How do you differentiate between an athlete and someone who only participates in a sport? Do you need to be a professional to earn the athlete title? My sport of choice is snowboarding. I competed briefly and taught at a local ski hill. When I wasn’t chasing my students, I was spending my spare time hunting for powder on the icy East Coast and destroying my body in the snow park. It was a badge of honour to show up hung over or bounce right back from a concussion and crank big turns. Snowboarders, back when I started in the late 90’s, were almost like the hip hop alternate to skiers – we weren’t jocks, we were the stylish outcasts. We wore our pants low and our heads were covered in oversized goggles, headphones and tall toques. It was about style and speed, not athletics.
Recently, Gatorade contacted me about speaking with one their marquee athletes to launch the G Series line here in Canada. I was surprised that the athlete in question was Olympics gold medalist and World Cup snowboard cross athlete, Maëlle Ricker. Maëlle captured the country’s heart when she was the first woman to win gold on home soil. A Vancouver local, she grew up in the mountains, with parents who “eat, breath and speak skiing”. She started snowboarding after her following her old brother’s lead and was instantly hooked. For Maëlle, snowboard cross made sense because she was able to combine all of her snow skills. “I have my background in ski racing when I started snowboarding I was all about freestyle, I wanted to jump and do the half-pipe and all that. When I tried snowboard cross, all my different sporting backgrounds, […] kind of combined into an event that I excelled at. I had the freestyle skills from riding and sort of the race skills from ski racing”.
Snowboarding has gone from a fringe sport that many mountains outlawed to a marketable, professional and perhaps most importantly, an Olympic sport. Maëlle agrees that snowboarders don’t necessarily like the athlete title that comes along with the professional designation, “there is this misconception that snowboarders aren’t working out, they’re not trying”. Maëlle said at the High Road Communications office in downtown Toronto. She was wearing jeans, a Gatorade zip up and a pair of practical platform, waterproof knee-high boots. “…That’s just the image we like to give off. We actually are working our butts off. We’re out on the hill everyday, all day. We are in the gym in the afternoons and in the offseason”. I remember powder days where we would go out for hours on end without food, water and sometimes, not even an iPod. But times have changed and Maëlle is endorsing Gatorade, one of the most recognized brands in sports and an icon in athlete branding. She’s one of over four hundred athletes, including Dwyane Wade, Usain Bolt and Georges St. Pierre, that Gatorade collaborated with in developing the new G-Series. Their goal with the G-Series, which launches March 21st in Canada, is to move the brand from purely a sports drink company to a sport nutrition innovator.
But how do these three steps of Gatorade: prime, perform and recover, help Maëlle? She competes in a sport where not only do milliseconds matter when crossing the finish line, but she needs explosive strong muscles when banking turns and going over big air jumps. She likes the series because she’s able to use it on and off the hill in riding and work outs, “When I’m on the hill, like for example when I’m at a race, I make sure 15 minutes before I drop in for my heats, I’m taking the Prime, I’m getting the right carbs, vitamins and electrolytes into my system so that I’m at my maximum energy for when I’m riding. Or when I’m riding or when I’m at the gym, it’s so important to keep hydrated. Even if you’re just slightly dehydrated, like two percent, you’re going to be off your game, you’re not going to be able to re-act as well, your muscles are not going to respond as quickly as you need them […] When I’m done my race or I’m done my workout, then right away you’re beating your muscles down all work out, basically breaking them down and now you have a really short window to recover and to get the right nutrients in so that you’re building your muscles back up to be stronger and ready for the next day. So that’s when you’re going to be your protein and your carbs and that’s the recover part of the line of the G Series”.
Maëlle is more than just a snowboarder but also an avid student of the sport. She admits that she’s not always paid attention to the training aspect of professional snowboarding. It wasn’t until an injury forced her to hit the gym diligently. Tearing an ACL is a common but devastating injury to a snowboarding as all day on the hill, they’re flexing and extending their knees for turns, jumps – they’re like human shock absorbers.”That’s the first time I was really serious about making sure I was fit and ready on my board […] the last few years working a lot with board technology and […] today working with sports nutrition. We’ve had nutritionists in the past with the team and they’ve been awesome but just being a part of this Gatorade family and testing this new G Series line and having that integrated into my personal program, it’s really cool”.
I had to ask Maelle more about the style aspect of snowboarding, being someone who’s into the fashion as much as the frontside spins. Snowboard cross may not ooze swagger like other events, but Maelle recognizes rider’s signatures just as easily on the course as the half-pipe “…Everyone has their own style on the course. I mean, you know your competitor, you can see them from a mile away, you know who it is just from the way they ride […] I don’t know how people describe my style […] I hope nothing negative!”. When it comes to her on snow apparel, she always choses comfort over fashion, favouring baggy pants, long jackets and more basic colours like blues, greens and reds. Besides her own Olympic gear, which she called “super tech […] and ready for the miserable weather”, she liked the faux jean outfits that the American team was wearing. She’s had a chance to work on the more performance area of apparel as well as board technology but hasn’t designed any of her own gear.
Maëlle snowboards for the love it, her eyes light up when she talks about free riding and mountaineering to further her exploration of the beloved backcountry. The training, along with World Cup events last all year round, which suits her just fine as she’s never been one to sit still. When it came to preparation for the Olympics, Maëlle had a very no non-sense approach, “the thing with the Olympics, even in my hometown, I still treated it like another World Cup. I didn’t drive my car […] I went on the bus with the team. I made sure before I competed that nothing was drastically different from when I competed with the team in the rest of the season. Obviously, after the event, things got kind of crazy […] I was really happy to be back with my team in Europe and racing again, I felt like I was back in my skin and at my comfort level”.
Winning the Olympic gold medal has afforded opportunities but also a few challenges, “It’s forced me to learn a different side of snowboarding – the business side. I’ve probably matured a lot in the last year. But, I’ve had some amazing opportunities with ACT Now BC and Kid Sport Canada and then I get the chance to align myself with companies I believe in”. Where does she go from here? Olympic Gold medalist, Winter X-Games gold medalist, Gatorade endorser – what more can she do? “I’m still progressing and still moving on an upward slope in boarder cross and I’m looking forward to keep pushing myself in the next few years. And I’m also really passionate about free riding and being out in the backcountry – I have the mountain right at my doorstep”.
Maëlle’s honesty and laid back love of the sport is inspiring. She may not ooze style through what she wears but her riding and patronage of the sport is contagious. She’s not your typical athlete but she proves that you don’t have to be a typical jock or fit the image of the stereotypical snowboarder to succeed – she walks the fine line, all for the love the powder turn and the going for the gold.
For more on Maëlle, you can click below to read the transcript of our interview below. Special thanks to Laura from High Road Communications and Gatorade Canada Team.