the tour competing with the best women in the world, so why would she want to put herself into the grinder against the best men, where she’s almost certain to fail? She wants to break the barrier, she wants to be the best she can be and in turn make women’s golf the best it can be. If one woman breaks down the door, anyone can step through it.
What about women’s surfing though? It’s an action sport like snowboarding and skiing, but it has it’s own tour. Most of their events don’t coincide, but for the ones that do, they don’t receive equal prize money. At the US Open of Surfing, Kelly Slater walked away with $100,000 for his win while Stephanie Gilmore took home $50,000 for surfing the same wave. Was what Stephanie achieved that day really worth half as much as what Kelly did when they were surfing the same spot? This year was also the first time in nearly 20 years that Hawaii didn’t host a female surf event. The Vans Triple Crown for women didn’t happen due to sponsor cut backs even though the women’s market for surf products is actually more lucrative than that for men. Roxy pulls in more gross than it’s male counterpart Quiksilver so why are the women being left out to dry? Carissa Moore was given the chance to compete against the men this year with two wild card invites to the Hawaiian Pro and the Vans World Cup, but does this solve any of the woes that women’s surfing is struggling with? It’s inspiring to see her compete against the men, but at the end of the day women’s surfing needs more sponsorship money to get itself back on track.
I guess what I’m getting at with these examples is that although these sports operate differently to cater more to women the prize money is much less as are the sponsorship dollars that go into them. It costs an incredible amount of money to build a slope style course and it doesn’t make sense economically to build two courses when the women are capable of hitting the same one as the boys and are excelling on it. If this is the road female snow sports takes and say one day we decide we also need our own tour, it’ll eventually lead to less opportunities and less money in our sport. We’ll end up like women’s surfing, watching the men from the sidelines or like women’s golf, getting paid 5x less. Why purposely turn the spotlight away from our sport when it’s inspiring so many girls to get out there and ride? Sharing a tour means more media attention and more publicity for our sports which in turn equals more opportunities for female athletes.
Of course our sports aren’t perfect, but the main issues are not female specific, they effect everyone on tour. We need to have weather days so people aren’t forced to compete in poor conditions that sacrifice our safety. The courses need to be built in the safest way possible, to benefit every rider and so they’re clearable in all conditions. It’s not a matter of size, it’s a matter of how the jumps are built. A jump can be 80 feet, but if it’s built properly then it’s just as safe as one half it’s size. Safety is everyone’s concern and injuries aren’t just happening to women. We compete in a sport that involves high risk and we all make choices every day in regards to our personal safety. It’s up to us as riders to come together and voice our opinion if something isn’t right or isn’t safe. These issues don’t mean that we need our own course or different jumps, they mean that we need to come together as athletes to voice our needs to the organizers and come up with standards that every top tier event must follow.
Female sports have been plagued with inequality for all of history. We’ve always been considered too weak or too slow to play with the boys and not exciting enough to be marketable to a mainstream audience. Snowboarding and skiing have broken down some of those barriers and I’m proud to say that I hit the same course as the men, that I go as big as they do. The past two years have been the most exciting in the history of women’s snow sports. Kelly Clark landed the first 1080 in competition, 15 feet out of the pipe. Kaya Turski was the first woman to do a 1080 in a slope style competition, and she did it switch. Kelly Sildaru is 9 years old and already spinning 900′s. Who’s to say what that little girl can’t accomplish if we don’t put limitations on her and her talent in skiing. The gap is closing and female snow athletes are riding better now than they ever have before. I truly believe that we’re on the right path, I don’ think smaller courses are the answer and I don’t think taking a step backwards will propel the sport forward.
Thanks for reading, talk soon.