Breaking through the glass ceiling

Action sports women can do anything men can do, until someone tells them they can't or shouldn't.

This feature is the sixth installment in Women Of Action, a new series about women in action sports rolling out this spring on The series explores the often-underexposed issues surrounding females of all ages and abilities and covers a range of stories, from the changing tides in women's professional surfing to profiles on some of the most powerful and talented women you've never heard of to blurred gender lines in motocross racing. Below, we look at the proverbial glass ceiling as it relates to action sports.

Lyn-z Pastrana remembers the moment when it all changed. When, despite the best efforts of Madison Avenue sports philosophers, impossible became something.

"It was the day I did my last boy's amateur skate contest," she says. Pastrana was 14 and had just competed at, and won, the 2004 summer X Games in women's skateboard vert.

Although she didn't have a pro shoe or a signature board -- the typical trappings of professional status in skateboarding -- parents of the boys she competed against pressured contest organizers to ban her from the amateur boy's contest circuit in light of her elite win. So she began competing in the few female-only events in existence against the same small group of women she was already beating in major events. And her skating began to stagnate.

"I think all women athletes hit a point where instead of thinking the sky's the limit, they start thinking that what other women are doing is the limit," Pastrana says. "I wish I could have kept that young mindset I had when I was skating with the boys. Girls are capable. It just takes the young mind not getting polluted by the thought of only having to do this much in order to be the best woman. We should be thinking, 'I want to be an amazing rider. I want to be the best.'"

Kelly Halpin

Women in action sports can do anything their male counterparts can do, until someone tells them they can't.

Look around action sports and women are achieving incredible feats. But what makes those feats arguably even more remarkable than those achieved by their male counterparts is that someone, somewhere likely told them what they were doing was too dangerous or too difficult for a girl.

Now, it might seem counterintuitive to include a discussion on the proverbial glass ceiling in a series of stories celebrating the women of action sports. The females featured in these Women Of Action pieces are, without question, some of the most calculated-risk-taking, limit-shifting, badass in sports.

But, as in mainstream sports, where gender-typing messages are unavoidable, even the most talented women in action sports are aware of the perception of female limitations. And as you look around these sports, the top men and women are performing at noticeably different levels.

In 2009, Pastrana (formerly Lyn-z Adams Hawkins) became the first female skateboarder to land a McTwist, a trick invented 25 years earlier by Mike McGill; in 2012, 12-year-old Alana Smith became the second. By that year, boys the same age as Smith were landing 900s and 1080s on the MegaRamp, a towering structure only a handful of women have even attempted.

Only two women, Nitro Circus performer and X Games endurocross racer Jolene Van Vugt and Australian rider Emma McFerran, are known to have successfully backflipped a dirtbike, a staple trick for the men of freestyle motocross since the mid-2000s. And, at the 2014 Winter Olympics, the men of snowboard slopestyle landed runs that included triple corks while Jamie Anderson won the women's contest with two 720s, a trick Tina Basich won the winter X Games with in 1998.

But none of this is because women are incapable of doing the same tricks as men.

Let's remember that 15 years ago, it was believed to be impossible for anyone to backflip a dirt bike or do many of the tricks being landed today. To pull off a triple cork, however, there is more at play than generating enough speed to have the airtime necessary to flip three times, spin four and land on your board. (Which is physically possible for a woman to do, and not too far down the road, one undoubtedly will).

Women of Action

But because size is often the first reason given to explain why women don't boost as high or flip and spin as many times as men, let's start there -- with physicality. In sports like Alpine ski racing, BMX racing, snowboardcross or big air, size affects speed. Make all other variables equal -- which they're not -- including strength, technique, aggression and line selection; the heavier athlete will be faster.

In most trick-based action sports, however, physiological differences are not enough to justify the discrepancy between men and women in tricks being thrown or how high an athlete soars out of the halfpipe or vert ramp. The best athletes know that.

"We're not limited by our physique or our physical strength," says three-time Olympic snowboard halfpipe medalist Kelly Clark, who's known for boosting as high out of the halfpipe as many of the top men. "Look at Ayumu [Hirano] and what he's doing. He's got the build of most of the girls and he's 14. It's not about size."

At ESPN's request, physicist James Riordon, the media relations director for the American Physical Society and an action sports enthusiast, gathered his colleagues at the APS in College Park, Maryland, to look at the sport of halfpipe snowboarding. Their mission: to determine whether size is, in fact, at play in determining how high women are able to boost and how many times they are able to spin and flip once in the air.

"When you go higher, the g-forces are higher, but they're not that huge and they aren't the limiting factor," Riordon says. "Girls have strong legs relative to their weight. The discrepancy in upper-body strength isn't enough to hinder spinning. What it comes down to is there is no physics-based reason why men and women aren't at the same level, at least not at the top level of the sport."

Courtesy Antton Miettinen/Quiksilver

Lyn-z Pastrana was the first woman to land a McTwist on a skateboard, at the Tony Hawk Show at Paris's Grand Palais, in 2009.

But, coming back to that triple cork, or any number of tricks with a high level of difficulty, if a woman (and her coaches, parents and influencers) believes her size, weight or gender determines what she is able to do on a snowboard or skateboard, then it absolutely can.

"So much of society expects girls to behave like girls, whatever their definition might be," says Lauren Loberg, Ph.D., a psychologist and the director of athlete career and education at U.S. Ski and Snowboarding. "Subliminally, when they were coming up in their sports, they might not have been pushed the same way by their coaches as the boys. So that drive has to come internally." And that is difficult to sustain over an entire career.

"Our genetic coding and biology have something to say about our relationship with risk," says high-performance psychologist Michael Gervais, who works with elite action sports athletes and NFL players. "But we also treat boys and girls at a young age differently. And we do that because that's how we were developed and nurtured in our own lives. It's not malicious, but it sets the track for what is possible in each gender in different ways."

There is risk in even holding a conversation -- or reading a story -- that discusses the perceived differences in men and women as justification for the gender status quo.

"We have to understand how people who are listening embrace this conversation about themselves," Gervais says. "As soon as they swallow an idea that maybe they shouldn't be able to do something, it changes their limits."

How girls are spoken to at a young age matters, as does the people with whom they surround themselves. It's no surprise, then, that many women known for doing tricks no other woman is doing grew up chasing their brothers or riding with groups of boys or women who embraced risk taking.

"I grew up doing whatever I wanted to do without a lot of boundaries and rules," says Sarah Gerhardt, a big-wave surfer and the first woman to surf Mavericks, one of the most elite big-wave spots in the world. "My mom encouraged me to do what I was passionate about no matter what people thought. I was super independent and didn't hang out with a lot of people who could have told me what I was doing shouldn't be done. There weren't other women surfing, so the guys who embraced me as one of the guys were critical for my development as a surfer."

The numbers game in women's action sports is another crucial component to progression. Because most action sports have long been considered activities for boys, parents bought dirt bikes and skateboards for their sons while they signed up their daughters for track, softball or ballet. Until recently, women and girls who skated, surfed and rode BMX bikes were outliers and often the only ones of their sex at the skatepark or surf break, so they didn't have female role models to aspire to beat.

"When I was little, little girls did 'little girl stuff' and boys did 'little boy stuff.' There was more of a division in sports," says Van Vugt, who is 33 and grew up racing dirt bikes with her dad and older brother. "There is a lot more equality now in what sports people put their kids into. It's not a matter of boy or girl, it's a matter of if the parents love it or the kids take an interest. In the next 20 years, there will be so many more girls doing action sports. And more little girls skating and riding dirt bikes means more progression."

What it comes down to is there is no physics-based reason why men and women aren't at the same level, at least not at the top level of the sport.
physicist James Riordon

It's an intuitive equation: More participation equals more progression; more progression means more interest, opportunities, contests and sponsor dollars; and having more money and opportunity attracts more athletes.

Think about this: Before 2009, a double cork was considered to be likely impossible by a snowboarder in a halfpipe. Seven years earlier, at the Salt Lake City Olympics, Ross Powers' winning halfpipe run included a method, back-to-back McTwists and a 720, while Kelly Clark won with a run that included three airs.

If size or gender had been given as a reason for why women weren't boosting as high out of the pipe or landing tricks men were landing back then, that argument would have crumbled in 2012 when Clark registered a 14-foot-3 frontside 1080 at the winter X Games (the first for a female in competition, at a height many men weren't reaching), and in 2013 when Elena Hight landed a double cork variation no other rider, male or female, had ever done.

Records are constantly broken and new tricks added to the list of possibility, and not because the human body vastly evolves with each generation.

"I've never been one to believe something is impossible," Clark says. "It just takes one person to do it to open the door." As long as there are women walking through that door and opening others, women like Clark will continue to progress action sports.

Matt Morning/ESPN Images

In 2013, Elena Hight became the first person, regardless of gender, to land a double backside alley oop rodeo.

"Look at Chloe Kim," Clark says of the 14-year-old winter X silver medalist. "She's grown up watching me ride, so the tricks we're doing now aren't a problem for her, and they won't be a problem for the next generation."

That generation of women will receive different messages about possibility than those before them. The conversation is evolving, but it has changed so slowly over the past 5,000 years, it is remarkable what these women have achieved in the face of a tacitly resistant society.

At the tip of the arrow, the men and women who push boundaries in action sports are more similar to each other than dissimilar.

"Any person has to challenge their anatomy to be risk tolerant," Gervais says. "Those who are working to redefine what is possible, male or female, have mental and physical similarities. They have a relationship with risk that is unique. They have ways of thinking about what is possible instead of what can't be done."

And they allow no one to tell them otherwise.

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