Last winter a survey, spearheaded by pro skier Kristi Leskinen, was sent out to a random sampling of pro skiers and snowboarders asking what size jumps they prefer in a slopestyle course. Based on the responses -- 62-percent of women prefer 50- to 60-foot jumps while the same percentage of men claimed to prefer 70- to 80-feet -- the argument was made that the level of progression in women's competitions would increase, with a corresponding decrease in incidence of injury, if contest jumps were made smaller for females. (The women surveyed say they were injured 3.5 times more often in competition than the men.)
This assertion sparked an almost immediate reaction among elite-level female snowboard competitors. The counter-argument, spearheaded by X Games Slopestyle multi-medalist Spencer O'Brien, was that jump construction, not size, determines progression-level and safety of athletes, and that to create smaller jumps for women would be moving the sport backwards.
Then X Games Aspen 2013 came around, two female skiers were injured coming up short on the slopestyle course jumps, and speculation about jump size started to circulate again. This time it came from the spectators themselves watching the contest live in Aspen.
Meanwhile, Spencer O'Brien maintained her stance against the construction of male and female-specific slopestyle courses.
The following interview is taken from two separate conversations with O'Brien: one this past fall, and one more recently at the Burton U.S. Open, where she took first in slopestyle.
XGames.com: Kristi Leskinen made a point that when you ask the women if they want to ride on the same course as men the answer will always be "yes," but if you ask men and women what size they like their jumps they always give different answers. The responses to the survey seem to support this.
Spencer O'Brien: There was one girl on the survey who said her favorite size jump is 80 feet, and I'm sure there were a few men whose ideal size was 50 feet. Everyone has their own preference. At the end of the day, what's important is finding a balance so everyone is happy and the course is safe.
What's an example of a "perfect" slopestyle course?
The best riding I've ever witnessed from a full field was at the X Games in Tignes last year. The jumps were just a good size. Everyone landed technical runs. I think it really pushed the level of women's slopestyle.
Describe your "perfect" jump: size, shape, lip, landing.
My perfect jump would be 65- to 70- foot step-over. The take-off and landing would match in degrees and the landing would be long. Ideally, there shouldn't be much impact when you land, and the take-off should be smooth.
So you don't think the jumps at the X Games in Aspen this year were too big?
X Games this year was by far the best slopestyle course I've ever hit. It was so well built. The jumps were big, but you could still feel safe doing your tricks on them. That was the quickest I've ever taken to an X Games course. I mean, first day I was almost doing my full run, which never happens. So I didn't think that course was too big and I think the level of riding showed that.
But there were some pretty significant injuries on the ski side of the women's competition. That's another one of Leskinen's points -- about the rate of injury being higher for women then it is for women.
Well, I know women's skiing -- and skiing in general last year -- had a ton of people taken out. That sport was hit really hard last year with injuries. Women's slopestyle for snowboarding wasn't. We're riding a lot of the same courses ... I don't know why girl skiers are getting hurt more often than snowboarders. But I don't think those injury rates speak to snowboarding.
Is there maybe a way that the girl skiers hit the jumps that's different?
When I watch the girl skiers ride, I'm so impressed. They do such technical and big spins -- off any jump. So I really don't know why there's been so much talk about women needing smaller courses 'cause when I watch the girls I don't see hesitation. In the last few years I've only seen progression.
My opinion on jump size and course sizes is different than a lot of people's. I know there are a lot of girls that feel the same as I do ... and a lot of girls that don't --- and that's within both the ski and the snowboard community. I'm pretty passionate in my opinion about it, but ... I just think girls have been riding really well and we should be proud of where we are and what we're hitting.
You have been against the "women's tee" (ed. different take-off options on the same jump) since you started competing in 2006. Why?
My biggest issue is that it makes judging much more inconsistent. Every contest used to have smaller take-offs and there was almost always a divide in opinion on who should have won.
How can you judge a contest fairly when half the field is hitting a different course? Is hitting a bigger jump worth more than spinning an extra 180 on the smaller one? I feel like if you're a rider on the pro tour, competing at the highest level in your sport, you should be hitting the same jumps as everyone else.
How have things changed since the separate jump sizes were eliminated?
The judging has improved and the level of the field as a whole has risen. It creates a more even playing field when everyone is hitting the same jumps -- it pushes everyone to progress at a similar pace. You can't get away with winning with 360s just because you're hitting the bigger jump. You always have to do your best tricks, and technicality will be rewarded evenly because there's no small jump to make the judges doubt your ability.
Do you think the answer might be having feeder contests with smaller jumps, where riders of both genders who are just getting their bearings in the contest world can get style and trick mastery down before they get to "the main event?"
I feel like this debate links back to a lot of issues in snowboarding -- and this is a big one:
We need a proper World Tour, with a proper qualifying tour. ASP, in surfing, is the perfect example of a World Tour with a proper qualifying tour under it. It's an example I would like to see snowboarding follow.
For me, when I was coming up as an am I went from doing the smallest contests at local hills to the U.S. Open and Triple Crown and I was scared s---less. I was not ready.
Kids coming up shouldn't be thrown into the deep end and told to figure it out; they shouldn't be scared at their first-ever pro event. They should be prepared and ready to take the next step.
If there was a proper qualifying, grass-roots tour, with course standards and smaller jumps that allowed ams to progress before turning pro, I think you'd see more participation in the sport, less injuries and a higher level of riding overall.
If boys and girls start snowboarding at the same age these days, why do you think there's such a big difference in the rate of progression between genders?
That's a can of worms and a half right there. ... We aren't at the same level of the men, but the gap is closing, and maybe it's possible that down the line there won't even be a gap. You never know. This is a great time in women's snowboarding and I'm excited to see what happens next.