Recently I was contacted by Brenna Kelleher, a friend and member of the 2019 Interski Team that represented the United States in Bulgaria and asked to sit on a panel that she and team-mate Heidi Ettlinger had set up for the PSIA Women’s Summit.
For those that don’t know, PSIA-AASI stands for the Professional Ski Instructors of America and the American Association of Snowboard Instructors and is the world’s largest organization that teaches people how to ski and snowboard.
The PSIA-AASI Women’s Summit was started in 2011 as an expansion on a 2-day program Heidi (Ettlinger) had been running for several years. When Heidi founded the Summit, it was designed to bring together colleagues throughout the industry and highlight the expertise of women nationwide that had an incredible amount of talent to share, they just needed a platform to reach women countrywide. There are opportunities for learning, mentorship, networking, and inspiration. Where women can cultivate leadership skills and help more women excel as leaders in the Snowsports industry.
In 2012, it was hugely expanded to include nationwide education staff and coaches, International Team Members, VIP athletes, Snowsports media, ski patrol, and USSA race coaches. By 2018, the program grew to over 120 participants plus 30 staff.
The program was hosted largely by Squaw Valley, coordinated by Heidi and the Western Division of PSIA-AASI. The key working group members included Francine Tone, Julie Matises and Carol Levine (all carrying a multitude of accolades between them and worth looking up). In 2019, the program was transitioned to run annually in a different division (there are 8 total) every year.
The learning environment is usually facilitated through on-snow clinics, exam training, cross-country skiing, snowboarding and general freeskiing around the host resort. There is also off snow workshops and casual mixer sessions all spread over 3 days. All designed around allowing women to be free within their gender.
Nancy Oakes Hall
The women’s summit is supported by the Nancy Oakes Hall Scholarship Program. Nancy was a member of the PSIA demo team and through her many accomplishments as a racer and ski instructor she developed a desire to create a women’s scholarship to “pay it forward” in the ways her mentors and friends had helped her. She had a vision to see more women involved in education and leadership roles in PSIA-AASI.
This year has obviously been different and with the normal format of the summit not possible, they decided to hold the summit online.
The summit kicked off on the evening of Sunday 28th with a keynote session from Julie Foudy, one of the most accomplished female soccer players in the world who is the author of “Choose to Matter: Being Courageously and Fabulously YOU”.
The rest of the summit took place throughout the day of Monday 1st March where there were three 1.5hr sessions running, each with 5 different rooms delivering a range of topics from equipment and fitness to emotional intelligence and people skills. There was then a final keynote closing session from two-time Olympian freeskier Devin Logan.
“A motto of the Women’s Summit has always been ‘Inspire a Spark’. By sharing our stories it’s less about the discomfort of vulnerability in questioning our own competence, but about the opportunity to shape the lives of other women.” Heidi Ettlinger
A motto of the Women’s Summit has always been “Inspire a Spark”. By sharing our stories it’s less about the discomfort of vulnerability in questioning our own competence, but about the opportunity to shape the lives of other women.
The session I was involved in was titled: An International Roundtable with Brenna Kelleher, Heidi Ettlinger & other National team friends. We talked about what it’s like to be a woman in the industry around the world, overcoming challenges and sharing connections that bring us together. There were 5 of us on the panel with moderator Francine Tone keeping everything in order. Joining Brenna and Heidi from America, there was Kathy Prophet from Canada, Katja Wolfram from Austria and myself. I met Brenna and Heidi at Interski in 2019 when I attended a seamless session they delivered together to 35 delegates! It was expertly managed and delivered brilliantly.
Brenna is a member of the current National Team for PSIA. She lives in Big Sky teaching skiing, selling real estate, riding mountain bikes and horses and flying aeroplanes! Brenna is also a white-water kayaking champion and told us a story from a time on the river that revolved around fear.
How she conquered it, how she talked herself off the ledge and moved forward while still acknowledging that fear exists. She related this story to student anxiety experienced during exams and what fear might look like to a woman versus a man. Brenna’s experiences on the river and the slopes shape her journey to this day and one of her favourite quotes that she lives by is:
“Never ever accept ‘Because You Are A Woman’ as a reason for doing or not doing anything.” – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
Heidi is an education developer who loves to design and implement exceptional experiences. She is on the current PSIA Alpine Team member, she serves on the PSIA-AASI Women’s Task Force, the Nancy Oakes Hall Scholarship Committee, the Education Leadership Council, and the Western Division Education Staff. Heidi has dedicated much of her career to building and leading women’s adventure programs (in winter and summer) for the public and professionals. She spends most of her time helping instructors and managers achieve their professional goals, alongside growing her business Gearing To Go! For more on Heidi’s contributions to the snowsports industry visit: www.linkedin.com/in/heidi-ettlinger-7178244
Heidi is incredibly humble, this overview doesn’t even cover half of what she has achieved while she has dedicated her career to growing the snowsports industry. Heidi talked about her national try-out final day selection experience, being selected, and feeling like she was not meant to be there.
At that moment her number one intention in her role was to bring the women who were not selected as “the best” to be recognised nationally and internationally as “the best” and to create a platform for critical networking and training so that their expertise could be shared with other women!
Heidi shared why the term ‘Following your blisters to bliss’ resonated with her, and it’s a good analogy so I’m going to share it… A blister represents the thing you come back to time and again, even though it is hard and you might not be that good at it (yet). A blister appears when something wears at you – it implies something about perseverance and struggling through tasks even though they are not always blissful. “Follow your blisters” implies something that you come back to so many times that you eventually move past the blister stage, into toughened skin. Eventually, the activity “marks you” through use and practice, and you develop a special competence. When you practice an activity a bit more obsessively than other people, you build a unique character – a beauty caused by the personalized texture you have earned and the places you are not quite symmetrical. What the Japanese culture call “wabi-sabi”. [From the HBR on Following Your Blisters to Bliss]
Kathy is a Canadian Ski Instructors Alliance Level 4 course conductor from Mont Tremblant, Quebec. She has represented Canada at Interski, been a member of the CSIA technical committee, steering committee, education committee, and the chair of the Women in Skiing committee. Kathy has also served on the national board of the CSIA and in 2020 Kathy was inducted to the CSIA hall of fame!
She talked about the challenges most women face when trying to get through the certification system, become an examiner and go to Interski. She shared some of her secret weapons including the value of a mentor and the 40% Navy Seals’ rule! (Some navy seals follow a saying that, when you feel that you’re completely wiped out, you’re actually only 40% done and have 60% left in the tank).
Katja comes from Austria, she is a ‘state-certified ski instructor’ (the highest level in Austria) and is stationed during the winter months in St. Christoph am Arlberg working as a freeride and touring guide at the Ski Austria Academy. She works as an instructor and examiner for the Austrian Ski Instructors Association of the eight federal states and is responsible for the organization of the training and scheduling of the team in the office.
Her story was coming from a different angle. Having grown up surrounded by her brothers, and within a very male-dominated system, she was used to being the only female in many situations. It took a few years for her to realise that this didn’t need to be the norm and the situation could be different. She is determined to continue being competitive with her male counterparts and help encourage and inspire other women in her system. Perhaps one day there will be a female member on the Austrian Demo Team.
The story I shared started with selection to my dream job as a BASI trainer. I think it is amazing to have the opportunity to continue my learning journey in this role but it has come with challenges and hard decisions, which I was hoping some of the summit attendees could recognise and relate to.
BASI has incomparable numbers of members compared to most other skiing nations but our common ground is that women are in the minority here. Within BASI, at level 1 female participation is 28%, this decreases the higher we go in the BASI system and level 4 has the lowest female participation rates of 17%. There has been much discussion looking into how we can improve our numbers, retain, encourage and inspire female members. I believe that it is important to have women out there delivering top-level exams as role models supporting our female members, and I started to feel I had a responsibility in my position as a female trainer to keep working towards that. (Of the 96 trainers BASI currently has across all the disciplines, 14 are female, just under 15%). On top of this role, I was in the best job in the world, travelling all over Europe working, being involved in interesting projects and being continually motivated by my peers.
My story then continued to discuss the debates some women and men have about making a life-changing decision, relating that specifically to me and starting a family. It helped to explain some background to BASI, that most of our instructors are exported. It can be difficult to hold a full-time position teaching snowsports without travelling abroad, making commitments away from family, friends and hometowns, speaking a second language, and this can be perceived as a barrier between a snowsports career and family life. I didn’t want life to change for me but I was worried I might miss the opportunity to try for a child. Could they both work together? Will I ever be at the top of my game again afterward? What about my perceived responsibility to other female members to hold my position on the training body?
Luckily for me, it happened and in 2019 I fell pregnant. And I got the timing pretty good too as I could continue the projects I had scheduled through the early months! I spoke about the support I had from BASI to go to Interski if I still wanted to whilst 4 months pregnant, and it turns out I wasn’t the only pregnant team member either. I was proud of BASI for supporting us and letting us choose how we used our bodies and proud of my own capabilities. I delivered some of the best sessions I’ve ever done!
Having a child or any other big change in circumstance is life-changing, but it doesn’t need to take you away from the mountains, it can connect you to them in new ways. When I went back to work after my daughter was born, I was unbelievably inspired. The skiing, the teaching, the environment, the people interaction was exactly the same as before. I hadn’t lost my identity that I was so worried about losing to motherhood. The decision to start a family required a bit of time out, but this hasn’t hindered me, and even left me feeling refreshed when I went back to the slopes.
My takeaway message was this: If any women or men feel like I did – that there has to be a choice between maintaining a snowsports career or making a lifestyle change – it doesn’t always have to be one or the other. Whatever the change is, you find ways, you adjust, you commit. It might have a different effect than you expect, you might be stronger than you think. I am fortunate to have a partner who respects who I was before, helps me continue to achieve, perform and keep the ‘old me’. And I acknowledge that he too has had to adjust, along with countless other fathers in snowsports. When I was preparing for this, I was thrilled to work out that, out of the 14 female BASI trainers across all disciplines, at least 7 of them are mothers – what a positive fact to celebrate!
I take inspiration from them and other mothers who have shown what is possible. Like Tessa Treadway and Izzy Lynch who keep chasing adventure no matter what life throws at them. Jessica Baker, a freerider and ski guide, who takes advantage of the flexible nature of her work to allow her to spend more time with her baby when she wants to. Kikkan Randall who was the only mother to compete in the 2018 Winter Olympics on the USA women’s cross-country team, who won gold! And the many blogs out there like Ingrid Backstrom’s, who give tips and tricks to balancing snowsports and motherhood. They show me that we really are shaped by our experiences.
At BASI, we have a long way to go but our female membership figures have improved from 15% back in 2002 to just over 25% now. BASI is progressing it’s support of female members, raising awareness, and supporting the work of the Equality and Inclusion working group so hopefully, these figures will start to improve more quickly.
Our PSIA panel had around 100 attendees listening and I hope that even if this message only struck a chord with one of them, that it will help them balance any difficult decision they face in their career and take on the challenge head-on. Heidi summed up our session with this quote from Gloria Stein: “You can’t empower women without listening to their stories”, and I really appreciated the opportunity to share mine.
Fingers crossed for all our friends at PSIA-AASI that they get to have an on-snow Women’s Summit next year. And I hope to follow in their footsteps.