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IPC Celebrates Women in Alpine Skiing

International Women’s Day coincides with the International Alpine Skiing World Cup in Winter Park, USA, where women are working as coaches or technical officials and competing as athletes.

Marie Bochet competing at the Vancouver Games Marie Bochet (FRA) competing at the 2010 Vancouver Games. © • Getty Images
By IPC

The International Paralympic Committee (IPC) Alpine Skiing Sports Technical Committee will meet in spring to tackle how to increase the number of women in the sport. So far this season more than 20 IPC Alpine Skiing competitions have taken place, with around a quarter of the athletes being women.

“At present there is an under-representation of women and girls in our sport,” said Sylvana Mestre, the IPC Sports Council Representative for Alpine Skiing.

”This lack is a cause for concern that the Sport Technical Committee will address in its meeting next spring in order to establish a positive trend to increase women's participation in the sport at all levels.”

Mestre stresses the importance of grassroots development, but she recognizes that skiing at an elite level is not easy for anyone. It is expensive, requires huge time commitments and lots of travel to competitions. On top of that, the extra demands of home and family often fall on women.

One development initiative will take place in March, when the Agitos Foundation will hold a Winter Youth Camp in Spain. Though the camp is aimed at both sexes, the Agitos Foundation always encourages delegations to bring equal numbers of boys and girls.

Developing the grassroots

As well as initiatives driven by the IPC, Skiers themselves are also leading by example to bring more women into the grassroots level.

“The grassroots development is absolutely critical. There is no future if you don’t develop the youth. You need a grassroots programme in order to have an international racing programme,” said Canada’s Colette Bourgonje, a competitive Nordic sit-skier, who works on a project called SASKI Skiing for Disabled to recruit people with a disability and teach them the basics of skiing - whether alpine, cross-country or snowboarding.

Many women, Bourgonje says, are not aware of the opportunities out there for them.

“Many women say, ‘oh I didn’t know that existed’. And even if they knew it existed they didn’t know they could get the equipment in Saskatchewan. It’s motivating to me to see how excited these girls are and how it can add to their quality of life physically and mentally, so that to me is highly motivating.”

Courtney Knight is another Canadian Paralympic skier who has channelled her energy into coaching a programme called “Skiing is Believing” at a local ski club.

The programme teaches skiing to people with a disability as well as their family and friends. The idea is that by teaching them together, they will go skiing together, which Knight says encourages more women to take part.

“If we can teach a friend or family member how to go out on snow with person with a disability and they’re both comfortable on the snow, then you’re going to increase the opportunity that those two are going to ski again because they have that social connection, which I think is more important for women than for men,” said Knight, whose ultimate goal is to find the next generation of skiers.

By staying with their sports, both women are, on an individual level, encouraging the next generation of women to compete.

More women as leaders

As well as training grassroots skiers, another opportunity for women is as the national coach – an area that men have traditionally been dominant, not just in Parlaympic sport.

”We need to ensure there are female role models athletes, coaches and IPCAS officials,” said Sylvana Mestre.

“We are nominating women as officials in our big events. In Sochi we will have a female Technical Delegate, Elena Gaja from Italy.”

With women like Mestre driving change, there are signs of greater inclusiveness in the Paralympic Movement, with three female coaches working on the Alpine Skiing circuit.

”I'm happy about the fact that in this circuit we don’t have that many challenges as women. Everyone is respectful about that,” said Alexia Tauler, who has been coaching the Spanish team for three years.

“I would encourage women to become sports coaches. It's a very cool job especially if you love sport and teaching.”

Daniela Mandler, Austrian Alpine Skiing Coach since the 2009/10 season, reaffirmed this.

“In Paralympic Sport, it’s not difficult to become a coach as a woman,” she said. “In non-disability sport it’s much worse, I think.”

“You need a bit of time, until you get the trust of the athletes because when you go there as a woman, they think at first, ‘A woman, she can’t do anything’, but after a while, you win the trust of the athletes and now it’s no problem.”

Alison Bombadier, who coaches the Australian Paralympic Alpine Skiing team says it is important to have female coaches as role models.

“I think you are a role model to the girls,” said Bombadier. “But you’re also a role model to the boys… For male athletes to see women in a strong position, it can change their mindset.”

With a strong female contingent on the Australian skiing team, including Melissa Perrine, Jessica Gallagher and Victoria Pendergast, Bombardier hopes girls will open their eyes to the opportunities out there.

“Right now we have three females on our team and the exposure that they get can show other girls out there that it’s something they can do,” said Bombardier.

“The numbers aren’t as strong as what they could be, but I’m sure they’ll build up.”