Spencer O’Brien: Riding Large

Words by: Lisa Richardson

Photos by: Tyler Ravelle

From the time she first began to snowboard at age 11, Spencer O’Brien wanted her riding to speak for itself.

“I only wanted people to care how I snowboarded. That was such a massive part of my identity,” she says.

It was too hard to put words to some of the other things.

Like, what it’s like to be diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis in the lead-up to the 2014 Olympics and not know if your athletic career is over. Or what it’s like to blow your ACL 10 days before you’re going to the 2018 Olympics, after you’ve been competing and training and building up to that moment for 10 years. Or or what it’s like to be an Indigenous woman, disconnected from your ancestral culture and territory, because that’s what a 150 year strategy of colonisation and genocide had worked towards that end.

“I didn’t want to be labeled as an athlete with an illness when I didn’t even know how to fit that into my life at the time. Same with my heritage. I didn’t want to be the indigenous snowboarder. I just wanted to be a snowboarder.”

As a snowboarder, O’Brien’s identity was clear – she was a two-time Olympian, 5 times X Games medallist, Slopestyle world champion. She was dedicated. She’d moved to Whistler at 17, finishing grade 12 by home-school, living off her earnings from working as a barista and on her dad’s fishing boat. Three years later she was voted Transworld’s Rookie of the Year.

Eleven years later, in 2019, she hung up her slopestyle and Olympic bibs. “My goal as a young kid was to ride backcountry and be out in the mountains, and I honestly thought I was going to make that switch sooner.”

An opportunity came up to work on a documentary film with director Cassie De Colling, an Australian-born, BC-based film-maker who’d long followed O’Brien’s career. In the summer of 2018, De Colling was visiting Alert Bay when she came upon a little poster of O’Brien at the U’mista Cultural Centre acknowledging her Kwakwakaʼwakw heritage. De Colling reached out to O’Brien via Instagram, and they agreed to meet for a coffee. A collaboration was seeded. De Colling shopped a film idea around for over a year, and the pair got to know each other better and better as the project was pitched around. Just as they were both considering moving on and finding other jobs, the film was given the green light.

Stepping before a camera, for the feature film Precious Leader Woman, as she was shifting her focus from competing to backcountry riding and filming, catalysed a level of reflection O’Brien wasn’t expecting – one which wove all the threads of her story together.

“If I’d known the story we’d end up telling, when she first approached me, I probably would never have said yes,” says O’Brien. “I would have been too guarded. When my heritage became a big talking point at the Olympics, which it never had been in my career before, I felt like a fraud. I didn’t feel I had earned or deserved the right to be this advocate for my culture, because I hadn’t embraced it, and I didn’t understand it. I did my best at that time, but I think that there are points in my career where I really struggled with my snowboarding, and I was struggling personally, and I think it was because I had this massive disconnect to my family and to my culture. So the film was an incredible process. I learned so much about myself. I made massive steps in learning about who I am and where I come from and where that fits into my life.”

Snowboarding had been a welcome refuge, an escape. “As I start to unpack those parts of myself that I’d pushed away because I was afraid or I didn’t understand, it’s actually making me a better snowboarder too. For a lot of my young life, I didn’t think I had anything if I lost snowboarding. But snowboarding isn’t the only thing anymore. If snowboarding went away tomorrow, I have my family, and I have my culture, and I have my community. When you really tie yourself to something, it makes you really vulnerable. But it’s just been a wonderful experience to learn more and to reconnect with my family and be open and be vulnerable to these parts of myself that used to scare me, because I think the more we understand ourselves, the more powerful we are at whatever we choose to do.”

In January, O’Brien put on a bib again, to compete at the first round of the Natural Selection Tour alongside fellow Arc’teryx riders Elena Hight and Robin Van Gyn. “I was excited to be there with those girls and be part of this really special transition for competitive snowboarding,” said O’Brien.

“Women’s snowboarding right now – from slopestyle and half-pipe, all the way through to big mountain riding – is really exceptional. It’s a really exciting time. And now, it feels like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. It feels really good.”