Written by Erika Vikander, Professional Snowboarder & Borvo Broth Ambassador
When I was a little girl, I always dreamt of doing something impactful with my life. I had hoped it would be through my talent as a snowboarder and not by having to fight for the right for women to be seen as equals in this day and age. It’s clear now that this will be the most important thing I do thus far in my life, not only for me, but for all women, and the future generations of this sport.
I have spent the last 6 years of my life competing on the Freeride World Tour earning 19 medals for the USA and being one of the longest consecutively re-qualifed North American snowboarders the tour has ever had. Only to feel less than. Less than valued, less than appreciated, less than respected, less than heard, less than seen, less than my male counterparts whom I shouldn’t be compared to or competing against. I am constantly reminded that I am a female, a snowboarder, and a North American, which at one point in my life, I viewed as assets instead of faults. To be constantly reminded from a patriarchal system that you are not worthy really wears down the soul and I’ve finally reached my breaking point.
As many of you know the FWT is an elite competition series that features the best freeriders in the world. It is incredibly hard to earn a spot on the tour, nonetheless maintain it (Unless you’re handed a wildcard, which we will get to later.) Especially for those of us who aren’t from Europe. The bias starts at the top and trickles all the way down through the qualifying events and even into the junior series. I have watched many talented riders come and go each season because there is a harsh cut to make it to finals and prequalify for the tour the following season.
The snowboard women are the smallest category with only 6 total athletes from both regions. That number gets shrunk by 50% after the 3rd stop so there are only 3 women in the final 2 events. That number used to be shrunk to 4 until 2 seasons ago when they changed the rules and created 2 final events instead of 1. We are told that number is so small because “there are just not enough good female snowboarders out there.” Which is simply untrue. Every year there are more women trying to get into these events yet there continues to be less and less spots for them.
Throughout all of the series we have the least spots available for newcomers to showcase their skills and try to make it onto the Freeride World Tour. I know personally there at dozens of women trying to get into the Freeride World Qualifying events where they also are given the smallest number of chances to qualify and then the cut for finals sometimes only leaves 2-6 women the field. This also happens on the Freeride World Junior events where at a s recent competion they cut a field of 4 to 2 in finals. There are 3 spots on a podium, so why would you cut the field so small you can’t even have a competitor in each spot? On top of that, unlike every other category that takes the top 2-3 riders from each of the 2 regions, we only take the top 1. That only gives 2 new women a chance to make the tour each season.
Now imagine that you are on the qualifying series, you have a great season, make it to the “challenger finals” only to see that 3 women from the Freeride World Tour can automatically come straight into the finals and don’t have to go through an entire season of qualifying like you did. It’s very discouraging, it hurts the progression of the sport and takes away spots from women who have earned their spots there by participating in the event series all season and help build the series by paying into the entry fees and events themselves.
This could be easily solved by increasing the number of women throughout all of the feeder events and especially on the FWT to at least the same amount as the ski women (10) or snowboard men(9). The fact that there are 23 ski men on the FWT shows how much more priority that category has if it wasn’t clear by the amount of promotion they get on the tours social channels, sharing of content, and preferential drop times to ensure the most people tune into the livestream when the ski men drop.
We have to ride the same mountain, in the same conditions, spend the same amount of time, energy, and money to travel and compete on these venues. Most of the time these venues are downright unsafe and far below the standard of what a professional Freeride contest should be held on. Due to multi year contracts that they sign with these resorts we are stuck continually going back to places that have less and less snow every year. Yet we keep going back and pushing our luck. We are fortunate there have been no fatalities yet.
I’ve personally watched a lot of friends get hurt by hitting rocks that didn’t used to be showing in February. Or simply getting unlucky by getting hung up on a takeoff for a cliff or hitting variable punchy snow on a landing that they were in the perfect position to land. The problem is that the livestream seems to be more important than our safety at this point. A perfect example would be at the first event in Spain this season after a forerunner set off a sizeable avalanche on the face and exposed more rocks than before, the snowboard women category (who 8 of 10 times has to go first) were pushed into helicopters before having a full debrief of the situation where we all had major concerns regarding our safety. Instead of listening to our concerns we were told we had to get in the helicopters “right now” so they could start the livestream on time. When we arrived at the top none of us were checked for safety gear or had our transceivers checked to be on and working properly. That is unacceptable and not our job when we are trying to shake off the nerves after what we just witnessed and weren’t given time to digest.
As a member of the Pro Freeriders Board, which consists of 2 members (one from each region) in each category, I am a voice for my category and any other athlete who has concerns. Unfortunately my European counterpart pulled out this year due to injury so I was left to stand up for my category against the men who run this, alone. When voicing my concerns that were shared by my male counterparts on the board I was silenced, told this isn’t about me, or my category and to not make it personal.
However the only experience that I have is my own, and when I’m asked for an opinion who else’s view am I supposed to give? I know that all of the snowboard women past and current share the same feeling as I do towards this organization. The lack of effort put in towards helping us feel valued, expanding our careers by creating new brand partnerships, and helping us leverage our time on the FWT into more lucrative sponsorships and filming opportunities in almost nonexistent. Since there is so little reward for the women on this tour and most people use this as a stepping stone to hopefully move to the next parts of their career, most are afraid to stand up to this organization, because they still need to get something out of their time and efforts there.
It took until 2020 for women to finally receive equal pay after the sponsors of the Freeride World Tour firmly stated that was a requirement for their support to continue. Not because it’s the right thing to do or that they believed in it, which was directly relayed to us by the CEO of the FWT. What kind of message does that send to the female athletes, that we are not worthy in their eyes? While having equal pay is much appreciated, it shouldn’t have even been an argument in the first place. The first female judge was only brought on last season (2022), and until then all of the female athletes had been judged by a panel of 4-5 men. Would this ever be accepted if the roles were reversed and we had 4-5 women judging all men? NO.
The fact that there is a gender equity board that was created a couple of years ago, shows again that there is some serious bias happening and that this is their attempt to make it “seem” like they are doing something to change it. However, after speaking with women who work for the tour, athletes, and spectators its clear we all feel the same patriarchal system holding us down while telling us that we should be happy to be there. Why should we be happy with the scraps that are thrown our way while the male athletes on this tour don’t have to deal with the bias that is directed at us every day?
Then, layer in on top of that being from North America. North American athletes (male and female) come in at a huge disadvantage. Not only how the qualifying tour is setup, but once you arrive at the FWT the blatant favoritism towards the European riders is truly a slap in your face. It’s tough for any North American to come from the Freeride World Qualifying tour (where they never do visual inspection) and then debut on the FWT, where you only do visual inspection, puts you at a serious disadvantage compared to the riders who come from the European qualifying tour. In addition, the amount of wildcards that are handed to European riders over North American riders is staggering, and wildly unfair.
I personally got a firsthand taste of this recently. After earning my spot on this tour for the last 6 seasons I had planned to retire from the FWT after this season to pursue film projects with my sponsors and other things. But I didn’t want to get removed from the FWT by default because they changed the date of the first stop which was supposed to be in Kicking Horse, BC January 13-18th.
We received the official invite for the FWT 23 and the dates for the 5 contests on July 14, 2022. The original dates left about a month gap between stop 3 which took place before the official weather window began and the final stops which start the second week of March. During that time myself and many other athletes schedule things with our sponsors such as film trips, photoshoots, or in my case guiding tours in Japan with people who have committed to spending thousands of dollars to go snowboarding with you months in advance. When I found out that they were going to reschedule the Kicking Horse contest due to lack of snow during the exact time I was meant to be in Japan, it left me and many others in a very tough situation.
Since I am an adult who follows through with their commitments I told the FWT as soon as they cancelled that contest less than a month out on 12/21/22 that I wouldn’t be able to attend that stop therefore giving me an unfair chance to defend my win there last year and also to qualify for finals. I asked to be considered for a wildcard since I had proven myself the previous 5 seasons always making it to finals and finishing in the top 3 overall the last 3 seasons. I was told that they “never give wildcards for finals” and that I would not receive one. That really hurt, as I have seen them hand out multiple wildcards for final events to European riders, just not North Americans. This year in fact, they have already promised wildcards to multiple European riders, and last year they gave wildcards to 2 Europeans who were not freeride competitors.
It’s one thing when the same rules apply to everyone. But they clearly don’t and that is what is so upsetting. This blatant disregard for respecting all athletes the same whether they are male, female, ski, snowboard, North American, or European is baffling and to be continually told that it is “one way” when it clearly is not is extremely discouraging and downright infuriating. We are adults who are putting our bodies and sometimes lives on the line for entertainment and their profit and to be treated fairly should be the bare minimum.
I am tired of settling for the bare minimum and it bothers me that future generations of young women who want to pursue this career will still have to fight these battles that my predecessors have fought, and that I am fighting right now. It’s time to do better not because you are threatened, but because it’s the right thing to do.