A Confession: I’m part of snowboarding’s problem

Like a boiling political topic at a party where I don’t know many people, I don’t always mention that I snowboard. The skiing versus snowboarding debate isn’t as vocal as it once was, but it remains plenty palpable. You can feel it in the lift lines, a shared eye-roll or pause in conversation from the skiing couple with whom I slide through the lift gates. It’s ridiculous, but I play the game.

When I can, I serve as an impromptu ambassador for snowboarding. If the debate surfaces, I approach it calmly and with humor; I posit an indifferent stance with comments like, “Whatever gets you down the mountain,” and “Whoever is having the most fun wins.” I bought Flow bindings so I never sit in front of the exit ramp and I strike up lift conversations to ensure my seat-mates know I’m not a monosyllabic dope addict—anything to show that I’m a relatively decent, functioning member of what makes the world go ’round.

Moreover, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve provided a stable edge or shell-clad shoulder for a yard-sold skier to re-assemble themselves along a steep slope.

“When I can, I serve as an impromptu ambassador for snowboarding.”

That being said, as many friends will attest to, I’m a pretty argumentative guy when pressed; and I have a full bandolier of pointed retorts on the issue should I encounter an overt antagonist.

All my stewardship aside, on a recent day at The Canyons, I did snowboarders a serious disservice. Even though it wasn’t any one thing I did, I feel pretty rotten about it. It was a mutual near-miss, but I caught the brunt of it because of the type of recreational equipment I choose to attach to my feet.

The last run of the day found our mixed group cruising through a connected boulevard of beginner and moderate runs to make it to the village. I picked up my speed before approaching a relatively flat trail connector, buoyed by days of guy-trip testosterone and pointless competitiveness to be the first down.

So far, so good.

With speed increasing, I noticed a young girl in some slope-side muck struggling to get upright. For a moment I thought to help, but another skier was side stepping back up to her, so I veered center, not noticing a ski instructor and three of her young charges, all on skis, and not one more than six-years-old.

I impulsively bailed, scraping and skipping along the patchy groomer right at one of children. His cute, neon-orange ski school jersey rushed at me like the end of a tunnel in front of my bullet train.

“… in times of stress, it’s best to let the flames of panic constrict to a simmer before executing a response to the situation.”

The staccato of metal snowboard edge on hard snow slowed its repetition just enough for me to lift my board nose up and around his little goggled head, and I rolled to a cold cloudy stop next to him. Everyone was intact.

In the midst of the crash, I could make out only the words “Slow down!” in the instructor’s very public admonishment. But I heard enough to know she was unwaveringly apoplectic.

I consider myself relatively calm in the midst of sudden stress. Whether it’s an unclear off-trail intersection 20 miles deep into the backcountry or standing on a stage in front of a few hundred strangers, I know that in times of stress, it’s best to let the flames of panic constrict to a simmer before executing a response to the situation.

The instructor shuffled over to the girl who I spotted initially, helped her up and sent her on her way. I sat silent still as she corralled the kids to the edge of the run, even when a soft voice peeped out from behind a tiny facemask, reminding me that I “Should look where I’m going.”

That hurt, and I had no response. The little tyke was right.

Even though I wasn’t completely at fault.

Truth is, it doesn’t matter how it happened. I had no right to even attempt to verbalize my stance on the incident to a child who was a stroke of luck away from being hospitalized. He was standing just in front of the instructor, so odds are she too might have ended up on crutches.

With all the kids in line and ready, I skated slowly up to the instructor and offered a very honest, self-effacing apology. She would hear none of it, still seething and demanding I get away from her. I pleaded. “Get out of here!”

And that was that.

I finished the run, my speed hampered by an anchor of guilt. I reminded myself that it didn’t really matter that she stopped three small children in the middle of a busy run. That she didn’t see me bank and initially slow to help the girl struggling to lift herself back on to the run. That I wasn’t out of control or a beginner in over his helmet. That people obeying the speed limit get in car accidents every day. That sometimes things just happen.

However, when “things happen” that involve a snowboarder and three minute skiers in the middle of a crowded lift-served slope, the events leading up to those things have no real place in the explanation.

“I finished the run, my speed hampered by an anchor of guilt.”

Most of the guys on the trip have small kids. I know a couple of them quite well, and they’ll be in ski school when we go back up there in a few weeks. It hurt(s) to think about one of them being crushed and broken by an errant snowboarder.

Or skier.

I would hate to have robbed a child of the winter experience, force-feed them a fear of cold speed and light powder. His little face is still straight in my eye line.

I have no problem taking the blame for something that didn’t happen. Nothing did, after all. No one was hurt; and maybe I want a little credit for being aware enough to avoid injuring anyone. Or maybe I don’t deserve any. I’m not sure where I come out on the whole thing.

What I didn’t avoid—and take all accountability for—is imprinting on that kid’s mind the idea that snowboarders are reckless, inconsiderate speed freaks. He’ll probably forever and incorrectly believe that skiing is somehow a more “pure” way to enjoy snow. Maybe he’ll even bully a little buddy of his who wants to try snowboarding. I just hope he still likes to ski, that he came away from his time in ski school unscathed, and with his wind-red cheeks peeled open by an ever-widening grin of stoke when his parents load him into the gondola to get french fries and sit by the fire.

I’m indifferent about what the instructor thinks. Her mind was made up before I got off the lift that afternoon. That much was clear.

And I was the last one down the mountain.

Lindsey Vonn and the spectacle of great female athletes

Lindsey Vonn is as physically captivating as she is athletically accomplished.

Considering just how great a skier she is, that’s saying a lot. So why isn’t that enough?

But let’s not kid ourselves, her looks matter. A lot. (Just ask Google.)

If for no other reason than to celebrate the athletic body over the mop handle-thin runway figure, I’m all for seeing the bodies of athletic women revealed in sweaty sauna room photo shoots and against the pocked brick walls of a hipster loft above some affluent ski town’s craft cider bar. However, what does that do for the athlete other than drag her into yet another droll, pop-culture debate about whether she’s really good or just really hot?

Those in the know, know. Those who glean world news from magazine cover shots and 64-point headlines in Aerial Black simply have yet another woman in sports known for being a pretty good skier but more importantly, for how she looks in ski boots and a sports bra. And without fail, she’ll be condescendingly propped up by the fascinatingly vacuous entertainment news world with vacant turns of phrase like “Girl is in shape” and “She’s single guys!”

Does this kind of exposure advance the cause of promoting women’s fitness or only further weigh it down? What’s it do for the great female athletes who don’t resemble the heroine in a Frank Frazetta painting?

We simply can’t help but reduce our best women into sex symbols. Sure, she’s making the most of her opportunities. She’s smart. Ms. Vonn knows athletic prowress fades and injuries haunt every gate. Get what you can, when you can. Certainly there are more than enough editors, producers and sponsors to help you do that.

I can tell you this, the more half-nude cover shots (sigh) the iconic Lindsey Vonn does, the less of a chance she’s going to have of being accepted by the guys. At least by the guys that matter.

On that note, why does it matter if she can compete against the guys? Ultimately, I don’t see the point. The more often we juxtapose women against men the wider the divide becomes. Billy Jean King wiped the court with a loudmouth chauvinist decades ago and yet, we’re still in the same place, aren’t we? Every great female athlete does not have to be turned into someone else’s cause.

The best male skiers know exactly what she’s capable of. Her trainers, coaches and ski circuit writers know what she can do. Why do we have to dumb-down accomplishment for the sake of a vapid pop-culture cover story? It seems to me that we’re growing ever more desperate to ensure those who don’t matter understand what’s being talked about. Far too much time is spent contributing to the din of the unsophisticated.

I could see it now: Red Bull sponsors it. ESPN2 covers it. And Outside blogs about it. She wins or loses. Either way, we’ll still never know who’s better. But it sure will garner a lot of tweets. It just won’t do much for the acceptance of women as equal athletes.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe some aspiring young skier can see through the rouge and cover art exclamation marks and envisions herself on the podium wearing gold, not sprawled across a cat track in a two-piece. If even one young girl is inspired to that level of greatness, maybe that’s enough. Provided of course, that’s the intent of what’s happening today.

Now look to the window, and could we darken the eye liner a bit?