My dad grew up in Eastern Oregon, so skiing was in his blood. He would tell stories of his hometown mountain, Anthony Lakes (“The Place To Go for Powder Snow”), recalling the days when he sped down the slopes in jeans.
It will come as no surprise that I learned to ski around the same time I learned to walk. I don't remember much of the early days, aside from singing "La Bamba" all the way down the mountain. As a kid, I loved weekend ski trips because it meant listening to the Beatles in the car, hot chocolate in the lodge, and french fries on the way home. This is a tradition my dad and I still carry on to this day. After each day of skiing, we would get back to the car, take off our snow gear, and my dad would ask how many times I fell that day. Every single time he would say “if you didn’t fall, you didn’t learn anything.”
The late 90s hit, and snowboarding became the new phenomenon. I strapped into my first snowboard at age 8 with the help of an awesome instructor named Nala. I’m not sure if her name was really Nala or if I just called her that because I loved the Lion King. Regardless, I'd like to formally apologize to her for the amount of tears and tantrums I threw during our lessons. I spent most of the day on the ground, crying and blaming my failures on the snowboard.
When I was 9, Tony Hawk landed the 900 at the 1999 X-games after 10 attempts. Naturally, this meant I had to get my first skateboard. How hard could it be?! It looked preeeetty easy on the N64 video game. I saved my allowance money and mustered up enough cash for a terrible skateboard from Toys R Us. It had plastic wheels and no grip tape. I was too shy to go to the skatepark, so I built a tiny ramp in my front yard. I still have the scars to prove it. I never managed to land any tricks, so I quickly gave up on becoming the female Tony Hawk.
High school hit, and I watched movies like Blue Crush and Rip Girls, constantly dreaming of the day I'd become a cool surfer girl. My mom grew up on Maui and we visited the islands almost every year. I was always intrigued by surfing, but I was afraid of the ocean. My mom told me too many horror stories of shark sightings or her siblings narrowly avoiding a death by drowning. During one trip to Hawaii, the itch to learn how to surf surpassed my fear of the ocean. I asked my parents for a lesson and tried surfing for the first time. At the lesson, my sister didn’t fall properly and sliced her knee open on coral. We had to rush her to a hotel hospital to get stitches. It was my first introduction of the reality of surf injuries, and it was scary. When I got home, my surfing options were limited. I had no friends who surfed, and the closest beach was 2 hours away with frigid water temperatures of 45 degrees. Still, I was so obsessed with becoming a surfer that I rented Endless Summer to induct myself into surfing culture. As the credits rolled, I ordered a wetsuit online. When it arrived in the mail, I found out that I’d purchased the wrong thickness. It was a total beginner mistake, but at the time I had no one to ask about buying a proper wetsuit. The wetsuit collected dust in my closet and I put my pipe dreams on hold.
Towards the end of high school, I decided to revisit my mountain roots, and joined the ski team. I was a relatively good skier, but I was afraid of going too fast or feeling out of control. I had never raced before, and some of the kids on my team were on their way to college scholarships for ski racing. One girl I raced against made it to the Sochi Olympics in 2014. Up until then, I had been sheltered with my dad-only ski trips. During my time on the ski team, I learned what it meant to be a “gaper”. Kids would yell out "YARD SALE!" from the chairlift when someone had a nasty fall and lost their skis. Most of the teasing was lighthearted and tame, but it was my first taste of the not-so-nice culture of extreme sports.
In almost all sports, there’s a negative connotation that comes with being a beginner, but I’ve noticed it’s especially prevalent in board sports. You don’t want to be a gaper, or a kook, or a poser because people will make fun of you. You’re expected to go from purchasing your first board to performing at a high level, without anyone seeing the mistakes in between. You’re not allowed to be a newbie or you’ll face ridicule, embarrassment, and land a spot on Jerry of the Day.
Part of the extreme sports culture is poking fun at inexperienced rookies who don't know what they're doing. I fully own up to contributing to this behavior in the past, calling my own friends gapers or laughing at their falls. I realize now that it's this type of innocent teasing that discourages people from continuing, and leads to a fear of making mistakes.
For women, there’s also a lack of representation. Growing up, I had no female role models in the sports that interested me. In each extreme sport video game I played, there was one female character to every 10 male characters. Picabo Street was the only female skier making the mainstream media. The only snowboard design choices I had were covered in flowers. The girl surfers I saw in magazines spent a lot of time on the beach in bikinis, and not a lot of time on the waves.
Journeying through adolescence, it became important to downplay my skills because it wasn't feminine. I stopped skating before I could even ollie. I spent more time finding cool ski gear than I did working on my technique.
This isn’t meant to be a whine-fest. Instead, I want my story to be a rally cry. As I make my way into adulthood, I care less about what people think and more about having fun. I can finally embrace being a beginner and deal with the embarrassment that comes with it. I’m in the process of learning to surf and skate – I’m not great, but I love every second of it and I’m making a lot of progress.
But it took me way too long to learn these lessons.
It all clicked for me when I went on a surfing retreat with Surf With Amigas in Costa Rica. There, I was surrounded by incredible women who didn’t make me feel intimidated, but instead gave me valuable feedback to improve. I’ve always known skiing, snowboarding, surfing, and skating were my passions but since I am not an expert, I felt like I was incapable of weaving them into my everyday life or helping other people.
I hope that by sharing my story and the stories of other Gnarly Girls, this will become a community where women can lift each other up and empower one another. I want it to be a resource for the questions we’re too embarrassed to ask. I want the beginner phase to be something we are proud of, not ashamed of. I want the next generation of girls to feel like they can do anything without their gender coming into play. I want girls to know that choosing sneakers over heels doesn’t make you any less feminine. I want them to see an even ratio of female role models to male role models.
The beginner process isn’t easy, but it gets easier. You will take a lot of falls, make a lot of mistakes, and it will hurt. But you will get back up again.
The beauty is in remembering if you don't fall, you don't learn anything.