In alpine skiing, women compete, but that’s about it

Alpine skiing at the 2022 Winter Olympics
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Originally published: February, 14, 2022

When U.S. alpine skier Laurenne Ross contemplated what she wanted to do when she retired, coaching wasn’t initially on the list.

“I was kind of adamant that I wouldn’t fall into a coaching position,” said Ross, who spent a decade racing on the World Cup circuit before retiring last year. “There were a lot of reasons. Primarily the travel and the stress and not being able to be at home…. But also because the culture is pretty harsh and intense and misogynistic.”

Alpine skiing represents something of paradox.

In some ways, the sport is a beacon for gender equity. When it debuted at the Winter Olympics in 1936, and then launched a World Cup circuit in 1967, there were an equal number of men’s and women’s events – a rarity in the sport’s world. That gender parity has mostly held true over the years as both the World Cup and Olympic programs expanded.

And while prize money hasn’t always been equal, these days, female athletes receive near-equal winnings from race organizers on the World Cup circuit. In fact, the sport’s prize money list has been topped by a woman the last five seasons – something that the sport’s governing body loves to point out. American Mikaela Shiffrin held the title of highest earner for four straight years (2017-2020), while Swiss skier Lara Gut-Behrami took home the most winnings in 2021.

“In ski racing, we are very lucky as female athletes to experience the kind of gender equity that we do,” Ross said. “But if you look a little bit closer, you do see those discrepancies.”

You can count the number of female alpine skiing coaches on one hand (but no one is counting)

The most noticeable gender disparity in alpine skiing exists in the coaching ranks.

The U.S. ski team includes one of only a handful of female coaches: Karin Harjo, who works with the women’s speed team.

In 2016, Harjo became the first woman to set a World Cup slalom course. (And to be clear: she was the first woman to accomplish this in women’s skiing.)

“It’s been really cool to see how she handles herself in an extremely male-dominated environment,” said Alice Merryweather, a current member of the U.S. ski team who was taken out of Olympic contention after a serious crash last September. “She’s very well respected by all of the male coaches out there – which is everyone else. I think we’re really lucky to have her.”

“I loved working with Karin,” said Alice McKennis Duran, who retired from the U.S. ski team at the end of last season. “She was one of my favorite coaches ever, and certainly part of that was her being a female.”

It’s unclear exactly how many women coach on the World Cup circuit. In addition to Harjo, Norway has one woman on its coaching roster (Pernille Lindman). There’s also Eileen Shiffrin, the mother of Mikaela Shiffrin, who has coached and travelled with her daughter since she made her World Cup debut.

Beyond that, Merryweather drew a blank. “The fact I’m having a hard time says something.”

A representative for FIS – the international federation that oversees alpine skiing – said that there are “about 6/7” women coaching on the World Cup circuit, but the organization wouldn’t provide a full coaching roster – citing “privacy.” The organization also couldn’t provide a total number of coaches on the World Cup circuit, noting “it is a variable number depending on the budgets of the federations and the number of their employees.”

Needless to say, the number of women coaching is not large.

Alpine skiing is not alone in failing to hire and retain female coaches. Across the board, as women’s sports have become more popular – and profitable – the number of men in coaching roles has skyrocketed while the number of women has dwindled. For example, this year’s women’s Olympic hockey tournament includes a record 10 teams. But it will also be the first Olympic tournament in which there are zero female head coaches.

While broken coaching pipelines often carry blame in sports like soccer and hockey, skiing has a more complicated problem, one the sport hasn’t quite acknowledged, let alone start to solve.

Like Ross, McKennis Duran didn’t see herself coaching when she retired from skiing last spring. And yet, this winter, she can be found at Ski & Snowboard Club Vail, helping young athletes learn the ropes.

But as she looks ahead to the future, even her current job coaching 10- and 11-year-olds doesn’t feel sustainable when she considers her family planning goals.

“It’s unfathomable,” McKennis Duran said. “I already work six days a week right now in the winter. Like, I’m not doing that and having kids. Part of me is like, ‘I’ll probably have to quit.'”

If her current job isn’t feasible, forget coaching at the World Cup level, where coaches spend upwards of six months on the road each year.

“If you want to have a family, and work on the World Cup, it’s going to be pretty much impossible – unless you want to leave your children at home.”

Many men have done just that.

“A lot of my male coaches have families and I’ve never met their kids,” McKennis Duran said. “It’s actually kind of sad.”

While some U.S. ski clubs are working to retain female coaches, McKennis Duran believes that ski culture needs a more seismic shift.

“Working with [women] to help them stay in the sport is really important because we’re just going to keep losing women, over and over and over again,” she said. “Something that needs to be recognized is that women are valuable in the sport.”

Alpine skiing’s horizontal cousin, cross-country skiing, has encountered this issue, too. The two sports have similarly demanding World Cup schedules that keep athletes and staff on the road for most of the year.

“Definitely still not that many female coaches,” said 2018 Olympic gold medalist Kikkan Randall, who is serving as a cross-country skiing analyst for NBC Olympics during the 2022 Winter Olympics. “And the higher up you go, the thinner that [number] gets.”

But while Randall would like to see the number of women increase, she’s not ready to step into the role herself, at least not yet.

“I love the act of coaching, but the lifestyle is so demanding, especially with a young child,” she said.  “I spent a lot of my life away [from home] and I’m not going to do that now with a family.”

What happens when women aren’t making decisions about women’s skiing?

In addition to the very unbalanced coaching landscape, there is also the fact that on both the men’s and women’s World Cup circuits, every person making decisions on behalf of FIS is a man.

During Lindsey Vonn‘s storied career, she fought to be allowed to enter a race against men – a request that FIS denied multiple times. When FIS ruled against Vonn in 2012, the organization’s Secretary General Sarah Lewis told reporters, “It’s called the men’s World Cup and the ladies’ World Cup. The men race the men’s World Cup and the ladies race the ladies’ World Cup.”

Ten years later, that statement highlights one change FIS finally, thankfully, made. Last year, as the result of an IOC gender equity review, the federation began using the word “women’s” in place of “ladies’.” But the gender divide remains, including in the way men’s and women’s events are organized.

Merryweather believes the lack of female representation in the sport has resulted in the women’s courses – especially those used for speed events – being watered down.

“It seems like they have completely different ideas of what downhill for men looks like compared to downhill for women,” she said. “They’ll shave all of our jumps down, they’ll end races early if a jump is too big.”

For the record, Merryweather isn’t pitching the idea of women skiing Kitzbuehel, the notorious and dangerous race on the men’s World Cup circuit.

“I have no interest in throwing myself down Kitzbuehel,” she said. “But I think there’s this weird conversation that the men’s courses have to be more difficult than the women’s.”

For Merryweather, the issue isn’t which slopes are safe and which ones aren’t, but who is making those decisions.

“Having some more female representation in there would help a lot,” she said. “Right now, it’s a lot of white guys being like, ‘No these women can’t ski that jump because it’s too big for them’ and they don’t actually know what our experience is.”

This gender imbalance also extends to more niche areas of the industry, from equipment suppliers to ski manufacturers to the people managing sponsorships.

“As an athlete, I never encountered [a woman], other than, like, the woman that works in the office and helps you get your new luggage,” said McKennis Duran. “It was always dominated by men, whether you were dealing with contracts or anything to do with organization of the races.”

“There are clearly certain roles that have always been assigned to certain genders,” Merryweather said.

Team physios, for example? Almost always women.

Ski servicemen?

“There’s a reason why they’re called servicemen – it’s because they’re always men,” McKennis Duran quipped.

“You see that huge gender divide and it’s one of those things that you become accustomed to and almost blind to it,” McKennis Duran said. “It’s just the way it is.”

The “equal” prize money in alpine skiing? It’s not actually equal

Perhaps part of the reason gender disparities in alpine skiing are easy to ignore is because it is one of the rare sports in which prize money is equal for men and women.

Well, not exactly.

The sport has equal “minimum” prize money, but some races offer bonus money, most of which is allocated to men.

Still, the mostly-equal prize money conceals a much larger wage disparity.

“Our main income is through contracts” with sponsors, Ross explained.

“As an athlete ranked tenth in the world, being a female is a lot more difficult than being a male that’s ranked tenth in the world. You’re making a lot less money.”

Early in her career, Ross discovered that her ski sponsor was paying her half as much as a male athlete with a lower World Cup ranking.

But just because she knew she was being paid less didn’t mean she was able to do anything about it.

“You can’t raise the issue,” Ross said. “You are contractually obliged to not talk about your contracts.”

“Contracts between the men’s and women’s side, it doesn’t matter what type of gear we’re talking, the men’s [contract] is better than the women’s,” said Paula Moltzan, a U.S. tech specialist who made her Olympic debut in Beijing.

As for whether there are any protections for female athletes who want to have children and want continue ski racing? The type of protections Allyson Felix fought for when she gave birth?

“Absolutely not,” Ross said.

Alpine skiing’s gender paradox: Just because it’s better doesn’t make it ok

In the landscape of women’s sports, it is uncommon to find a sport like alpine skiing, where women are so visible in the sport but so invisible in decision making.

“As a female alpine skier, I feel like I do a female sport in a still male-dominated environment,” said Merryweather. “It doesn’t feel like it’s changing much.”

“It is not equal, but it is so much better than other sports,” said Ross. “But just because it’s better than other sports doesn’t make it ok. That doesn’t mean we should be complacent.”

That’s one of the reasons that – despite her initial opposition to the idea – you can now find Ross on the slopes her local mountain in Bend, Oregon, coaching 14- and 15-year-olds.

“The further along I got in my career, I realized I could make a difference. I wanted to at least try it and dip my toes in and see what it felt like.”

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC

March 31, 2022 Update: Alpine Canada has hired Karin Harjo as the head coach of its women’s alpine skiing team, making Harjo the only woman to currently lead a national ski team on the World Cup stage. (Read more about Harjo’s hiring here.)

Kaillie Humphries elevates another fresh U.S. face to podium status in two-woman bobsled World Cup

Kaillie Humphries of USA, Kaysha Love of USA in action at the 2 women's bobsleigh during Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games.
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PARK CITY, UTAH – Kaillie Humphries extended her podium streak on Saturday at the IBSF World Cup, where she and U.S. push athlete Jasmine Jones finished third in the two-woman bobsled.

The third-place finish in Park City marked the sixth podium for Humphries at the Park City track, which hosted the 2002 Olympics, and was Jones’ career-first World Cup podium in just her second World Cup start.

“This is our first race together, so really excited about that,” said the 37-year-old Humphries, considered the greatest female driver in history with three Olympic gold medals (2010, 2014 and 2022) and five world championships titles. She earned her 29th career World Cup win on Friday in Park City in the women’s monobob.

“Definitely a work in progress. … The runs weren’t perfect, but I’m really happy with our starts, happy with our drives minus a few little mistakes. It’s a good starting point, and we’ll look to grow from here.”

Humphries and Jones finished with a combined, two-run time of 1:37.69, 0.32 behind winners Kim Kalicki and brakewoman Leonie Fiebig of Germany at 1:37.37. Fellow Germans Laura Nolte and Lena Neunecker were second at 0.23 back.

Kalicki and Fiebig broke a 16-year-old track record with their first run, laying down a time of 48.60 seconds and besting the time set by Americans Shauna Rohbock and Valerie Fleming – the 2006 Olympic silver medalists – in December 2006 (48.73). It also marked the second straight victory for Kalicki, who’s won five career World Cup titles including last week’s two-woman bobsled race in Whistler, Canada.

“I was hoping Kaillie would get [the record],” said Rohbock, who is now a U.S. team coach and was on hand to see her record fall. “That first run there, she had that little skid in the bottom, so that didn’t help, but Kailee’s always putting up a great performance. And Jasmine, another great brakewoman, so we’re really lucky that we have that depth.”

For Team USA, it marked the second straight week that a fresh face earned her first podium finish while competing with Humphries. Last week in Whistler, push athlete Emily Renna and Humphries placed third in Renna’s first-ever World Cup appearance.

MORE IBSF WORLD CUP COVERAGE: Kelly Curtis notches career-best finish with top five at Park City skeleton World Cup

“Being able to race with her was really special,” said the 29-year-old Renna, who was a college track athlete at University of Rhode Island. “It’s really nice to be around seasoned veterans. It definitely makes you feel better in the back sled with you when you’ve got a good pilot who knows the track.”

Renna finished in eighth place in Park City with 12-year U.S. team veteran and pilot Nicole Vogt (1:39.04). Vogt partnered with Jones in her first World Cup last week where they finished seventh in Whistler, 1.33 seconds behind winners Kalicki and German teammate Anabel Galander.

“To have an opportunity to be with Kaillie in my World Cup debut – it’s exciting,” said the 26-year-old Jones, who was a collegiate track and field athlete at Eastern Michigan. “I just feel like I have so much more in the tank to give, and I’m just hungry for it.”

Jones is particularly gratified with her performance after returning full-time to bobsled less than 18 months ago following the birth of her daughter, Jade Quinn Jones, in February 2021. The Greensburg, Pa., native returned to training just five months postpartum, having sat out the 2020-21 season. She competed on the North American Cup last year, finishing the season with a win (the third NA Cup title of her career) and a third place in Lake Placid.

“I’m thankful,” said Jones. “Opportunity is the main thing, and I just feel blessed to have my first World Cup podium. I’m screaming on the inside. I may not show it, but I am jumping for joy because I’m just that excited and happy to have this accomplishment.”

She admits, however, it’s not always easy to compete balance a full-time competitive career with being a mom.

“Sometimes it’s a struggle being away from my daughter,” said Jones, whose mom takes care of Jade while she travels. “I try to get my facetimes in every night and just know that when I’m pushing, I’m doing it for her. Hopefully sometime in the future I’ll have her around on the sidelines cheering me on, and that’s my main motivation – that this is for her.”

The BMW IBSF World Cup continues its North American swing Dec. 16-18 in Lake Placid, N.Y.

Kaillie Humphries faces IVF journey head on — and collects monobob World Cup win along the way

Gold medallist Kaillie Humphries of Team United States celebrates during the Women's Monobob.
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PARK CITY, UTAH — Kaillie Humphries knew the quest to start a family would impact her 2022-23 season, but it’s certainly not slowing down Team USA’s reigning monobob Olympic gold medalist, who captured her first World Cup title in the discipline on Friday.

The 37-year-old Humphries, considered the greatest female driver in history with three Olympic golds (2010, 2014 and 2022) and five world championships, earned her 29th career World Cup win and her third victory on the Park City track, where she won the two-woman bobsled competitions in 2012 and 2016. Competing in Utah – as well as North American World Cup stops in Whistler last week and in Lake Placid, N.Y., on Dec. 17-18 – is one of the reasons that Humphries pushed pause on her journey to motherhood.

“I’m excited,” Humphries said following the win, marking her second straight podium in monobob following a third-place finish last week in Whistler. “I was excited for this year before it started. It’s part and parcel of why my husband and I delayed the IVF process and starting a family this season. To be able to be back in North America and have the first half of the season here – it’s been a long time since we’ve had that, so I wanted to be able to compete and it feels awesome.”

That’s not to say the leadup to this season has been without its share of hiccups. In fact, Humphries admits that following the Beijing Olympics, she had hoped to get pregnant immediately, but she and husband Travis Armbruster had to pivot when a diagnosis of stage 4 endometriosis made it clear that in vitro fertilization would be the best path for pregnancy.

“Right after the Olympics, I was like, ‘We’re going to get pregnant; it’s gonna be all good,’” she said. “I thought, my body has always performed, and it wasn’t going to be an issue. Fast forward to I find out we have to do IVF. We do the first egg retrieval, and it doesn’t go as well as I had hoped — which anybody that’s done this process knows, you can’t control any aspect of it. And so having to do a second round of egg retrieval, …it pushed everything back.”

What’s more, it brought Humphries’ training to a standstill at times, when she would have to limit all physical activity during the three-week period surrounding the egg-retrieval process.

“It impacted my training coming into this year a lot,” she says, “but I also think it definitely reset my hormones, which turns out I needed. I don’t think was a bad thing. I knew coming into this year, I wasn’t going to be in the same shape as I have been in the past, and I had to make peace with that. I know that each and every race I’m racing myself into shape, and each race is a preparation for January’s World Championships.”

Humphries also chose to share her IVF journey publicly, and she’s documented every step of the way, believing that her story makes it less scary not just for her but also for other women and female athletes who might be facing the same thing.

MORE IBSF WORLD CUP: Kelly Curtis notches career-best finish with top five at Park City skeleton World Cup

“My husband and I weren’t sure that we wanted to share it at first,” she admits. “But I felt it was important just to showcase this. I have nothing to hide. And as much as there are parts of me certain days when I think, ‘What’s wrong with me?’ At the end of the day, I know I’m not alone in this.

“It’s important, I do have a voice, and I want other people to know, as an Olympic gold medalist, if it can happen to me, it can happen to anybody. Infertility exists in the female body, and it’s important that I talk about it in my journey and hopefully that’s inspired other people.”

She says she’s received an outpouring of support, which has been particularly gratifying as she continues to put a painful breakup with Team Canada in the rearview mirror. Humphries, who was born in Calgary, competed for Canada for 16 years, winning three Olympic medals including a bronze in Pyeongchang in 2018. But the relationship came to an abrupt end later just five months after the 2018 Games, after Humphries alleged emotional and mental harassment by a former coach.

Winning a gold medal in Beijing just two months after her U.S. citizenship was finalized proved to be turning point for Humphries, who commemorated the milestone with two new tattoos. She first added the date of her win – Feb. 14, 2022 – to the back of her left hand and a larger rose and skull illustration to the back of her right knee and calf, all of which commemorate her triumph over that darker period.

“The skull represents a rebirth and a growth, overcoming challenges and/or obstacles and turning something negative into something positive,” explains Humphries, who says she chose the rose because it’s the national flower of the U.S. as well as a symbol of love won or lost. She notes that she has “an actual Olympic one” planned for August 2024, which is when her favorite tattoo artist is next available.

Humphries has also found the silver lining in her IVF journey, as the competition season has been a welcome break from some of the self-imposed pressure.

“By pushing pause for four or five months and competing, it allowed me mentally to know that we can go into all of next summer and all winter focusing on just doing the actual embryo transfers and having a good pregnancy,” she says. “I don’t feel stressed to try and get pregnant right away. I felt like I was becoming competitive with myself, wondering why isn’t this working? Why can’t I do this? I tried to control too many things, and I started to get really frustrated. Mentally, it was hard. So, by pushing pause, going back to what I know — which is the sport, which is what I love – it’s allowed me to control a little bit of my future.”

Humphries’ season continues Saturday as the IBSF World Cup from Park City concludes with the two-woman bobsleigh.