Skip to content

Cookies 🍪

This site uses cookies that need consent.

Learn more

Zur Powderguide-Startseite Zur Powderguide-Startseite

Language selection

Search PowderGuide


PowderPeople | Manuela Mandl, the new member of the FWT

A conversation about snowboarding, the contradiction in the concept of freeride competitions and the image of women in sport

by Lea Hartl 10/16/2016
There was hardly a freeride qualifier podium last winter that Manuela Mandl, 28, wasn't on. With first places in Jasna, Nendaz, at the X-Override and in Roldal, among others, it's no surprise that she will be competing in the women's snowboard Freeride World Tour in 2017. We had a chat with Manu in the run-up to the event.

PG: Hi Manu! Tell us a bit about your snowboarding beginnings.

MM: I'm from Vienna and only started snowboarding when I was 13-14. I can also ski okay! The park was briefly an issue when I was 16, but then the first people quickly came along and took me to the powder. I found that much cooler straight away.

PG: What kind of crew was that?

MM: I was then and still am almost only out with boys and mostly only with skiers. Of course, you shouldn't be any slower. For years, the aim was to increase the speed so that nobody had to wait. I now know some very strong girls through the contests and it's nice to be out together. It's fun and you help each other progress. In terms of level, you can compare yourself with each other. That's hardly possible with the ski guys. You think three times about whether you should just hop in after them!

PG: Did you actively try to get into the tour last season?

MM: It was a difficult season at the beginning, but I decided that I would give it another go this winter. I'm just finishing my master's thesis and if I hadn't tried it again now, I might not have done it at all.

PG: I'm sure some people have been waiting for you to make it into the Tour for a while. You were in the qualifying tour for a long time and were always pretty good.

MM: Yes, that's what people told me five years ago when I missed out on the FWT by one place. This expectation was always difficult for me and the season after that didn't work out well at all. This time I wasn't really well prepared, but I was very relaxed. I was able to simply enjoy the contest days as days on the mountain. Of course you have to focus somehow, but with too much pressure it doesn't work out well for me.

PG: Is your funding for the season in the World Tour in place?

MM: I had various part-time jobs over the summer and neglected university a bit, but that should finance the season. I absolutely can't make a living from snowboarding, but everything should work out somehow for the season. In addition to the entry fee that we receive from the World Tour, I also get a bit of support from my sponsors.

PG: I've often noticed that the commentators on the tour, especially with the women's snowboarding, always emphasize that the starter is a lawyer, for example, and how unusual it is for such professional athletes to work on the side...

MM: Almost all of them work. Maybe not full-time, but certainly throughout the summer. The French women can probably make a living from it. That's a bit symptomatic, they are much more supported by the industry and the media. The young French women came with a coach 3-4 years ago and were at the contests as an organized package. We come in our private car and say "Hello, we're here too".

PG: What would you have to do if you want to make a living from freeriding?

MM: You shouldn't be under the illusion that you can really just make a living from it. My architecture degree was always very important to me. I admire people who don't have a back-up plan at all. It's such an uncertain business! Marketing budgets rise and fall, trends change - snowboarding is a good example.

There was an extreme boom, a bubble, and now we're here and a lot of it is still very unprofessional. There is an insane amount of consolidation because only a few companies with good products can survive. As a woman, making yourself dependent on this is even more problematic, precisely because you receive less support. Once you really hurt yourself, that's it.

PG: The more professional the Tour becomes, the more professional the summer training and the whole approach to the sport becomes, even for non-French riders. Will something change for you now that you've joined the Tour?

MM: It partly depends on how much time you have in addition to university and work, but I've already started to think about it more. I've never played a sport in a club and it's only now that I know a few people who can tell me how to train properly. I think the best way to prepare for winter is to run around like a little kid and have fun.

PG: Do you think the increasing professionalization of freeriding is good? It also increases the pressure on the athletes.

MM: I'll let that come to me. I'm just going to make sure I don't let it stress me out. I'm doing the whole thing because I enjoy it. There are no other reasons. You don't have to take it all too seriously either.

PG: How do you like the new FWT regulations?

MM: I have quite a problem with the fact that so few people progress from the qualifiers. The Tour is carried by the qualifiers. The people who permanently ride the qualifiers, their environment and circle of friends - this marketing base is important.

Of course, you don't want to exceed a certain number of starters for the livestream. But what I find most interesting is how the different categories deal with a face. That's why I think it's important that at some point it's not just the men's skiers. I think that many of the ski men are very far removed from what the amateur audience can still understand. I'm not sure whether this very extreme image is really the best thing for the sport and the next generation.

PG: Some of the qualifiers in the men's ski category are taking very high risks.

MM: Yes, it's because of this hourglass, the very narrow loophole from the qualifiers to the tour. That's why it's so tough for the men's skiers. The first 10 or so would all have what it takes to win. At the end of the season, it's hardly meaningful who is in the 3 places that make it into the tour, because the differences are so small. I really hope that a higher degree of permeability is created.

Another problem is that the star system for the qualifiers is very clear to the riders, but no one else. As long as a contest is referred to as a qualifier, it counts much less for the sponsors than an FWT stop. The standard at the 4* events is so blatantly high - these events need to be upgraded.

PG: The status of women's snowboarding in the World Tour is not the best. It doesn't get any more niche than that, does it?

MM: Perhaps that's partly due to the lack of athletic performance. But you really can't say that anymore, especially recently. For example in Verbier - those were good runs that you can absolutely radiate far and wide. Ultimately, I don't see the problem. It might be different at smaller events, but you have to develop somehow first.

PG: If more women took part in the smaller contests, the level would presumably rise in the long term?

MM: Yes, getting more young women involved is of course one of the big goals. That's where it fails in principle.

PG: Do snowboarders lack the basis of racing that skiers have? Many people ski in a club from an early age and then switch to freeriding at some point.

MM: Snowboarding started out as a kind of anti-authoritarian movement, as an alternative sport that resisted certain structures for a long time. With very few exceptions, there are no snowboarders in the contest scene who come to freeriding with the advantages of a racing career.

PG: Are the best female freeride snowboarders in the tour, or are there still some somewhere who nobody knows and who aren't interested?

MM: First of all, I would never claim to be one of the best female freeriders in the world. I'm sure there are much better riders out there. Or let's put it this way, at least I hope so.

PG: Where are they?

MM: I'd be interested to know that too. I think that there are an extremely large number of good women in Europe who simply never appear anywhere. Everything that has to do with competition is always just a section of a sport. You can't and shouldn't demand or expect that everyone who plays the sport at a high level has to battle it out.

PG: At the Alpine World Cups, I get the impression that you see the absolute best in the world there. Is the standard of performance in the freeride competitions simply much lower? Where are the main differences in the system?

MM: Freeriding and contest riding are inherently contradictory, which I think everyone is aware of. For example, it seems to me that I didn't go snowboarding much last winter because a contest is different to what I normally understand by freeriding. It's more like camping somewhere for a couple of days and riding three lines every day.

The judging rules state that everyone should have a chance to win if they ride a perfect line, regardless of their style - whether it's freestyle, big mountain or whatever. That's where freeriding comes in again, but the contests remain a very specific form of the sport.

PG: There would be the possibility for very individual runs purely in terms of judging, but still many people often do the same thing.

MM: Yes, it's not the judging or the organization, but the riders. A lot has changed since you can watch all the lines online. Now you can see from home what people have been doing over the last few years and creativity might fall by the wayside. On the other hand, those who really do something original can now stand out. That's difficult and requires a lot of experience.

PG: The FWT aims to be a tour for the whole world. At the moment there is only one stop in the USA, everything else is in Europe. The Freeski World Tour is also increasingly present again as a counter-event. Is it even realistic to hold a worldwide freeride competition?

MM: I think so and I also think it's good if there is such a thing. I have no idea whether and how a meaningful world tour can really be realized. What I find extremely problematic at the moment is that you have to commit to a date and a slope so long in advance. You don't normally do that when freeriding because it's not possible. You could perhaps find a solution where you commit to a larger time window and a region in order to avoid sliding around on half-baked slopes. But I think it's positive that people from all over the world are all doing one thing and riding down somewhere together and comparing themselves.

PG: Is it more about sharing or comparing?

MM: For me, the contests have always been more about sharing and that's also what's important to me in the long term. Ultimately, you don't ride freeride contests against others, but against yourself.

PG: Does it even make sense to have other people judge it?

MM: I approach contest lines in a much more structured way than I usually do and make an effort to show my best performance, also because I try to fulfill the judging criteria as well as possible.

PG: So the format challenges you?

MM: The format certainly challenges every rider. The trick is to do what you can and to know your own limits. Determining that with yourself - that's the exciting thing. I think it's okay that it's then judged, because you can see where you still have room for improvement. I never used to think that I was the competitive type. I still find it a bit terrifying! But it's just fun.

Nevertheless, it's not about beating others, but about improving yourself. I notice that my drops are getting higher, that I'm riding faster and more smoothly. That's a good feeling.

PG: You can get better as a rider by riding contests, but if you don't necessarily see the world's best there, what is the relevance of the Tour for people who don't ride contests?

MM: A contest is unembellished, unlike a movie. Someone who rides contests well has to ride all the conditions properly. That's much closer to reality than what you see in movies. Perhaps the relevance lies in the fact that contests show that you can do really great things even in really bad conditions.

PG: Social media has become extremely important in recent years, even when it comes to sponsors, and sometimes sporting achievements seem to be less important than a large social media following. How do you deal with that?

MM: It's a problem when people are in marketing positions who have no idea about the sport in question. Parameters that have nothing to do with the actual sport are then used to judge who to support. This harms the whole sport in the long run. I see it as the task of companies and marketing to push athletes who will take the sport forward and not those who have the most social media followers.

The sports market is now primarily an investment market, even for sports that used to be alternative subcultures, similar to the art market. It's definitely an interesting environment because so much passion meets so much marketing.

PG: Your social media presence is quite inconspicuous. People have to search a long time for pictures without helmets and goggles. With the girls in particular, a lot of them mix in a pretty selfie or a picture from a beach vacation between the action shots and their followers thank them for it. Aren't you up for that?

MM: No. I don't want to criticize first and foremost, but I would like to see the discussion about the image of women in sport become more active. That is a personal concern of mine. For female athletes, it should primarily be about sport and not about looks. Everyone should have the freedom to live their life the way they want to. Women and men should be allowed to do that equally, even in sport.

PG: It's not just an issue on social media, but in the whole industry, isn't it?

MM: Yes. You hardly see any action pictures of women in the media. When there are photos of girls in magazines, they're almost always just standing around looking pretty. The sad thing is that women are completely robbed of their potential. Female athletes are usually only present because of their looks and outward appearance. They are hardly ever shown as the athletes they are and who actually achieve something. It is very difficult to approach professional life in fringe sports purely on the basis of athletic performance. You basically have no chance with that.

After the Summer Olympics, there was a lot of critical discussion about the reporting on female athletes. I hope that this has raised awareness to a certain extent and that the media will make an effort to report objectively. I think it's important that women's performances are judged in the respective context and that sporting performance counts.

PG: What can be done to change the image of women in sport and especially in freeriding? Are there perhaps simply very few women practising our sport?

MM: The problem lies primarily in the lack of presence. There are enough girls, but you don't see them. We should work on creating more awareness for the topic and network more with each other. If we could reach a certain critical mass of women who are active in extreme sports and also get involved in the scene, that would change a lot. On the other hand, of course, the industry has a role to play. The sporting goods manufacturers, the sports management sector and the publishing industry are male-dominated. That's actually the whole market.

PG: Do we need some kind of quota? Every magazine has to print the same number of pictures of women and men, companies have to support just as many female athletes as male athletes, something like that?

MM: Phew, that's difficult. It's generally assumed that a quota will bring a lot in the long term, but of course you force it. If there was a fixed percentage of action pictures with women in every magazine, I would find that positive. But it depends very much on whether it's done well. Maybe you should at least think about it.

I would be happy if there were just different role models for women. There are all sorts of different roles for men, even in the highly professional sector. There are those who obviously care a lot about their appearance and those who just as obviously don't care at all, and many different types and gradations in between. That's not the case with women.

Things that are actually secondary to sport, such as appearance, become overly important because there is so little potential to promote women. It's certainly a bit the same for men, especially in the middle performance segment, where it's particularly important to set yourself apart. But that's on a much lower level.

PG: Is there any pressure from your sponsors to post a few pretty lifestyle pictures?

MM: There tends to be a request to post a lot and in high quality, which is also legitimate. I've never come across a direct request to post particularly pretty photos. Of course I want to post pictures that have a certain aesthetic or message. But I shy away from posting bikini photos, even though most men post swimming trunks photos without thinking twice. I'm afraid of comments that only refer to my body because I really don't want to be reduced to my appearance. But maybe it would also be a nice, subversive strategy to completely ignore it and wildly post very flattering and very unflattering bikini photos!

PG: Do you think it's wrong for female athletes to use their appearance to become better known? The industry doesn't force anyone to do that at gunpoint.

MM: In principle, yes. But then again, it's not that simple. I think it should be possible for a woman to post a sexy photo every now and then without being accused of wanting to make a profit from it. That would be the ideal situation, but it's hardly possible in our society. The photos that are sexy remain the most present. This leads to a kind of vicious circle.

There are female athletes who live almost exclusively from their appearance. This only works because it is supported by the industry. It doesn't help the sport if women are represented one-sidedly. It suggests to young girls that you have to conform to an ideal of beauty in order to be successful in sport. I also don't believe that more snowboards or practical sports underwear will be sold to women if the models look like they're from B-porn.

PG: What would you like to give young girls instead?

MM: It's a cliché, but I would like to convey that you should follow your passions. That then life is really great. And then, of course, I would also like it if other girls thought: Oh cool, she's a strong driver. I want to do that too.

PG: Thanks for talking to us! Will you let us hear from you during the tour?

MM: Sure, I'll post on my blog and maybe there'll be a contest report or two here on!

Julbo Eyewear is planning a 'White Session' in Iceland with Manu and Flo Orley this spring. As with the previous 'White Sessions', one amateur will get the chance to go on a freeride trip with the two pros. So if you fancy it, you can already think of something good for your application.

Photo gallery

This article has been automatically translated by DeepL with subsequent editing. If you notice any spelling or grammatical errors or if the translation has lost its meaning, please write an e-mail to the editors.

Show original (German)

Related articles