Young Women in Extreme Sports

News & Politics
The line to get into the ESPN X Games moves slowly. The crowd pushes their way under the large banner bearing an enormous X and the free, weekend-long competition is already underway. The smell of sweaty bodies lingers in the air as the crowd anxiously awaits the beginning of each competition. Once the athletes begin, the crowd cheers, cameras flash and video cameras roll. Parents hoist their kids on their shoulders while teenagers push their way to the front, where they anxiously await the first sign of superstars like Tony Hawk and Travis Pastrana.

This year marks the eighth year of the X Games -- the yearly competition, which brings together hundreds of professional athletes to participate in alternative or "extreme" sports. Both the crowd and the participants range in age from teenagers to parents to athletes in their thirties. And although the crowd is a mix of all genders, one thing is clear: The extreme sport world is essentially a man's world.

Well, almost. There are women competing in three of the six X Game categories: speed climbing, wakeboarding and in-line skating, but not many. At this year's games a group of women were also invited to demonstrate their talent in freestyle motocross and both vertical (or "vert") and street skateboarding. As the women ripped up the courses and put the audience in a state of awe -- it might have been easy to forget that they weren't part of the competition.

What difference does it make? Well, even if women were allowed to compete in the most popular alternative sports at the X-games -- like skateboarding, motocross or BMX competitions --female athletes wouldn't make enough prize money to support themselves. At the Xbox World Championship of Skateboarding, the top three male street skaters took home a total of $34,000, while the top three women took home $3,600.

Young women have participated in alternative and extreme sports since their inception, but they have not been given the same recognition as their male colleagues. Still, many are creating a place for themselves in this testosterone-filled world.

Alternative sports have been around for decades but have only recently been branded "extreme." The whirlwind of publicity around the word "extreme" extends into the marketing arena as well. One can now enjoy the "extreme flavor" of Doritos chips or drink a Code Red from Mountain Dew for an "extreme taste." By contrast, the industry describes an extreme sport as a "non-traditional sport that focuses on extreme and varying conditions, and challenges both the mental and physical abilities of its participants."

While most extreme athletes average in their early 20s, some involved are much younger.

Sasha LaRochelle is a good example. At 14 years old she competes at the professional level. Sasha says she started skating at five years of age when a friend gave her a board. Nine years later she is making her way through the professional women's skateboarding circuit, skating in competitions like the Vans Triple Crown, the Sound and the Fury, Slam City Jam and the All Girl Skate Jam. Even though Sasha is one of the youngest on the pro circuit, she is one of the best, placing in the top five whenever she competes.

Sasha says she skates because, "it helps me relieve stress, I get to travel, meet new people all the time, learn new tricks, conquer new territory and accomplish goals I set for myself."

Sasha skates at parks and seems to know people everywhere she goes. But she says she has a hard time finding other girls to skate with. At times, she admits, it can be frustrating riding with so many guys.

"The boys sometimes make fun of me until I start skating, then they are usually very impressed," she says.

At competitions, she says, "some of the guy skaters will cut you off, try and hit you and take up the girls' practice time."

"There are professional skaters who don't believe girls should be skating and they don't think we deserve any prize money, either," she says. This is saying a lot, especially considering how little girls like Sasha get when they win.

"It doesn't make it feasible for girls to go to competitions when only the top three get prizes," says Sasha's mom.

"Twenty girls qualified for the Vans Triple Crown but only nine went. If companies pay the way, the riders will go, otherwise it is too expensive." The Vans Triple Crown is a series of three competitions. This year they were located in Cleveland Ohio, Vancouver British Columbia and Oceanside California. For Sasha -- who traveled to Oceanside from Santa Rosa -- her $250 prize barely paid her registration fee.

"It's no wonder young girls have a hard time finding female athletes as role models -- when they pick up a skate magazine the only women they see are half-dressed and standing on the sidelines."

Most of the top male professionals in extreme sports are on salary with their sponsors and are given large prizes. When a young woman is "sponsored," however, it often just means free clothes, riding equipment and promotional materials.

Arielle Martin, a 17-year-old professional BMX racer, works 20 hours while maintaining a training schedule of two to three hours a day. Although she is rated fourth in the world in the NBL (National Bicycle League) she says that her prize winnings "for a good weekend" are usually in the $200 - $300 range. On the same weekend, she says, "a guy will take home $1000 - $2000."

Clearly, it's not money that drives Martin to take racing so seriously. Young women like her break all the stereotypes about men being the only ones out to pursue a good adrenaline rush.

"I started riding when I was little and I love it," she says. "I can't picture myself not riding."

Despite her love for the sports themselves, Martin seems to have accepted the fact that, as she puts it, "women pros can't support themselves." Martin's sponsors pay her entry fees, travel expenses and give her all the equipment needed to race, which she admits is rare. But she says if she were a guy she would "definitely get paid by my sponsors."

Part of the problem may be that Extreme sports, like mainstream sports, are driven by big business. If the industry doesn't expect a large enough audience -- a base of consumers to buy the products like magazines, T-shirts and pro videos, not to mention the tickets to see the girls compete in the first place -- they don't think its worth supporting the athletes.

Like most arenas, the extreme sports world has its share of objectification. Some female athletes say they are judged based on how they look and whom they know versus their athletic ability. Then there's the media and advertising that surrounds these sports, which is, as you might guess, not the most respectful of women in general.

Even Sasha, who is only 14, says she often feels uncomfortable about the way skate magazines and the images on skate decks themselves portray women. And, she says, she chooses her sponsors accordingly.

"There are certain companies I wouldn't ride for because of their [portrayal] of women," she says. Sasha says that companies like World Industries, 151, and Blind are "always using women as sex objects. The women on the decks are either naked or they have really big boobs and are barely covered up," she says.

Some women's clothing companies hire models to wear the clothes in ads, instead of the female athletes themselves -- something that would never fly when it comes to selling men's sporting apparel.

So it's no wonder young girls have a hard time finding female athletes as role models -- when they pick up a skate or BMX magazine the only women they see are half-dressed and standing on the sidelines, or in group fashion spreads surrounding male athletes.

The good news is some women are taking things into their own hands. Isabella Califano was dissatisfied with the options for women's athletic clothes when she decided to start Chickabiddy, a surfing and snowboarding clothing company for women. She says that she and her business partner Margaret VanSicklen felt men were cashing in on clothing that wasn't practical for women and wanted to change that.

"When men design women's clothes, it doesn't always work," says Califano.

Along with a line of women's clothing, Chickabiddy sells a rash guard, a top worn surfing to help prevent chaffing, made especially for women's bodies. Chickabiddy sponsors eight girls in both snowboarding and surfing, and also has a website for "female action sports enthusiast."

Chickadiddy isn't alone on the web. In fact the online world may be one place where women interested in extreme sports can start building a network that might change the industry., "a media/promotions web-based location for the world to get a hint of whom and what goes on in the World of Women in Motocross" is another good example. Michele Johnson, the site's founder, says she created the site because of the "lack of internet exposure available to the world."

"I was unimpressed with the fact that it was almost impossible to learn about women in motocross," says Johnson. And, apparently she is not alone. Marialidida Marcotulli started withitgirl, a network web page, in 1999 after owning a computer consulting company. After attending Surf Diva surf camp, Marcotulli says she saw a need for a place online that brings together "athletes, musicians, artists, students and whomever else happens across the site" in the effort to promote an action-oriented lifestyle.

Marcotulli hopes to bridge the gap between the alternative sports world and the art world with projects like, "Decked Out", a colorful gallery show where artists used skateboards as their canvas.

Women like these are slowly but surely breaking into the world of extreme sports, a world where men have long dominated. When they are not allowed into general competitions, they make their own. The All Girls Skate Jam, The Wahine Surf Series and the Bettie Series, which consists of surf, skate, snow and wakeboarding, are just a few examples. And the more of an audience they build, the more likely it will be that, sooner or later, even the X games will have to make a place for women in all their competitions.

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