The night before I competed in my first Freeride World Qualifier, I dreamed about tuning my snowboard. In the dream, I ran my hand over the board, inspecting the base. I noticed a delaminating edge. I peeled it back and kept pulling, removing layer after layer. Underneath I could a see a secret message, hidden in the core. Before I could read the message, I woke up, full of jittery energy, anxious for the competition.
I learned to snowboard as an awkward 13-year-old on the mostly blue, 1,000-foot-vertical slopes of Moose Mountain, outside of Fairbanks, Alaska.
I cried on my bruised knees the afternoon my best friend took me riding for the first time. She’d given me the classic introduction to the sport: no instruction, just a smile, a wave, and a “see you at the bottom!”. On the last run, after hours of frustration, I initiated my first-ever turn. In that moment, I fell in love with snowboarding.
I continued to snowboard, but hesitated to stray from the bunny hill. I had no one to ride with, was terrified to load the chair lift, and was insecure about my ability to make it down in one piece. Even after I started riding the whole mountain, I would sit at the top until there was no one around to stand up and start riding. It got to the point where my insecurities became so strong that, despite my love for snowboarding, I stopped riding for nearly eight years.
I went to New Zealand on a working holiday visa when I was 24. My teenage anxiety had mostly worn off by then, and I wanted to both travel and rediscover snowboarding during the southern hemisphere’s winter. At Cardrona Resort on New Zealand’s South Island, I found lessons from enthusiastic mentors, a warm and welcoming community of ski-bums, and supportive friends to ride with. Since that season I’ve planned my years around the winter, resulting in having traveled, worked, and played on many different mountains.
A couple years ago I met a female freeride competitor on a chairlift in Jackson Hole, who encouraged me to compete. Not able to shake the idea, I finally entered the Freeride World Qualifiers, a series of international big-mountain events that emphasize the fluid riding of steep, technical terrain. The events are divided into men’s and women’s competitions for both skiers and riders and women’s snowboarding usually had the fewest participants competing.
When I showed up on competition day for my qualifier event in Crested Butte, there were fifty-five male skiers, twenty-six female skiers, and eighteen male snowboarders. There were nine female snowboarders.
I want women represented in the sport. I wish I had a female mentor to look up to when I was an insecure teenager. I wish I’d felt like I belonged on the mountain, that I hadn’t been so intimidated to stand in a lift line dominated by men. I regret the years of progression I wasted because of being scared to fail.
I’m not the elite female athlete with a coach and ample time for the gym. By entering, I hoped my small act of bravery—entering the competition—would inspire my ski-bumming girl friends to recognize their potential and courage. Maybe my presence in the competition would inspire a young girl to try snowboarding.
I didn’t expect to win. I just wanted to prove to myself that I belonged there.
I arrived in Crested Butte the day before the competition. I slept on a friend’s floor, surviving on apples, string cheese, and turkey jerky. At registration I filled out the “Rider’s Biography” questions requested on the event form:
Competition Highlights: None, yet.
Shout Outs: Beyonce
After registration, I rode the lift to the competition area and inspected the terrain. Not knowing what to do, I took photos because everyone else was. Squinting through my binoculars, I looked at the silhouette of the venue’s ridge, gathering a vague idea of my line: pass the spruce tree, turn left at the rope, and drop the chute.
The day of the competition, the atmosphere at the starting area was filled with energy and nervousness. I watched some focused competitors dance out their lines with micro-movements. I had one earbud in, listening to my phone playing Rihanna.
Female skiers were first, followed by female snowboarders, and I was slated as the last of the women to drop. When it was my turn, I was counted down:
“Three, two, one. Drop drop drop!”
I breathed in deeply and took off. The male skiers and snowboarders cheered behind me. I picked up speed until I saw the terrain drop in front of me. i hesitated for half a second: I was hard-charging some of the steepest terrain I have ever ridden.
Everyone was watching. I realized I couldn’t wait until I was alone anymore. My hesitation turned into adrenaline and thrill—I sent it down the chute, focusing on technique and form on the ride out.
As I skidded into the finish gate, the other female competitors were the first to hug me. I couldn’t tell how I’d done, but they looked me in my eyes and told me I had a solid run.
At the awards ceremony, I told myself I was out of the running if I wasn’t called by the time fourth place was awarded. I was nearly mentally checked out when they hadn’t call my name for third. As second place was announced. I was shocked to hear my name being called over the loudspeaker.
Elated, I took my place on the podium and smiled with the truest pride I have ever felt. It was one of my most redeeming moments; for the first time, I believed in my bones that I belonged on the mountain.
Competing is terrifying; doing so requires bravery. My insecurities about snowboarding haven’t disappeared, but by trying to inspire others, I discovered my own potential and courage. I’ve stopped riding like I’m performing for others—even while competing—and instead learned how to ride with heart. That progress starts by showing up, even if you’re an awkward 13-year-old, full of anxiety and untapped aspirations. If your heart swells while shredding, you belong on the mountain.
. . .
About the author
Elyse Bongiovanni is a traveler, a snowboarder and an awkward (but diehard) feminist. In the winter her world revolves around chasing pow, and scraping by on string cheese and apples. In the summer she travels across Alaska completing forestry analysis. During the in-between she’s rafting, traveling, backpacking, and fighting the good fight in her own, small, ski-bum way.
Find her online