NORTH Vancouver snowboarder Spencer O'Brien reached the pinnacle of her sport last weekend, winning the slopestyle competition at the FIS World Championships held in Stoneham, Que.
With the win she has positioned herself as a frontrunner to claim the first ever Olympic snowboard slopestyle gold medal when the high-flying discipline makes its Games debut in 2014 in Sochi.
She's come a long way since first strapping on a snowboard as an 11-year-old on Vancouver Island's Mount Washington.
"I hated it," O'Brien said with a laugh when the North Shore News caught up with her Tuesday, on the phone from Aspen where she is preparing for this weekend's X-Games. "I really didn't like it. I had a board that was way too big for me and that made it really difficult to learn. . . . I had a hard time, I just fell down a lot. I was already pretty good at skiing so I was like, 'Why would I do this if I was already good at skiing?'"
The only reason she stuck with it is that both of her older sisters, Avis and Meghann, chose boarding over skiing and Spencer didn't want to be left out.
Soon enough little Spencer was trailing her sisters to competitions around British Columbia.
"I've always been a pretty competitive person so I kind of started right away competing," she said. "I was really bad and I got last all the time but I just really liked that environment. I just kind of kept it up through my teens. When I was about 16 or 17 I kind of started to do a little bit better, started to win some of the local contests. I ended up getting my first agent the next year and things started to progress from there."
O'Brien was born in Alert Bay - a smaller island next to Vancouver Island - grew up in Courtenay and then moved to Whistler. Four years ago as her career as a pro snowboarder was taking off she moved to North Vancouver so that she wouldn't have to drive the Sea-to-Sky highway all the time to get to the airport. It didn't hurt that there were three resorts in her backyard here on the North Shore, the terrain park at Mount Seymour in particular providing inspiration.
Since moving to the North Shore O'Brien has taken the final steps in her sport, ascending all the way to the top of the slopestyle world. The event is a judged sport that involves riders travelling down a course that is outfitted with features such as jumps and rails.
At last week's world championships O'Brien scored 93.25 points in her first run of the championship final, a score that easily held up to give her the title with Switzerland's Sina Candrian finishing second with 81.50 points and Australia's Torah Bright third with 77.50.
"It was really cool to get to compete in Canada, I haven't done that since I was like an amateur, about 17," said O'Brien. "It was really cool to compete at home, be in front of the home crowd. I kind of had no expectations going in and it ended up working out in my favour so I'm really happy about it."
The event was slightly foreign territory for most of the slopestyle athletes because it was run by the Fédération Internationale de Ski, the world organizing body for skiing sports that has also been tasked with administering snowboard events at the
Olympics. O'Brien and her fellow riders grew up competing in professional snowboard events like the Dew Tour, Ticket to Ride tour and the X-Games. The FIS-run world championships were only her second ever World Cup event - she's taking part in them now because she needs to rack up enough official points to qualify for the 2014 Olympics. The judging and race format is different than what the riders usually get at the big pro events.
"Now that we're an Olympic event things are changing, we've got to try to fit in another tour into our schedule which is a bit difficult at times," she said. "It's a bit of a different program than what we're used to so I'm kind of just spending my time trying to get used to those events and get used to that format."
O'Brien admitted that there isn't quite enough snowboard infrastructure right now to satisfy the International Olympic Committee but she's hoping that will soon change and snowboard federations will replace the FIS for snowboard events.
"It's not ideal for us. . . . it's a ski federation," she said. "There are a lot of people who are running the snowboard side who are snowboarders but at the end of the day, the head people are skiers and they're always going to care more about their sport than they care about ours. I think a lot of snowboarders would just really like to see that power change hands and come back into snowboarding. You wouldn't ask the football federation to run hockey. They don't know about hockey. I think it should be the same with winter sports as well, I think we should really be allowed to run our sport the way we see fit."
This week she'll be back in more familiar territory as one of only eight women invited to compete in the slopestyle final at the X-Games. The event is scheduled to be broadcast live on ABC Saturday starting at 1 p.m. Pacific time.
Once the X-Games are over O'Brien will set her sights back on jumping through the FIS hoops to get herself to the Olympic Games. Snowboarding may still have a bit of an uneasy relationship with mainstream organizations like the FIS and IOC but that doesn't mean athletes like O'Brien are any less thrilled about getting the opportunity to compete for Olympic gold.
"I think it's awesome," she said. "I've wanted to be a part of (the Olympics) since I first started taking snowboard seriously. I wasn't sure if I would ever get that opportunity in my career. I'm just really, really excited for the opportunity to go to Sochi and to represent Canada."
Things sure have changed for the girl who once hated snowboarding.
"I'm really lucky to get to do what I love for a living. . . . It's so much fun, I couldn't really ask for anything else," she said. "I'm glad I stuck with it."