By Karen D. Lorentz
U.S. Ski & Snowboard, the Olympic National Governing Body of ski and snowboard sports in the United States, launched its Heroic women’s initiative at the 2022 Heroic Killington Cup.
Held on day one of the sixth World Cup event hosted by the area, a panel of ski industry women leaders discussed the challenges women face, changes that have occurred, and opportunities for those wanting to work in the ski and snowboard industry after women retire from racing or graduate from college.
“The Heroic Initiative was created because U.S. Ski & Snowboard is committed to providing more leadership, opportunities and mentorship for women to achieve further greatness in our sports,” stated Sophie Goldschmidt, president and CEO of U.S. Ski & Snowboard who served as moderator for the panel. The Heroic Initiative aims to empower, inspire and lead women in their fields on and off the snow, she said, noting that the excitement and awareness of women generated by the Killington Cup provided a fitting avenue to launch the initiative.
Killington was a particularly appropriate venue to kick off this latest of initiatives within the overall world-wide women’s movement as the women’s slalom and GS events at Killington are the best attended of all the women’s World Cup races.
In addition, Vermont has a long history of women in skiing, ranging from active co-owners/leaders and solo owner/operators dating back to 1937 (when Pico was founded by Janet and Brad Mead and operated by Janet after Brad died) and extending to the many women in leadership positions today, including at Killington. Vermont also has three colleges with programs that foster women leaders in outdoor recreation and which have already graduated many into ski industry leadership positions.
Likewise, Vermont has spawned accomplished female racers ranging from gold medal Olympians Andrea Mead Lawrence and Donna Weinbrecht to 2022 Heroic Killington Cup racers: Mikaela Shiffrin, a Burke Mountain Academy (BMA) graduate and World Cup Champion; Paula Moltzan, University of Vermont graduate and World Cup podium skier; and Nina O’Brien, BMA graduate, current Dartmouth student, and National Champion.
In its inaugural season, the Heroic program focus is on coaching and mentoring. “Only 25% of skiing and snowboarding coaches are women with even less representation at the elite level,” according to U.S. Ski & Snowboard, which hopes to see the Heroic Initiative lead to an increase of women coaches at all levels.
The Heroic panelists, who also have ties to Vermont via education, ski racing, coaching, and management positions, stressed the importance of coaching, mentoring, education, and a passion for snow sports in addressing the roles that women can play in the industry.
Diann Roffe, a BMA alumn ’85, Olympic gold and silver medalist, and world champion, directs the Junior Program at BMA. With considerable experience in coaching programs, she notes that the best racer doesn’t necessarily make the best coach and pointed to a need to do better on the child education side. It’s important that a coach’s education include understanding what it’s like to be a 12-year-old, she said, noting the importance of supporting a fun, healthy and appropriately challenging environment for young racers. Her mission at BMA is to have students learn to love the sport for life, she said, noting she doesn’t tell a youngster that they will be the next Lindsay Vonn.
Noting a barrier to coaching, Roffe said coaches need to be able to make a living coaching young kids, noting a mentorship program for would-be coaches is needed.
Kelly Pawlak added that coaches also need to be offered an opportunity for year-round work at ski areas — as has been done for other workers — so they can make a living.
Pawlak, National Ski Areas Association president since 2018 and former general manager of Mount Snow, represented the ski industry side in discussing work opportunities for women. Pawlak, who joined Mount Snow in 1985, worked in a variety of positions and as base operations manager before serving as marketing director and becoming VP/GM in 2005 and managing a staff of 1,200 workers. She noted that when she started out she wanted to be a GM but there were barriers as leaders came up from operations at that time. She noted a change to more areas hiring people for leadership skills today and advised women who want to be leaders “to find the right ski area to try to get the job you want. Educate yourself, be the best you can be, and tell people the career path you are on,” she advised, noting the importance of women mentoring women.
Former U.S. Ski Team racer, UVM grad, and coach Julie Woodworth is the executive director of the Vermont Alpine Racing Association. Noting she grew up racing and has been in the industry for over 20 years, she said only 17% of VARA coaches are women “That is so little,” she said, adding there’s a need to create a pathway for college women to coach kids. Coaching is male dominated and can be tough to break into, but creating a strong bond of women is very helpful, she said, advising women to “not be afraid to flex your muscle.” Women are strong and they do the job well, she said.
Anouk Patty, U.S. Ski & Snowboard chief of sport, also sports a Vermont connection as her mother ran a ski shop in Waitsfield for 40 years. Patty competed on the U.S. Alpine Ski Team and raced for Dartmouth College, where she was a three-time All-American and won the NCAA Skiing Championship. Noting the desire to do more for athletes, she said U.S. Ski & Snowboard is working to support women on the education, sports, and professional fronts. The organization is helping competitors to balance college with competition schedules (70% of women alpine racers graduate from college) and professionally after college (or racing careers) with internship programs with ski companies.
Heroic Initiative plans also include providing fellowships for athletes and women in the industry. Efforts to increase the number of women coaches include: flex funds to assist women coaches; a childcare fund to support coaches of all genders who need childcare while working; studies to learn about the barriers preventing women from rising as coaches; and mentorship programs to allow female coaches to learn elite coaching strategies on the national team.
Megan Fearnow, senior vice president marketing services for Killington’s parent company Powdr, noted that the Killington Heroic Cup inspires passion around the adventure lifestyle, a focus for Powdr. Lowering the barriers of gear and financial costs to access snow sports and increasing the numbers of females getting into the sport are challenges the company is addressing, she said, noting that inspiring the next generation to play on snow or off snow, in the mountains or off, and achieving an active lifestyle is a company goal.
Fearnow also referred to the values of character development associated with sports. Embracing change, innovation, and transparency and giving opportunities to women are part of the POWDR goals she referred to along with gender equality across leadership teams. Killington has many women in leadership positions and women working in all departments, she said, noting a culture of support helps attract women to work there as does the company’s investing in their continuing education. In a recent study, she said of all Powdr resorts Killington garnered the highest awareness among men and women, crediting the hosting of the Women’s World Cups as a contributing factor.
Others noted the issue of female participation in snow sports. Ten years ago 42% of participants were women whereas today it’s 37%, but history shows that the younger you start girls the more they are apt to become lifelong participants, Pawlak said.
The Heroic Initiative can help change participation through awareness and getting women to work in the industry, which may require leaders to convey the pathways to working in a rewarding environment, Roffe noted. Internships, mentoring, and leadership along with education and making opportunities known are seen as routes to accomplishing that.
While women have worked in the shadows of the historically male dominated ski industry, that is changing and the future is bright, Goldschmidt said. The Heroic initiative is about celebrating the power of women while also investing in their future success, she noted, adding there is so much that can be done.