From Tewkesbury To Olympic Gold | The Sarah Hoefflin Interview

We chat with Olympic gold medalist Sarah Hoefflin about improving female participation in freestyle

Now I’ve got to admit there’s only one or two things I knew about the English town of Tewkesbury. Firstly, it’s the place you always see on the news totally flooded – with residents reaching their houses by dinghy. Secondly, a few mates of mine are from the town and they’ve got a pretty cool band called Beverly Shrills – you should check them out. Other than that, I’d always seen it as just another pretty mundane English town. Until, that is, I learnt that it had raised a Swiss Olympic gold medalist.

Sarah Hoefflin spent ten years of her childhood, between the ages of 12 and 22, being brought up in the wonderful pastures of Tewkesbury and she’s now an Olympic gold medalist. Yeah, that’s right. Olympic. Gold. Medalist. Good on ya, Tewkesbury. Always rated ya.

“We can’t help but feel a tiny inkling of pride at the rate with which Britain is throwing out freestyle talent”

Sarah, of course, isn’t the only woman paving the way for Olympic medalists rising through the British ranks; Izzy Atkin recently became the first British skier to win an Olympic medal (bronze) on skis, at the Pyeongchang 2018 games, following Jenny Jones’ first British medal on snow at the 2014 Sochi Olympics (also bronze).

While Sarah is Swiss through and through, we can’t help but feel a tiny inkling of pride at the rate with which Britain is throwing out freestyle talent. After all, we’re not exactly blessed with an abundance of snowy mountains (unless you’re lucky enough to live in the Highlands of course, and even then it’s not always firing is it). We’ll take our wins where we can.

With a female roster featuring the likes of Kelly Sildaru, Mathilde Gremaud, Giulia Tanno, Caroline Claire, Margaux Hackett and of course, Sarah Hoefflin, it’s no surprise that Faction Skis were looking for ways to show off their solid athlete lineup.

They’ve certainly achieved this by releasing an all-female segment featured in their all new movie – The Collective. The ‘X Segment’ shows off the levels that many of the girls at the top of the freestyle game have achieved, with four minutes of lively, fun and all-female park shredding of the highest calibre.

Sarah found time to chat with us, to discuss that British upbringing, how she first found herself in the park and what’s on offer for ladies looking to get into freestyle.

It would be cool if we could just start about hearing about your upbringing

So I was born in Geneva and lived just outside of Geneva until I was twelve years old. Then my step dad’s job moved us all to the UK. I can just remember the day. We were at a restaurant when my mum and step dad just said ‘Next year we’re moving, you’re going to start school in Tewkesbury’.

You’re obviously Swiss, but is there any sort of affiliation to Britain at all?

Yeah, I’m actually going back to the UK this Tuesday, my younger brother still lives there. I mean, we grew up there and all our friends are from England and all of my uni friends live in London now so I do try to go back as much as I can.

“I kind of feel half British, even though I’m not”

I don’t know, it definitely feels like home. My boyfriend is from London, so it’s definitely close to my heart. I kind of feel half British, even though I’m not. My grandmother is British, so there is that in the family. It’s really cool and I love going back and I just miss it. I think it’s cool, you know? When you grow up somewhere as a teenager, living there for 12 or 13 years, it definitely feels like home.

And it was during your time at Cardiff Uni that you really got into the freestyle side of skiing?

Yeah, so I mean I always loved skiing when I was a kid, but I was never part of a club when I was young, When I was in Geneva, I didn’t really have mountains near, you had to travel, although it’s not that far away. This meant I was never part of a ski club or anything, I just went skiing with my family at the weekend.

“I would say that it was the Brits who got me into skiing, not the Swiss”

It wasn’t until I got to university I remember I went on the university ski trip. My older brother went to Bristol university and he was the one that said ‘You have to go on the uni ski trip’, he was like ‘It’s so much fun, it’s the coolest thing ever, but you have to book it like on the day that they release the tickets as it usually sells out within a couple of hours’ and I just remember being there on the day, just refreshing it until they opened it up. I must’ve been the first one that signed up to that ski trip.

I just remember it was the first time that I skied through a park and I met a bunch of British skiers who love skiing. I would say that it was the Brits who got me into skiing, not the Swiss. When you don’t have something, you just want to do it more. My friends from uni were just so into it, they loved it and it was the first time I met people that were so positive about what I first thought was ‘my sport’ because I was like ‘I’m Swiss, this is my sport’.

These images were titled ‘Tignes 2011 Gaper’ – Sarah’s words, not mine

Do you feel like those uni days stood you in good stead when you moved to the Alps and really started to focus on freestyle?

I think completely, but more in terms with actually finding a passion in the sport, because I definitely wasn’t good at skiing at that point. And you know, the few dry slope sessions that we did a couple of times of year didn’t help that much. Because I didn’t ski that much, you would just get injured all the time.

So it was pretty stupid, but it definitely made me think ‘This is really cool’. It was all my friends from the ski club who taught me about ski seasons. Since I never got into medical school, I just wanted to go off and do a ski season as I’d just heard how cool it was and I’d just found a really cool job that a friend had sorted out for me, so yeah, that’s why I moved out to Tignes and just hung out in the park which I thought was really cool.

Nice one, so what were you doing out in Tignes?

I worked for Ben’s Bus. It was such a fun job. I was a rep and a manager, so I got loads of hours which tied me over for the whole season. And yeah, it was just really cool, working twice a week – Saturdays and some Sundays – and I actually made more money than some people who were working in chalets 5-6 days per week. I just skied every single day.

“It was such a fun job”

The next season, I went to do a season in Meribel and there I was like so into it, like I could feel that I was progressing pretty fast. I used to wake up at like seven in the morning. I’d put my alarm on for seven and I’d catch a bus to go up to Mottaret, no… two buses ’cause it was faster than catching the gondola up to Mottaret.

So two buses, up to Mottaret and make my way straight to Val Thorens, cause the laps are so much faster and the park is so good and I literally went almost every single day, I was either there or in the park in Meribel.

Ah cool. So you’d say that those two years is where your skiing really started to progress?

Yeah, I mean it was just two ski seasons. I don’t know, it just makes a big difference when you ski everyday, all the time. I mean before that, I was just skiing every now and then, I was still at uni in Cardiff, so it’s not like I was part of a club, or could ski every single weekend.

But yeah, being in the mountains and having a job only at weekends, you have a pretty privileged lifestyle that allows you to just go and ski as much as you want.

You’re obviously featured in Faction’s X Segment (which was awesome by the way), what does this segment represent for you and what were you trying to achieve with it?

It’s showing the progression in women’s freeskiing and I think we did manage to showcase that to a pretty good level. We definitely did manage to show all of our tricks and I think it’s cool because it means that we can always do better, it’s not like this is all we can do.

“It was just super important for us to just show the world that the girls are getting really good”

It was just super important for us to just show the world that the girls are getting really good and it was so much fun to film, it was all of our first run at filming a segment, so it was definitely quite difficult, but it was so much fun and I would absolutely do it again.

I think it’s cool. It’s one of the only park segments, with five or six girls who are at the top level just showing what they can do. It was really cool and I think everybody liked it.

You talk about that progression. Is that a progression in tricks, or is it a progression of simply more women getting into the sport? Or is it a bit of both?

Definitely both, but it’s more in what we wanted to show which was the progression and the level of skiing, so tricks, more grabs, more variety and more style.

And do you see the freestyle discipline changing more to cater towards women?

I think so, I think because the progression is going pretty fast and it’s getting more and more interesting, I think viewers are actually getting interested in watching women’s skiing. It’s definitely something that’s moving pretty fast and I think it’s going in the right direction.

There’s definitely a big difference between the level and the number of girls between guys and girls, in terms of levels and participation. But erm, it’s going in the right direction and I think it’s so, so cool that Faction are investing so much into women’s freeskiing, I think they’re really leading in terms of doing that. It’s so cool and it just makes me so proud to be a part of the team.

Yeah, I think Faction are killing it in terms of their ladies team. Going back to that participation, how do you feel you can get more women into freestyle?

I think things like putting out women’s parts, so just like what Faction have done, and just showing the world that the girls can do it as well, so all the young girls are going to watch these segments and are going to watch these chicks who are ripping and for them we’re role models I guess. If you have more role models, then you’re more likely to follow a certain sport.

“If you have more role models, then you’re more likely to follow a certain sport”

It is a really new sport compared to sports like alpine skiing, so we definitely still need more girls to take part and I think that it just takes a bit of time for people to realise that it’s not as dangerous as people think. Yeah, I think putting out segments like this is definitely going to push more girls to take part. I hope so anyway…

Did you feel like there were any barriers as you were trying to progress through the discipline?

Not really. I think one hard thing for women in freeskiing is actually getting into it and I think that’s just because there’s not many girls that are part of clubs. They’re still very male dominated. If you want to sign up to any club, you’re lucky if you’ve got one or two chicks.

So I think it’s quite difficult for girls to say ‘Okay, I’m going to be that first girl’. I suppose that can be quite difficult starting out, but for me it wasn’t so bad. My two first seasons, I didn’t have a coach, I was just skiing with friends and skiing with guys and just getting tips from whoever wanted to give me tips, but I was actually pretty fast at just getting to the top level.

I think the biggest hurdle for me was definitely just being a part of the Swiss team because it was quite difficult for me to adapt, but mainly because I didn’t speak Swiss German and the whole team spoke Swiss German. I think I was just a little bit different because I wasn’t a resort kid, I didn’t go to the Swiss ski school. They have a special secondary school and every single person on the team goes to this school and they do like half a day of ski lessons and working out, then half a day of school work. So yeah, I think it was definitely quite difficult for me to adapt to that.

Finally, any tips for any young women looking to shred in the park?

I would say, just make the step. Just be a part of a club, it doesn’t matter if there are guys or girls, just don’t be scared, because just like any other sports, you’re going to start at a low level. No one’s going to make you do things that are too difficult.

It’s not because all the boys are doing hard tricks that you’re going to be expected to do crazy hard, scary tricks, it’s just not how it is. You’ll literally be taken step-by-step throughout the whole process. It’s actually not any more dangerous than alpine skiing – they have horrific crashes in alpine skiing. Just ask someone – they’d be so happy to have a girl involved, we just need more girls to just take that step and go for it. It’s so much fun once you start doing it and you start understanding how it works. I think it’s the coolest sport.

Check out Faction Ski’s ‘The Collective’ (full film) here:

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