Finding Her Place in the Snow: Sandy Ward Carves Up a Mountain of a Career
“Having the courage to stand up for what you know you deserve is a hard thing, but it's a really important skill to have,” says Sandy Ward. She comes from the Lil'wat nation in the Coastal Mountains of BC and she’s been in the snowboard industry for about 20 years, first starting out as an instructor. Ward’s been a competitive halfpipe snowboarder, spent time in the backcountry to do filming and she’s in training to be a full mountain guide.
She got into snowboarding as a career back in 2004 when the First Nations snowboarding team had openings for athletes that aspired to train for the Olympics. She joined and the organization supported her development as an instructor so she could obtain her first and second-level instructor certifications. That training prepared her to teach the next generation of Indigenous youth snowboarders in the area, which grew into her career. For the past 18 seasons, she’s been delighted to be working with Whistler Blackcomb.
The First Nations snowboard team grew into the Indigenous Life Sport Academy (ILSA), building on their mandate to train competitive snowboards and becoming more flexible as an organization in terms of the sports instruction they offer. Now they are able to offer climbing, mountain biking, skateboarding, skiing along with snowboarding.
Ward also works with Indigenous Women Outdoors (IWO), an organization which aims to create a safe space for Indigenous women to gather, enjoy the land and learn how to safely practice recreational sports. The hope is that participants will go on to obtain guiding certifications and run programs for the organization or join other Indigenous Life Sport Academy as coaches for the youth.
She has advice for Indigenous youth thinking about starting a new sport, whether that be snowboarding or skiing or climbing, biking, or anything, really. Ward says, “It can be really scary starting any sport, especially these high-risk ones. I really recommend just finding an organization like ILSA or IWO and finding a safe space that you can learn and feel comfortable in.” While she recommends the organizations she works with, there are so many other organizations in the region where she lives alone that create safe spaces for budding athletes and outdoors people to come and learn.
Learning a new sport can be intimidating, but so can teaching them, in Ward’s experience. “It's been pretty difficult actually, as an Indigenous woman going into what is traditionally known as a white male space, and really a lot of ego involved in it as well. I got pushed down quite a bit in my 18 years. It wasn't until very recently, actually, that I started to feel welcome and able to join in conversation with my fellow instructors,” she recounts. She didn’t feel supported enough as a woman teaching higher-level lessons. It took 15 years for her to get the courage to bring it up with her supervisor and advocate for herself.
If she could go back in time and give her younger self advice it would be to not listen to people and their opinions. “I was told 10 years ago that because I was a snowboarder, I would never be able to be a mountain guide. I had to be a skier for it. I listened to that person because they were a guide. I'm 10 years late on starting my guiding career because of that. I really wish somebody had told me just don't listen to older people, even,” she confides.
“As an Indigenous person, we're always told to listen to our elders, so when this elder guide told me that I could never be a split boarder, it really went to my heart and I'll remember that forever. It took me ten years and I think two other friends that were guides or training to be guides to tell me I could do it” she continues.
She has learned to balance on a snowboard, but another balancing skill she has had to master has been in self-care and mental wellness. Getting outside has helped her a lot. She’s been off snow for weeks due to injury and she’s missed out on film and photo shoots for the season.
Those missed opportunities have weighed heavily on her mental health, but she’s found solace in doing anything she can outside. The unseasonal warmth and sunshine have been enjoyable as she spends time out on her bike. To process her feelings and recharge, she also likes to write about her feelings in an online journal where her thoughts are safely password protected and kept confidential. Once a week or when she feels like being fancy, she goes to the Scandinave Spa for hours to read, relax, plunge in the water, sit alone and enjoy the peace and quiet.
When it comes to inspiration, she is motivated by friends, fellow guides and other people she knows, and also by her relationship with the land as she’s snowboarding. “Out there, you’re with the land, you’re one with the land while you’re there. Being able to draw some creativity from the landscape has always been a part of snowboarding. You're playing with the features on the land,” she explains. She’s also inspired by what she sees with her own eyes.
As an Indigenous woman in snow sports, Sandy Ward knows that having the courage to stand up for what you know you deserve is a hard thing, but it's a really important skill to have. She’s overcome barriers and conquered halfpipes, and she’s teaching the next generation of Indigenous snowboarders. In their relationship with the land and in advocating for herself to be in a better relationship with her peers, she’s carving a path through the snow towards the career of her dreams.
Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.
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