I, and probably every other girl that started snowboarding in the mid 90s, wanted to be like Nicole Angelrath. She was so pretty, always had a smile on her face and was riding damn well. She was only a few years older than me but riding with guys such as Jamie Lynn, Jeff Brushie and Terje Haakonsen!
How did this petite Swiss lady turn into one of the world’s best female snowboarders? Everything started with a simple question from an American journalist: “How does it feel to be world champion?” It was Nicole Angelrath’s second winter on a snowboard when she flew to the States in 1990 to participate in her first contest in Breckenridge. Nicole recalls: “I won the first discipline, moguls, and immediately a camera team came up to me and bombarded me with questions in English that I didn’t understand. I almost burst into tears, when Serge Vitelli saw my precarious situation and acted as my interpreter. So he asked me how I was feeling as the brand new world champion. I stared at him and asked: ‘These are the world championships? Wow!’ I really had no idea!” The next day, Nicole was a little bit more nervous because she knew what the contest was all about, but she also managed to win the halfpipe with Shaun Palmer.
“I just became pro. It wasn’t a goal,” Nicole says. “After success in Breckenridge, Burton really wanted me in their pro team. I turned them down for a whole summer as my parents wanted me to finish school. But at some point they agreed to let me take the risk and I signed my first contract.” Nicole stayed with Burton for her whole professional career that would last ten years. She travelled from contest to contest, winning every contest she entered on her first pro season. She was the first female freestyle snowboarder from Europe to get worldwide coverage.
“I could go over the lip on the first hit in the pipe, grab my board if you didn’t blink your eyes and throw alley-oop McTwists at the bottom of the pipe,” Nicole modestly answers when asked about her role as pioneer in women’s snowboarding, and it seems as if she isn’t quite conscious of her influence on it. Stine Brun Kjeldaas remembers: “When I started snowboarding in 1991, Nicole Angelrath was the big star on the circuit! My first year of snowboarding, Daniel Franck, my boyfriend at the time, told me how amazing she was. I got really jealous and swore to myself that one day I would show him that I could ride like her.”
Stine’s career would lead her to win several halfpipe world titles and Olympic silver, but at that time Nicole was still on top, taking the halfpipe title at the first ISF (International Snowboarding Federation) world championships in Ischgl, Austria, and joining her young Norwegian team-mate Terje Haakonsen on the podium. And while Haakonsen was the idol of all snowboarding guys in my class, I adored Nicole.
Her riding was delicate and extreme at the same time. She showed textbook method airs, clean backside 540s and sometimes 720s in the pipe, and proved that being a petite girl doesn’t mean you can’t go big. “I had two sides: on the one hand I had to be tough like the men. There was no complaining about pain or fear. If you wanted to ride with the guys, the rule was ‘Shut up and ride!’ But my public image was cute and pretty,” says Nicole. She believed those who thought that the European snowboarding scene only had women on race boards and that the girls should leave the freestyle to Americans such as Tina Basich and Shannon Dunn.
In 1994, Nicole broke her shoulder but the doctors didn’t notice how bad the injury was and, for the first time in her life, she was confronted with her biggest enemy – fear. “I couldn’t move my arm properly when I wanted to spin and kept landing on my shoulder. I still won the Halfpipe World Cup in 1995 but it felt like a rip-off since my riding was so bad. I stopped competing in 1996 and started freeriding and did promotion and product development for Burton,” Nicole remembers. At that time, other girls such as Stine Brun Kjeldaass, Satu Jarvelaand Nicola Thost were coming on strong. It was the perfect time to stop.
In 1998, Nicole met the Finish rider Wille Yli-Luoma. Two years later, they decided to have a baby. She laughs: “But we didn’t think I would get pregnant on the first shot! But when Lilou was born in 2000, it was the perfect opportunity to stop my career and start a normal life.” Unfortunately, the relationship didn’t survive the changes. “We were good at being boyfriend and girlfriend, sucked as a family and are doing great again as a separated family.” But it wasn’t easy for Nicole to give up her pro snowboarder life and become a housewife. “Snowboarders are treated like rock stars and from one day to another you become no-one and jobless. Most of them are totally lost after their career. When real life hits you, it is tough. Lots of us are going through serious depression and some even committed suicide.” But Nicole got on her feet again, working as snowboard events organiser for CK Watches, and is now studying ethiopathy at university. Together with her boyfriend, Roch, and daughter, Lilou, she is now living in the city where she was born, Le Landeron in French Switzerland. Wille is living in Portland, USA, with his girlfriend, and Lilou visits them every summer for several weeks. “In Lilou’s mind, they are the cool parents, being snowboarders and photographers. We are the boring parents, putting down the rules and being skiers! But since Lilou really wants to snowboard this season, we might put the skis aside and both stick to our snowboards.
“I want to get back in the park and learn my spins again. And Lilou said that she wants to jump! Since she’s got good balance on a skateboard and on a surfboard, she will soon be the one teaching me tricks!”
Nicole thanks: Lasse/Oakley, Steffi, Hasi and Birgit/Burton and Arlette/Volcom (it is her ‘fault’ that I started snowboarding!)