Women in Freestyle Skiing – Part One: Taking the Plunge

In the winter of 2018, I took up skiing in the terrain park: the ski resort area with jumps, rails, pipes, and other daunting features. I was in over my head as a somewhat balance-impaired beginner, surrounded by around 80 men and four women in the park itself. The experience — especially my observation of the seemingly low numbers of women — piqued an interest in further exploration. So, I crisscrossed the Colorado Rockies to interview several slopestyle female skiers. In this first article of my three-piece series, I portray their perspectives on being outnumbered in the sport. 

Per my observation, hearing about male dominance in the realm of freestyle skiing in my interview sessions was no surprise. When I met with young Olympian skiers Sarah Hoefflin and Giulia Tanno from the Swiss free ski team, the topic of women in the freestyle ski industry came about naturally. Both skiers raised several possible explanations for the low involvement of women and girls in the sport. 

“There’s genetics, but also, upbringing,” Hoefflin said. “I think it’s a bit of both. The guys will always be told to go play football, whereas the girls might be bought Barbie dolls, rather than a football. If you bring up a girl to be a bit more cautious, she’s not going to have that same experience as a child.” 

Tanno nodded in agreement. “Girls are more cautious,” she said. “Every time I was [skiing] with girls, I did a lot less stuff. Back in the days when I skied with boys, it was more pushing myself than when I skied with girls.” Tanno reiterated that this is not the case now at the level she has progressed to.  

Photo Courtesy of Izzy Atkin

Gio Bertoncini, a 24-year-old Italian freestyle skier and former skier for the Italian free ski team, expressed similar sentiments. “Society sometimes makes it hard,” she said. “Growing up, girls are usually calmer and playing with Barbies … but this is just because of [societal pressures.] And this builds the obstacles for woman to be able or feel free to try some different sports.”

 Coco Ballet-Baz, a 26-year-old freestyle skier on the French free ski team, echoed Bertoncini’s ideas; “But like in any other action sport or activity there is a tendency — from parents, society, movies — to encourage boys to practice these kind of sports, whereas girls are naturally pushed to more quiet activities, unless the demand comes from themselves,” she said.

The thoughtful insights from these skiers emphasize the role upbringing has in discouraging girls from trying more action-driven, risk-taking sports. Additionally, the interviewees observed that “cautious” does not necessarily imply “fearful.” Perhaps, young girls just work through a deeper thought process about risking bodily harm that boys may not work through.

 “For the ladies, our injury risk is a lot higher,” said Brooke Potter, a 23-year-old freestyle coach for Copper Mountain and active member of the urban skiing and film world. “Especially when it comes to ACLs — that plays a big role into why we take a little bit more time, as far as the progression. It’s probably less appealing to women just because of the risk factor, but I do think [girls’ participation] is definitely growing.” The injury risk factor can dissuade younger girls from taking up freestyle skiing. Fewer female role models in the field may also discourage such participation in the first place. 

Twenty-six-year-old Anne Jorunn Tysseland is the first female freestyle coach at Norway’s Hovden Skigymnas, a ski academy for high-performing athletes. I asked her why she thought fewer girls enter the sport at a young age. I think maybe for girls it seems a bit scary in the beginning, especially since there are a lot of boys and not so many girls,” She said. “It’s hard to blend in if you are not a girl who likes to hang out with boys.”

Izzy Atkin ’21, an Olympian freestyle skier and Colorado College student, agreed.  “Maybe there are less girls skiing [freestyle] because it’s less shown that women are doing all these sports,” she said.

Alice Michel, a 23-year-old from Verbier, Switzerland, studies ski and snowboard business at Colorado Mountain College. “Most of the time I’m the only girl in the class,” she said. “The most girls I’ve had in my classes is maybe three.” Michel also has experience coaching. “The girls dared to do more when there were no boys to call them out,” she said. She then reiterated that the boys did not necessarily always callout the girls, but there was an ingrained conception that they would. 

This first article in my three-part series gives us perspective from several women who directly partake in the sport of freestyle skiing. Stay tuned for the next article of the series, where I explore attitudes toward opportunities for females to be successful and make a living as a freestyle skier.

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