Slopestyle Safety Survey
By Alyssa Roenigk / Kristi Leskinen
In 2009, freestyle skier Kristi Leskinen started a women’s-only ski slopestyle competition called the Kristi Leskinen Homecoming Invitational at her hometown mountain of Seven Springs in Pennsylvania. Her motivation for hosting the event was a desire to see if a contest featuring smaller jumps built specifically for women, where women felt comfortable throwing their toughest tricks, would encourage progression or stymie the sport. Three years in, she had her answer: “I’ve seen some of the most progressive women’s skiing ever during that contest,” she says.
But last season, she says more than half the invitees were unable to participate because of serious injuries sustained mostly at other contests. That made her question the long-term sustainability of her sport. “I wondered if there were other sports where so many top performers were unable to compete by midway through the season,” she says. “I think that would make any sport untenable, let alone a sport like ours, with so few world-class participants.” Shortly after the contest, Leskinen sat down with fellow competitors Sarah Burke and Kaya Turski and began creating a survey to send to the top slopestyle riders in the world to gauge their feelings about the current state of slopestyle courses. With the help of WAS (We are Snowboarding) and the Association of Freeski Professionals, Leskinen sent the anonymous survey to more than 100 top athletes and received 87 responses. Her findings? “A comprehensive survey of the best slopestyle skiers and snowboarders in the world shows that men and women would benefit greatly from having separate jump takeoffs in competition,” she says.
We’ll leave the breakdown of the survey to Leskinen, who has spent nearly a year working on this project with the hopes it helps improve her sport for the next generation of female athletes.
Last fall, this survey was sent to the top 25 male and female athletes in ski and snowboard slopestyle. In the end, 87 athletes voiced their opinions, with nearly an equal number of skiers, snowboarders, men and women responding to the anonymous survey. The survey had a couple of goals. The first was to find out exactly what athletes wanted to see at competitions and if there were any discipline and/or gender-specific course preferences. At contests, we have riders’ meetings, but no one ever asks us what we want to see before we arrive. And once we arrive, it’s too late to voice our opinions and concerns. So in all reality, the competitors have very little influence on course design. Also, the riders meetings do not provide a welcome audience for those athletes with contrary opinions. I wondered if, given the chance to voice their thoughts anonymously, riders would make changes to the current course setups.
The second goal was to glean information that allowed us to compare injury rates among male and female skiers and snowboarders that would allow us to see if there were discipline or gender-specific variations. We wanted the empirical evidence, and the voice of the majority, to say that we know exactly what athletes wanted in their sport.
A huge amount of data came out of this survey. We collected stats on how much practice time athletes’ want and how many runs should be in a final. We found that 75% of athletes would like to see three-run finals. We asked what shape jumps they want to see at competitions. Only 10% said their favorite jumps were step-downs, while 74% prefer the safer true tables. We asked how many features they want to see in a course and the majority answered six- to seven. We also asked riders how important it was that courses were unique (very), and what their biggest concerns were. While we collected useful information on general course design, the survey results were most interesting when comparing disciplines and genders.
In comparing skiers to snowboarders, both male and female snowboarders say their biggest concern is being unable to generate enough speed, which may be why they both said contests reflect their best riding capabilities less often than their skier counterparts. Skiers have a greater capacity to gain and reduce speed, but the ability to gain enough speed to clear the jumps should never be a concern for either group of athletes. Perhaps course designers need more time to perfect their work, or a crew to test the jumps for adequate speed before the competitors arrive. More consideration could be given to the unpredictable weather that often causes the speed problem. Snowboarders also prefer narrower rails than skiers. This goes along with the fact that 97% of those polled think it’s important to have rail options.
The most dramatic differences, however, were found when comparing the course preferences and injury rates of men to women. Men say their ideal jump size is 69 feet, while the women say their ideal jump size is 55 feet. These numbers are significant, as they mean women feel most comfortable on jumps 20% smaller than the men. The majority of women polled (67%) said the jumps at current contests are a little big, or too big, and they would be more likely to attempt harder tricks if they were given smaller jumps. The majority of men had the opposite opinion, saying the jumps were typically on the small side. Presumably, this is why women also say that competition runs reflect their best riding capabilities less often than men. They are of course, typically smaller and lighter than men, so it’s no surprise their biggest concern is being able to generate enough speed to clear the jumps. This may also explain why women say they need nearly 20% more practice time.
We also found a compelling difference in injury rates between men and women. The women surveyed say they were injured 3.5 times more often in competition than the men, though the out-of-competition difference is negligible. This may be attributable to women being pushed further past their normal training limits in competition than men. If you observe only the skiers, the female-to-male injury ratio is more significant still. Female skiers seem to be five times more likely than male skiers to get hurt during competition, though the out-of-competition difference is marginal. Add in the fact that women say they compete less often, and the pattern very clearly suggests that at current competitions, women are placing themselves at a significantly increased risk of injury relative to the men.
With the anecdotal evidence I’ve collected over the more than 13 years I’ve competed in the sport, coupled with the findings of this survey, I strongly believe that there should be separate takeoffs for men and women in competition. I think it would be hugely beneficial to the future of our sport. It would allow men to complete their doubles and triples, and at the same time allow women to progress their tricks with less risk of injury, and less fear to hold them back.
Nearly every other sport in the world has come to the conclusion that making adaptations for women is better for the sport. The women of the LPGA don’t hit from the same tees as the men of the PGA. Female gymnasts compete in different events, and use completely different equipment. Female basketball players use a smaller ball and play shorter games. Women play softball, not baseball. The women’s championship surf tour is separate from the men’s and every time Lindsey Vonn wins a World Cup race event, she does so on a women’s-specific course. These sports have been around decades longer than ours, and I believe it’s time we learn from them. Female skiers and snowboarders would progress their sports more quickly given a more suitable field on which to compete.
There’s no question these sports are dangerous. It’s part of the allure. But my hope is that the information found by this survey helps develop our sports into the future, and that the next generation of athletes will be happier, and safer because of it.
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