Spencer O'Brien Talks Progression - Onboard Magazine

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SPENCER O'BRIEN TALKS PROGRESSION

Awesome to see girls landing back 9s and front 10s, but the switch back 180 is still a timeless classic. Spencer knows. Photo: Sami Tuoriniemi

We first met Spencer at the Nike Chosen Session, where she floored us by (wo)manning up to fire front 3s and 5s over the 25m wedge of destiny that had a lot of the dudes making excuses not to hit. Fast forward a few years and she’s the reigning slopestyle World Champ from Oslo 2012, made waves with her arguments to eliminate the ‘women’s tee’, and is now throwing back 9s in her slope runs consistently. On her board she’s a frickin’ badass; off it she’s chill as hell and loves Europe. En route to Canada from the bar-raising hammer fest that was the 9 Queens in Serfaus, she swung through Munich so we grabbed her for a coffee and a chat…

You’ve just recently been at the 9 Queens in Serfaus. Can you describe your experience of that whole event?

Yeah, 9 Queens was really awesome this year actually. Last year it got moved from Serfaus to Livigno, and they really kinda made the change kinda last minute so I think Nico [Zacek – 9 Queens organiser] was kind of bummed because it wasn’t really the full 9 Queens experience, how they usually have it, and I kinda like didn’t have the best time there last year and I wasn’t sure if I’d go to it again. But I was like whatever, I’ll go it will be fun, and yeah it was like the coolest week. They really treat you like a queen, the entire time you’re there. It’s just cool, all the little details they think of, that they put into it. It’s really nice to be treated like that at an event. Then just the feature itself was just obviously so cool, like one of the best builds I think I’ve ever seen.

What was it like to hit, like was it a good jump? Because aesthetically it looked great but sometimes…

It was a pretty good jump. Aesthetically it looked perfect, right? It was a bit of an interesting jump, it got better throughout the week. There was kind of a bit of a compression leading into the takeoff, but the landing was really nice – like no impact at all and it was kinda like a true table. As the week went on it just got better and better, and once Jamie [Anderson] threw that front 10 it just… the week was kinda just mulling along and then it just went to another level.

Was that [moment] the catalyst for all the other girls to push their own riding?

I think so. She kinda did that out of nowhere, too. We had a sunrise shoot so everyone was doing photo tricks and when the sunrise was over the session was starting to wind down, and Jamie had been doing a bunch of front sevens. Then all of a sudden.. the most perfect front 10. We were just like, “Where did that come from?!”

What was the reaction from everyone?

Everyone was super, super stoked. It was really cool. The next day we had the heli shoot… we had a really long day that day, a lot of different shoots, and the day before too, so everyone was pretty tired going up for the heli shoot, but it was just cool: once the helicopter showed up people kinda went nuts. It was just one thing after another for an hour-and-a-half. I’ve never seen anything like it, and I’ve never been so inspired and motivated by watching other women ride in that environment. It was so special and something that I’d never been a part of.

Did it happen organically? Or did you girls talk about it, like ‘Jamie’s done that, fuck, I want to try this.’?

It was super organic. I don’t know… the heli showed up and the whole energy just changed. Like everyone was like ‘Alright, it’s go time.’ I think I started trying back 9s and then Klaudia [Medlova] started trying double back rodeo 9s… everyone just kept seeing one and other doing stuff and it just got better and better and better. I got back 9s, she landed double back rodeo 9s, Jamie did switch back 9 then she did Cab 9 then she did Cab 10… Then I learned front 9 and other girls were trying 10s… It was just super cool. And even the skier girls all of them were killing it and doing stuff they’d never done before and it was literally every three or four hits people were screaming at the top, just super excited. I think the sport progressed probably about 10 years in one hour.

But there’s been all girls sessions before and I don’t remember a gathering where the level of riding has skyrocketed so quickly. Why do you think it happened in Serfaus?

I think it was a lot of things coming together at the right time. I think the sport’s been ready for that for a while and I think a lot of girls have been capable of it. It’s maybe just a matter of just trying, and maybe there hasn’t been the right conditions or the right atmosphere or whatever. So I think it was a lot of things. It was a lot of people being ready to take that step and to learn those tricks and then also a good jump and a good crew and a lot of motivation. It was really just that environment and the way that everyone felt… seeing people do something you’ve been thinking about on the exact feature that you’re hitting? It makes it seem so possible and so tangible.

So there was kind of a contest thing, but it was kind of loose, right?

Yeah, and it was the last day. It was cool, just basically a jam session…

I’m struggling to think if that’s happened on such a jump, with such a crew, before. It must really fire people up and get rid of a lot of the pressure of judging or crowds or live streams or whatever. Did you find that?

Yeah. It’s always different. We’ve talked about it before with competition, it’s like a lot of pressure and a lot of stress but it’s a mindset that you can’t really replicate outside of a contest run. You try, because you want to be able to practice that mindset and practice the way you ride within it, but when you’re at an event and everything comes together like that you see people ride the best they’ve ever ridden. Even though it’s in this super stressful environment. I think it’s kind of the same with shooting – you can’t really replicate it just riding the park by yourself. It’s just a different mindset that you have to reach and it doesn’t happen all the time, but it definitely happened at 9 Queens. You saw it with so many girls learning new tricks, and first evers…

A lot’s been said about the progression of women’s snowboarding in recent years and how it’s not progressed as quickly as it could have done. Firstly, would you agree with that?

Erm, yes and no. I mean we get a lot of shit for not doing doubles and triples and being on the same level as the men… but I’m with all those girls all the time and I know for myself and for them, everyone is working super hard and always trying to progress and push. We actually had a big discussion about this in Laax and Kelly [Clark] said something interesting: it’s not that women are never going to get there, it’s just we’re going to get there in a different way. And it might not be the same way the men took or be the same timeline. For me, I’ve always wanted to be a well-rounded rider and I’ve always wanted to be able to spin all four directions. I’ve been able to do front 7s for a really long time, but I wanted to be able to do all the 7s before I learned how to do 9s. And in the last year I’ve learned all the 7s and three of the 9s and it’s like something finally clicked for me. I don’t necessarily think that it’s like women aren’t trying or we don’t want to progress, it’s just we do it in a different way, and I think this [9 Queens] was a huge breakthrough for women’s snowboarding.

Another thing that I’d be interested to hear your opinion on, because I’ve heard it a few times, not just from female riders, is that for a lot of girls the only way that they can make a career in snowboarding is to do the contest circuit, and when you do that you have a lot less time to learn new stuff.

Yeah, absolutely. And I think you see it a lot when girls come in… like Christy Prior actually said it to me this year I think. She was like “It’s crazy how much less time I have to snowboard for myself now, I don’t have time to practice and to learn.” You’re always on this contest circuit and you do get stuck in a rut of doing the same run over and over again all year long, because you have to be able to land it. It’s very rare that you’ll have stomped the best run you could possibly do on a slopestyle run, so I’ll just try a trick I’ve never done. It links back to how we’re trying to get into Big Air and we want to be a part of that because we’ve seen the progression that men have had. Every new trick has been done at a big air contest before it’s been done in a slopestyle run. And it’s because you have that opportunity – like I’ve done the best trick I can possibly do on this jump. There’s not two more jumps after it and a few rails, I can just go and send it and try something I haven’t done before. X Games a few years ago, you saw almost every dude in finals learned a new trick in finals. I think having that for women, and having that space between contest that you can progress… I think that would be super helpful.

That’s good you said that because now I don’t have to ask the next question, because you already answered it! But I get why it’s often the safer option that’s taken in a contest, because if you go all in and explode then you’ll end up with nothing, or judges will always score a clean trick higher than a fall or one with a scabbed landing. But where’s the solution? Is there plans to try to get more of the kind of session you’ve just been at going? Is that something that’s been talked about?

Yeah, everyone after that was like ‘how do we replicate this? How do we keep this going?’ But it was just last week so nothing’s come up yet. Obviously money, it costs a lot of money to build a jump like that and get everyone together. For me in a contest… a long time ago I decided I wasn’t going to ride contests strategically to win them. That’s hurt me in some respects, at the Olympics I could have looked at that situation and been like I’m going to do my run from last year, I’m going to do my qualifying run, because that’s going to get me third place. But for me I wouldn’t have been happy with that because it wouldn’t have been my best. Looking back on that situation it wasn’t maybe the best competitive move, but it’s what’s worked for me my entire career. Looking at a course and being, this is the best run that I can do within my abilities of knowing I can land it. But it’s still my very best. And I’ve always tried to do that on every course that I approach, and I think that as long as people are doing that you’re going to see progression and you’re going to see the tricks. It’s when people start looking at it like ‘Oh, if I can get away with doing just 5s then I’m just going to do 5s’, But it has to be more from the individual riders and also the judges need to start rewarding women when they see the progression. This year I struggled a lot because I started doing back 9s, but I never got rewarded for doing them. For me I would have been bummed if I didn’t do it in a run this year, because I was super stoked on learning that trick and it’s where I want to take my riding, but it was interesting for me to be in that position where I was like ‘Ok, I would do better if I would do my run from last year and if I would ride beneath my abilities.’

So for you its most important to always look forward and improve your skills?

Yeah, and I know too from my own riding that it is going to pay off eventually. It’s good for me to be doing [9s] in a contest because eventually it’s going to look nicer and it’s going to be more consistent and then eventually it will pay off. But it was just an interesting thing, being in that position this year and then having people think that it was the first time that a woman had ever done it. And being like, what? No! So many girls have done this before but it’s never been rewarded. No one’s ever cared because they didn’t win the contest. In the moment people kind of notice but two weeks later they forget about it. It was hard to see girls like Cheryl [Maas] and Janna [Meyen] and Marie [France Roy] get brushed under the rug with that. I didn’t want that title, because I didn’t earn it.

I thought that was great that you came out and set the record straight on your Facebook about that.

Yeah, they did it first so they deserve the credit. I think it speaks to how, when people do do things outside their comfort zone and don’t get rewarded by the judges it deters other women from trying. Like why would I put myself on the line and try something risky where even when I land it there’s no reward for the risk.

But I think you’re right, you just have to work on it, get it cleaner and then judges can’t not reward you for it. They have to.

I think I saw a shift this year. Miyabi [Onitsuka]’s doing Cab 9s, Anna [Gasser]’s doing Cab 9s, all the tricks Jamie’s just learned… this year I think there was a really big shift within all the girls and I think it’s going to show in the events.

Finally, moving away from the contest side of things, back in the day I remember in all the big movies – the fact that there aren’t really many movies left now is another discussion – there’d be a Tara Dakides part, a Janna Meyen part, Victoria Jealouse… but in more recent years I can’t really remember that many. Annie Boulanger in Absinthe, Marie France, Jess Kimura… I don’t know whether its me getting nostalgic but there seemed to be a lot more girls parts in the movies back in the day. Why do you think that is, and do you think that damages women’s snowboarding and its progression?

It’s definitely changed since I was a kid. I grew up watching Tara in Mack Dawg and Janna in The Garden, Barrett [Christy], Victoria in all the TB movies and Warren Miller… I don’t know it’s sad to see that there’s not as strong of a female presence, because even then it was hardly any. Maybe one girl in each movie and sometimes it would only be a few shots… now most movies don’t even have women in them.

Why do you think that is? Is it because there’s evil misogynistic men running snowboarding?

No, no! [Laughs} I don’t think it’s that, I think it’s… there seems to be less women filming now because it is so much harder to a) break into it. It’s hard to be like Ok I’m going to buy a snowmobile and move to Whistler and see if someone will teach me how to ride backcountry. It’s a very hard thing to get into without first starting in competitions. Competition is obviously the easiest way to break into snowboarding I think and a lot of people used to break in through events and then switch over, but I feel like we’re not seeing that as much anymore.

I guess we have to say that the Full Moon girls are making their movie for next year, which is really cool to see.

Yeah, and those girls are such great pioneers and they always are down to bring girls into their crew and to help the next generation come through. We have girls like Des [Desiree Melancon] who are killing it and Jess Kimura who are consistently putting out really good video parts, but I definitely see after this generation that we have right now, I don’t see a ton of girls coming up from the next one. I don’t know if it’s just a matter of fostering those girls out of competition and into the backcountry and into the streets, or finding them wherever they are.

And then they need to be supported as well.

I think that’s the hardest thing. There is not a ton of support in the industry for anyone right now, and especially for women and then even more so for women who film. It’s a pretty niche part of snowboarding.

A niche within a niche within a niche within a niche.

Yeah, so I think everyone is kinda struggling right now. I just hope it doesn’t get forgotten or get pushed to the side because what those girls do I think is super inspiring. It’s super badass. I want to be out there with them one day.

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