A Change Of Course

Too big or not too big? That is the question for women’s slopestyle

Photo: Erik Seo

Slopestyle veteran Kaya Turski felt out of place at last year's U.S. Grand Prix. She barely recognized the cast at the top of the course, with most of slopestyle's familiar faces forced to the sideline. Among others, Keri Herman and Ashley Battersby sat with concussions, joining Meg Olenick, who had a torn ACL--the fourth in her six-year career. "It was just like, 'Where is everybody?'" says Turski. "Everybody was injured."
While injury is an inevitable part of skiing and competition, the women's field has been disproportionately affected. Females are getting hurt three and a half times more often in competition than their male counterparts, according to the responses of an anonymous survey of 100 male and female skiers and snowboarders conducted last March by former pro Kristi Leskinen, with help from Turski and other athletes.
Speed is the major on-course issue, leading female athletes to come up short on jumps or skip features altogether. On last year's Winter X course, gold medalist Jamie Anderson was the only competitor in women's snowboarding slopestyle to string together two complete runs (out of three).
So how does women's slopestyle increase safety and maintain its competitive integrity?
The issue acts as a point of contention among female skiers, as many feel that safety measures would limit a sport that has fought so long for gender equality. Both sides argue that progression is at stake, and course design has quickly become the epicenter of the argument.
"Sometimes I feel as though it's more who can get down the course... as opposed to everyone feeling comfortable and throwing down their best run," says Turski, the three-time Winter X Slopestyle gold medalist. "It's more of, 'OK, I'm surviving.'"
Turski, who has endured two ACL reconstructions, pancreatic surgery, and dislocated shoulders, thinks competition organizers should address the rate of injury. Though she admits there isn't a perfect solution, Turski wrote on her blog last April suggesting events implement a second course with smaller jumps--a "ladies tee" she called it. The 24-year-old Canadian added that, because of their anatomic disadvantage, women are "just not as fast as the guys." In addition to safety implications, she feels smaller takeoffs will lead to more complete runs, putting trick progression first and amplitude second.
"I've seen so many people wreck themselves after trying to get enough speed, straight airing a jump, and coming up short," says Turski. "Where's the progression there?"
While Turski argues evolution is stunted by current jump sizes, some competitors think cutting back will regress the sport. Olenick, a member of the U.S. Freeskiing Slopestyle Team and WX Games veteran, says that, "People want to see that girls can do the same thing that guys can."
Echoing the opinion of several peers, including two-time Winter X silver medalist Herman, Olenick feels that separate courses could marginalize competition. "I think as female skiers we have pushed so hard for equality...that if there was a separate course we would kind of be taking a step back," she says. "Even if tricks are progressing on small jumps, if the big jump is built correctly, you should be able to do the tricks on big jumps, as well."
As concerns build, F.I.S. Freestyle Coordinator Joe Fitzgerald says they will take measures to reduce injury in the upcoming Olympics in Sochi, including entertaining double takeoffs or pushing takeoffs forward for women. The latter, suggested by Turski in her blog post, would require men's and women's events to run on separate days to allow for course modification, and both changes would require an added cost for competition organizers.
While the F.I.S. seemed open to exploring their options, changes have yet to be officially implemented, a frustrating realization for some.
"Sometimes I'm more intimidated than I think I should be at an event where I'm supposed to showcase my talent and best tricks," says Turski. "I just don't think that's the way it should be."