Ski Club’s Sophie Mead caught up with four Freeride World Tour athletes about the equal pay, environmental awareness and following your dream to the top of a mountain

It’s 7am in the small Andorran town of Ordino and we have just found out that the Freeride World Tour competition will not run today. Athletes, media and operations staff have all been up since 5am in preparation for the third stop of the biggest off piste competition in the world. However, due to lack of snow, it will not run today. There is a feeling of disappointment in the air but also relief. At the face check yesterday, the athletes were sceptical about what tricks they would manage in the hard-packed, patchy conditions. The last time it snowed was several weeks ago and a dusting overnight was not enough to bring the face up to competition standard. The early nights, days of training and mental preparation which the athletes put in will be put on hold until the next opportunity.

With a free day ahead, I sit down with a few of the female athletes on some beanbags, to find out their thoughts on the day. On my left is USA snowboarder Erika Vikander who shares a beanbag with Australian snowboarder and competition Rookie, Michaela Davis-Meehan. On my left is Jacqueline Pollard, the most excitable skier on the tour and Canadian WildCard Claudia Avon.

Claudia you are new to the tour, how are you finding it so far? 

Claudia: It actually wasn’t planned and I work as well. I’m a heavy equipment operator but I was able to come to Europe and I can do this competition and the next one then we’ll see from there. It’s cool I’m getting to slowly meet everyone which has been a highlight. My first stop was Kicking Horse which went well. The snow was good, visibility was good and I placed second there. I wanted to see how Kicking Horse went and take it from there.

How is everyone feeling about the competition being delayed?

Claudia: I’m actually feeling good about it.

Michaela: I’m glad we didn’t go up there and then it was cancelled!

What are your thoughts on the Freeride World Tour announcing equal prize money for athletes?

Erika: Love it!

Michaela: People have different views on it but in reality, our flights and our accommodation are the same price as the men. It’s not cheaper for us because there’s less of us. I think it’s good progression.

Claudia: It’s more difficult for girls because there’s less of us in extreme sports in general. This is slowly changing because there are a lot more girls shredding and pushing the sport but it's more competitive with men.

Michaela: Yeah we were talking about this the other day. Freeriding is a newer sport for snowboarding women. Now all the chicks are throwing double corks so we have the chance to make progression.

Erika: I think a what we do (freeriding) is something that people tend to get into when they are older, there’s not a lot of young kids doing it. Now all of us are at this point in our careers where it makes sense to go and freeride. I think there are enough girls when you can have a 10-15 deep category but we don’t get to choose the numbers of how many there are on the tour. If it were up to me, I would want more.

Michaela: One step at a time, we’re getting there!

Jacqueline: What’s interesting was that when I was competing as a junior, the biggest category would be men’s ski, then women’s then men’s snowboard and then women’s snowboard but it’s starting to grow now.

Claudia: Changes like the equal pay will grab people’s attention for sure. It’s a step in the right direction.

Current snowboard leader Marion Haerty said: "I am super stoked about it. Not just the money but the message behind it. It's respect for what we are doing because I am focused on that every day of my life and I try my best all the time. Equality is a big movement for us and it's a beautiful progression."

I asked Freeride World Tour CEO Nicholas Hale-Woods why pay parity had taken so long.

He explained that historically the prize money had been based on the number of people competing in each category, and although the athletes supported this, around 80% of the media and public did not agree or understand.  
He said: "It's a message for gender equality in life and if snowboard women have more average prize money, that's fine! It was also a message to the smallest categories that they are not left behind. To encourage snowboard girls to get involved. We didn't do it for the positive press but that was a side effect."

Head of Communication and Production Emile Lavoie explains: "The number of athletes in each category is not decided by the Freeride World Tour, it is an average of how many athletes register in each category in qualification. The ratio of snowboard women has been boosted to encourage more people in the category. We really think that making that change is sending the message that everybody is equal and to come in and compete!"

Nicholas continues
: "We saw the first result of this a month ago when we contacted a female snowboarder Claudia Avon with a WildCard. We explained that she stood a good chance of reaching the podium and she did."

Read about the Ordino Arcalís competition here.

You all come from different backgrounds and disciplines, how does that help with freeriding? 

Michaela: I started out with slopestyle so I did that a fair few years and that definitely helps with hitting drops and things like that and with air awareness and getting down the big mountains.

Jacqueline: I started doing exactly this, I’ve been competing in freeride competitions since I was ten. The same thing we do here, I did as a ten-year-old. I was competing for 12 years before the tour, my mum used it as babysitting. We were on an Alta freeride team.

Michaela: I did something like that, it was a winter sports club back at Perisher and it started as every weekend during the season and a bunch of kids and some coaches and we had the best time!

Jacqueline: And now kids go to winter school so they’ll be training all week!

Erika: I went to a speciality school where you attend classes in summer and have the winters off to compete. I was lucky to go there because I wrote an essay and got a scholarship worth $14,000. I wrote a letter which got me the scholarship for high school! And it’s funny because out of 22 people who graduated in my class and went for winter sport, I’m the only person still doing it!

That must have been an amazing letter!

Erika: It never hurts to ask, you know? If you are passionate about something then just put it out there. The worst that’s going to happen is you’ll be in the same position as before.

What about your background Claudia?

Claudia: I was mainly a skier actually, I skied from age two to 21 and I raced pretty heavily.

Michaela: No way!

Jacqueline: Two to 21! Did you ever try off piste?

Claudia: I put some skis on a few years ago and the boots felt weird, I was like ok I don’t miss that.

Why did you change?

Claudia: The ski racing scene was getting a bit too serious and I lost a bit of love for it. It was just too much and I wasn’t getting the results I wanted so I switched around and started freeriding and discovered the park. Back when I was younger there was no such thing as a snowboard park so I started doing rails and boxes and figured out I had a new love for it. With learning a new sport there’s a new spark and I just went with it. I finished university then moved to Whistler to go and shred the park on the glacier in the summer and then I never came back. 

Michaela: I feel the same with freeriding, it’s like starting again and getting out of the park into a whole new thing.

Claudia: After a few years I bought a snowmobile and started riding backcountry and I was like yup, this is it! 

Aussie rider Michaela Davis-Meehan's winning run in Ordino Arcalís, Andorra

What do you find challenging about being on the Freeride World Tour? Today the competition is postponed, how do you deal with that?

Jacqueline: The conditions can be challenging. 

Claudia: I’d rather it that way (competition postponed) because for me it was starting to become a safety concern. Obviously it’s a competition day so you’re not going to go half-assed. You want to give it your all but that face was seriously not ready. It’s one thing to get down the mountain but it’s another thing to ride it. It might have been more of a survival thing so it’s nice that the organisation are looking out for us to provide the right ride-able conditions.

You don’t want to just be surviving, you want to be…

Jacqueline: Thriving! The hardest thing is leaving somewhere that had really good snow for somewhere that’s raining, but you’ve got to go because that’s where the competitions are so you are following the snow. We have been a bit unlucky this year with the snow conditions. I just came from Canada and had the best powder day and here it’s icy. But when it does work out it’s awesome.

Erika: Last year the conditions here in Ordino were significantly worse. Three years ago here it was sick, it was like POW. This place is so rad when there’s snow. It would be fun if it snowed but we’re not in charge of the weather. I hope it changes but I feel like this is one of the places which is getting super affected by climate change.

Claudia: Every year there is more and more impact.

Erika: Yeah this year has been more noticeable.

Michaela: This is the worst season Hakuba has ever had on record.

Erika: Up high in the alpine areas of Hakuba it was ok but the face we were on last year was all dirt. It was rainy but again it was way better than the conditions here so looking back on that I’m like well, that wasn’t so bad!

FWT has been focusing more on sustainability, have you made any changes?

Erika: It's a reimbursement programme. They rack up the carbon footprint and then pay €120 per person to offset. So we are asked if we want to match that out of prize money. I feel like it would be cooler if we could figure out how to directly reduce the footprint. It seems like a bit of a cop-out if you’re not actually reducing. I want a name for each tree and a placard! It’s good that they are thinking about it but I also don’t have a better solution for how we can reduce our footprint.

The grand finale of the Freeride World Tour will take place in Verbier from 28 March to 5 April and videos and replays can be viewed on the website here

Sustainability Programme