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|October 16-22, 2008
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These mavens have broken records, stereotypes, boundaries and glass ceilings
by Mary Catherine O’Connor
It’s hard to think of any comment more grating than “You’re pretty good ... for a girl.” In 1972 the United States passed Title IX, the law that made it illegal to exclude females from participation in sports — or any educational pursuit — that receives federal financial assistance. It was landmark legislation that led to significant changes by allowing athletes to develop skills from a young age and participate in organized sports. But there is no Title IX for a young woman who wants to, say, climb El Capitan in Yosemite or ski near-vertical slopes in Alaska.
Women have always participated in outdoor pursuits — many of the earliest Samoan surfers were female, and women were ascending the Matterhorn and Mount Blanc before 1900 (and in cumbersome dresses). But the landscape has changed quite a bit, and women are into everything from motocross to BASE jumping. Sure, stereotypes persist, but the level of respect and acceptance that women receive today just for wanting to get outside and play the same games the boys are playing is well beyond what we’ve ever enjoyed before.
And we owe that to the trailblazers — the women who tested limits, pushed buttons and nudged nay-sayers out of their way to achieve their goals. We highlight a few of them here, but there are hundreds of others, some older and some younger, who have done the same.
These women are trailblazers because of more than just their athletic prowess. Mountain biker Jacquie Phelan, skateboarder Cara-Beth Burnside and surfer Layne Beachley are trailblazers because they refused to be treated like second-class competitors and have fought to close the pay disparity between men and women in their respective sports.
Some women inspire us by not just what they’ve accomplished physically but also what they’ve achieved as pioneers, as ambassadors or as torchbearers. Mountain biker Marla Streb started competing at the relatively ancient age of 28 and is now beginning her third career, and freeskier Wendy Fisher blazed a new trail by having the guts to take a break from competing to start a family and become a coach for the next generation of freeskiers.
Others are trailblazers because their passion extends well beyond the confines of their athletic endeavors. Take extreme skier and climate-change educator Alison Gannett, or Tina Basich and Shannon Dunn, pioneers in women’s snowboarding who also helped found the 12-year-old awareness and fundraising charity Boarding for Breast Cancer.
These women have proven to be bad-asses in their sports and role models for the next generation, and the trails they’ve blazed have affected the outdoor industry in ways we’ll see for years to come.
In 1965 a Gidget-like young woman from San Diego named Patti McGee was pictured on the cover of Life magazine on a skateboard. She’s shown riding along, la-dee-da, in a handstand. The headline: “The craze and menace of SKATEBOARDS.” Patti was the national skateboard champion of 1964, back when girls were just as likely to be on a skateboard as boys were. That all changed in the 1970s, as the sport moved from goofy exhibition to serious, testosterone-fueled competition. It stayed that way for a long, long time.
But in the background, there were still girls riding skateboards. One was Cara-Beth “CB” Burnside, born in Orange County in 1968.
As a girl she was a regular at her local skate park, where she earned some sponsorships and won some competitions. But by the late 1980s, the girls division was eliminated and she didn’t have many options. She turned her attention to more mainstream sports during college, but she never stopped loving her board.
After college CB started snowboarding and she excelled. By 1995 she was ranked second in the world and later earned a spot on the inaugural Olympic snowboarding team, placing fourth in the women’s halfpipe in Nagano.
She kept at it for a few more years, but her attention was turning back to skateboarding.
By 2000 there still wasn’t exactly a welcome mat rolled out for women who wanted to skateboard competitively, so CB and other notable female skaters, including Mimi Knoop and Jen O’Brien, pushed open the doors. As with snowboarding, CB dominated in halfpipe events and took gold in both the summer and winter X Games events. And she worked hard to get women equal footing in the sport, starting the Action Sports Alliance with Mimi Knoop to seek better prize money at contests and more-equitable media exposure. “We didn’t ask for a lot,” says CB. “We just wanted something that was acceptable.” And the $2,000 in prize money for the top female X Games skater was simply not acceptable, especially because the X Games is arguably the biggest event in the sport. There’d be no way for a woman to make a living as a professional skateboarder at those rates.
The group leveraged its power at the 2005 summer X Games with a threat to boycott the event, a move that resulted in more prize money for the women’s field and the broadcast of their event on television. In 2007 ESPN, which puts on the X Games, increased the top women’s skateboarding prizes to $20,000 (the top men got $50,000). CB and the Alliance are still working with ESPN, pushing for more parity in prize money and media exposure.
“CB has used her established name in skateboarding to try to make a difference for the next generation. Skateboarding is in her blood; it’s just what she loves to do, and in turn she has made great strides so the rest of us can enjoy careers from skateboarding, too,” says Mimi, who hails from Virginia. “She definitely paved the way for us by continuing to skate at a time when there were very few professional opportunities for female skaters. She carried the torch through those times so that we have a contest circuit in place today.”
Indeed, CB says the skating scene has changed remarkably in recent years. “There are a lot more girls in professional contests, and I like contests where there are more girls because it pushes me. I still want to skate good with the guys, but when girls skate together they push themselves more. Look at guys: they are pushing each other all the time.”
In surfing, the sport from which skateboarding evolved in the 1960s, a number of women mavericks have had to nudge their way into the lineup, including Australian Layne Beachley, the winningest professional woman surfer in history, with a total of six Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP) world championships (she also holds the most consecutive titles for a man or woman).
Layne has brought the National Australia Bank (NAB) into the women’s ASP circuit as a sponsor of the NAB Beachley Classic, which offers the highest total purse of any event on the women’s tour: $100,000. All the other women’s events offer an $85,000 purse (the men compete for a $320,000 purse at each of their events).
Having juggled multiple jobs and struggled financially early in her career, Layne established the Aim for the Stars Foundation (www.aimforthestars.com.au) to provide financial support to young women who are striving to reach goals, athletic or otherwise. The foundation provides grants for 12 girls each year. Oh, and did we mention that Beachley has ridden the largest wave by a woman on record? She rode a 40-foot face at Outer Log Cabins on Hawaii’s North Shore. Her success has spurred a growing field of young rippers to embrace surfing, and some of them are eking out a nice living at it.
But well before CB and Layne started rattling cages about equal — or at least fair — pay, there was Jacquie Phelan. Quite literally one of the pioneers in the sport of mountain biking — she was among the first to ride a fat-tire steed down the bumpy, rooted trails of the sport’s birthplace, Marin County, Calif. — Jacquie had little trouble winning many of the early mountain bike contests in the 1980s, even beating the men. When she was given the wrong prize envelope at a race in 1993 — she’d placed sixth overall in the race and was given the prize money meant for a sixth-place male finisher ($400) rather than the first place female finisher (a whopping $37) — she raised a stink. “I knew that if I cashed it, my name would be mud,” she says. So instead she went public about the inequity and wrote letters to all the sponsors of the event. She pushed for equal prize money for both genders in the National Off-Road Bicycle Association (NORBA), and her influence remains today. The U.S. National Series mountain-biking events, a part of NORBA, are the only ones that give equal prize money to the top three men and the top three women.
“But riders’ salaries are what really matter,” says Jacquie, who at 52 is out of the competitive scene but still rides constantly.
Marla Streb, another mountain bike maven, agrees. In 1993 at age 28, Marla shelved her career as a cytogeneticist and started racing. She has multiple U.S. National Downhill titles and took the NORBA National Downhill title nine times. She even claimed the World Single Speed Championships twice. An outspoken advocate for the sport and women’s place in it, Marla is one of the founding members of Luna Chix, a professional racing team sponsored by energy food company Clif Bar (which sells the Luna Bar).
Looking forward to the day their young, athletic daughter would chose a career, Clif Bar founder and cyclist Gary Erickson and his wife conceived of the team in 2001 as a means to nurture opportunities for women in outdoors sports. The goal of the team is to provide the same level of support, resources, and pay that men’s pro team members receive.
When Luna Chix, now in its eighth year, emerged, skeptics said an all-woman pro team on par with men’s would never last. “Many of those critics have since gone out of business and dropped out of sight, and some have even asked about working with or for us, since our team has arguably the highest profile (with probably the most highly paid women) in the country for eight years now,” says Marla.
At 43, Marla still trains and races, and she says it’s great to be competing against deeper women’s fields these days. She also devotes time to teaching clinics — something she says is more rewarding than winning contests — and supports emerging pros. She made a splash in the sports world with a cover story in Outside magazine in 2000 that included a nude black-and-white photo in which she’s poised on her mountain bike. Aside from being provocative, the photos and the accompanying story brought attention to both the sport and its female participants. “I always felt like I wanted to bring femininity to downhill (mountain bike) racing,” says Marla. “For that nude photo, I grew long hair. I was trying to be sexy. I wanted to show that you can be feminine and still get on your bike and be aggressive.” That message has sunk in. It’s no longer uncommon to see a young girl riding a downhill bike, wearing a full-face helmet.
One woman who got the message is 26-year-old Kathy Pruitt, current U.S. Nationals downhill champ. “I’ve looked up to Marla as a role model for how to promote yourself in this sport of mountain biking and, even more importantly, (how to do so) as a respectable woman,” says Kathy.
The fact is most competitive action sports have high barriers to entry for women, in terms of both the attitude held by male participants and the disparity women perceive from the industry built around the sport. But so long as the women’s competitive field continues to grow, and with it the coverage of the sport in mainstream media, the gap should continue to close.
Despite its cultural connections to skateboarding, snowboarding has traditionally been much more welcoming to women.
From early on in snowboarding’s skyrocketing popularity in the late 1990s, “there were women in powerful positions within (snowboarding) companies,” says Kathleen Gasperini, co-founder of the Label Lab, a youth branding consultancy, and a former editor at Powder and Transworld Snowboarding magazines. These women had influence on everything from women’s gear design to creating contests for female riders, she says. “This made snowboarding more of a genderless sport compared with skiing. There were almost always women’s events. Prize money is pretty equal (between men and women) in snowboarding, too.”
Kathleen says the ski industry moved at a glacial pace in accepting women into the fold. “It took a good 20 years for the ski industry to realize that women’s skiing was a viable industry; they got onboard due to what they saw in snowboarding,” she says.
Of course it wasn’t just female cash flow that piqued the ski industry’s interest in women skiers. It was also the shockingly fluid and gutsy lines that women like Wendy Fisher were laying down in increasingly popular extreme skiing contests.
In 1994, after seven years on the U.S. Ski Team, Wendy felt her passion for ski racing fade and decided to quit. Two years later she paid a visit to Kim Reichhelm in Crested Butte, Colo. Kim was also an alum of the ski team and held the title of women’s winner of the first World Extreme Skiing Championships in Valdez, Alaska, in 1991. Influenced by Kim, Wendy decided that rather than drop out of skiing altogether she’d take a stab at freeskiing.
Wendy placed third in her first freeskiing contest but quickly used her ski-racing background to identify and change what she calls the “mental mistakes” that dogged her in the first race. By 1998 she was dominating the women’s field.
Then, as the century turned, the ski industry took a shine to freeskiing in a big way, and Wendy found herself doing competitions with more mainstream publicity. Events such as the X Games and the Gravity Games started featuring skier-cross and freeriding competitions. It was no longer a fringe sport. All the while Wendy was traveling with crews of (mostly male) freeskiers to film ski movies. She did eight different films for Matchstick Productions as well as a couple of Warren Miller flicks, and she starred in a couple of ski films exclusively about women skiers and snowboarders.
Wendy says that she and other women in freeskiing films and contests, such as Alison Gannett and Kristen Ulmer, weren’t getting any special treatment. “When we were on heli trips, we all got dropped off at the same places, on the same peaks, as the men. We had to find a line to ski just like everyone else.
“I feel like I was opening doors, getting women to ski harder terrain,” Wendy says of her freeskiing career. “I think I’ve inspired women to push it, no matter what skiing level they’re at.”
Across the country, images of women skiing off huge cliffs and arcing turns down near-vertical slopes led to growing female participation in freeskiing contests and showed a younger generation of female skiers that they could get out there and give it a try, too.
Wendy pulled away from the traveling and the contests in 2006, when she and her husband, Woody Lindenmeyr, decided to start a family. Today they’re raising two sons and are teaching tomorrow’s crew of freeriding phenoms at the Crested Butte Academy.
“For all of us girls, Wendy has been a hero to look up to and emulate as an athlete,” says Lynsey Dyer, a 26-year-old freeskier. Lynsey got into freeskiing at the urging of another pioneering freeskier, her cousin, A.J. Cargill, who competed in many of the same contests as Wendy.
“We all work really hard to get where we are, but it’s never been so good for women (in freeskiing),” says Lynsey, “and absolutely it’s because of the work of Wendy and women like Alison Gannett and A.J. Cargill.
I don’t think any of them got as much recognition as they deserved in pioneering the sport.”
Wendy and the women she competed with also helped the ski industry realize that hardcore women skiers — or, more precisely, wannabe hardcore women skiers — represented a new revenue stream. As a result, ski resorts started offering women-only clinics and retreats for both skiers and snowboarders.
In mountain biking women-only instruction has roots that are 20 years deep and extend to the birthplace of the sport: Marin County in the San Francisco Bay Area. Here, Jacquie Phelan started the Women’s Mountain Bike and Tea Society (WOMBATS) in 1987 because, quite simply, she wanted to see more women on mountain bikes. Jacquie is still teaching women how to ride singletrack with aplomb, and WOMBATS has spawned many similar groups across the country.
Today female-focused training, often taught by the trailblazers themselves, abounds. Looking for an all-girl surf safari? No problem. Do you think your climbing has plateaued? We can now enjoy specialized training in the form of a girl posse getaway for just about any outdoor adventure.
These trailblazers and others like them have provided us better access, better instruction, and, for those who wish to pursue a professional sports track, more equality and increasingly equitable pay. To help improve their performance, these women also pushed for, and oftentimes helped design, woman-specific gear. Certain models of bikes, shoes, skis, snowboards and surfboards are now sized and designed specifically for our body geometry and smaller frames.
Aside from working to close the gap in pay and to broaden opportunities for women in their respective sports, a number of athletes have leveraged their celebrity — and continue to — to bring attention to their sports. Would rock climbing be nearly as popular among women in the United States were it not for legend-in-her-own-time Lynn Hill? Doubtful. Though European women had already established themselves in the climbing world, Lynn planted a seed for women’s sport climbing on this side of the pond in the late 1980s and the early 1990s. She claimed many European titles, including five wins at the elite Rock Master Invitational in Arco, Italy, and she helped foster a growing women’s field in U.S. sport-climbing comps.
In the ’90s Lynn turned her attention away from sport and indoor climbing and toward big, multipitch efforts on real rock, and here is where she really ascended into the history books. In 1993 Lynn became the first person — male or female — to free-climb the Nose route on Yosemite’s El Capitan. She did the 33-pitch climb in four days, and the next year she repeated the climb in one day.
Lynn now works as a climbing ambassador for outdoor-gear company Patagonia, giving talks and presenting slide shows around the world. She also helps raise money for environmental organizations and brings attention to cultural issues, such as the potential environmental and social impacts of the Three Gorges Dam in China.
Like Lynn, world-class skier Alison Gannett also works to make a positive impact on, not just her sport, but the world around her. Alison has started six different nonprofit organizations designed to help stop climate change. She is also a huge advocate of clean technology, and she works constantly to educate others on how they can reduce their carbon footprints.
In fact, all these women have laid sustainable trails; they’ve proven to everyone that the outside is not a man’s world and that there’s room for everyone. So is their work here done? And will it go unnoticed?
“Today you have a whole generation of young women not even knowing the hardship that we had to endure,” says Kathleen Gasperini.
But Jacquie Phelan, a voracious writer who regularly uses the f-word (that’s feminism, of course), thinks there’s still plenty of blazing left to be done and says that professional biking is still a “bastion for the patriarchy.” What’s her approach? She converts one pupil at a time and does so with a great sense of humor and empowerment, according to Heather Herless, a massage therapist from San Francisco. Heather says she was ready to “put her mountain bike in the closet” because she was having a hard time with the sport. Her boyfriend signed her up for Jacquie’s class as a present.
“I gained so much confidence and fell in love with my bike again,” says Heather. “Jacquie broke it down, she took the time to learn my riding style and customize her instruction.” Jacquie pointed out that a bad set of brakes was making riding even harder for Heather. “Jacquie said that when men are not riding well, they blame it on the equipment, but when a woman doesn’t ride well, it’s assumed that the problem is her skill level,” recalls Heather. A quick fix-it job on her brakes proved to Heather that the problem hadn’t been her skill level at all. The problem had been that she didn’t think she could ride. Once she realized she could, it was a whole new day.
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