Spencer O’Brien: Don’t Call it a Comeback

By Adryan Roane Ritter

Blustery doesn’t even come close to describing the tornado-like winds at Breckenridge’s Peak 8 during the Dec. 19th Finals of the Women’s Snowboarding Slopestyle at the Winter Dew Tour. Understandably, tensions were high — one false maneuver and getting literally blown off the course was a very real threat. Spencer O’Brien was the last of the six girls to drop for her second run, and although qualifying first in the Prelims, she was sitting disappointedly in the middle of the pack after her second run. It was time to step it up; Shit or get off the pot as they say.

Just before she was about to drop into the Snow Park Technologies-built Slopestyle course, the wind and weather took a turn for the worst as it blew snow upwards and sideways. The course, with its enormous triple-set of jumps and two sets of rail options, became a virtual white-out for a moment. Even when visibility was regained, the wind continued to rip and roar. Spencer, already strapped in at the start gate, timidly asked for a wind-hold, knowing quite well the officials may not give it to her. She was granted a “short” hold, and what followed was one of the most anxious and, quite frankly, awkwardly long course holds in recent snowboard memory.

The entire nation was viewing thanks to NBC’s coverage, and a live crowd had lined up and down the football-field length course, waiting for Spencer to drop. Yet with nerves of steel, she patiently waited, silently surveying the massive and daunting course in front of her.

And what happened next was history in the making.

“Snowboarding Keeps You Young”

Begrudgingly I do realize that some of you may not have heard of Spencer O’Brien. In Women’s Snowboarding, it’s the Gretchen Bleilers, Kelly Clarks, and Torah Brights that have been taking center stage as of late. But make no mistake, there is a changing of the guard in the works, and the dames of shredding who claim Slopestyle as their forte are on the rise. Step aside, pipe-jockettes, and let me introduce Spencer O’Brien.

Spencer grew up in the small town of Courtenay on Vancouver Island. By age three she was on-snow, and by age nine she had made the eminent switch from Skiing to Snowboarding, following the path of her two older sisters.

“Both my older sisters took it up, and I obviously wanted to emulate them. I really liked skiing at that point so their influence was really what pushed me towards it,” Spencer explained, and it became endearingly apparent to me what a vast role the O’Brien family has had with Spencer’s success. “In the end my entire family switched over [from skiing]. My family has been such a huge part of snowboarding for me. My dad taught me and my mom while he was still on skis, but shortly after that he took it up as well,” Spencer said. “None of my friends rode, so me and him rode together all the time when I was younger.”

Meghann O’Brien, one of Spencer’s two older sisters and fellow pro-shred, elaborated on their father’s role on the mountain. “Our dad Brian (Yes, Brian O’Brien) is a great inspiration. He’s really pushed and guided Spence’ over the years and now today he’s progressed so much himself that he gives us tips on speed for jumps and rides the Blackcomb Park more than any of us.”

Spencer joked her dad more friends in Whistler than she did. “He’s a permanent fixture in the Whistler Black Park, which surprises a lot of people,” she said. “It’s not that often you see a 55 year old hitting a 40-foot table. He’s the perfect example of how snowboarding keeps you young and he makes me stoked to be an old lady shredding in the park.”

“More than just a hobby”

At 20-years-old, Spencer has a long history with snowboarding, as anyone heavily involved in the industry will tell you. But her win at the first-ever Winter Dew Tour in Breckenridge, CO has been called both a “Comeback” and a “Coming-out”, depending on whom you are talking with.

If anyone can clarify these judgments from the peanut gallery, it’s Snowboarder Magazine’s Editor-in-chief Pat Bridges. “This win for Spencer is not a comeback. She never went anywhere. She has been riding steady all along but hasn’t broken through to the next level yet. This is hopefully the start of her fulfilling on the promise she has shown for the past few years.”

At a mere12 years old, Spencer started competing regionally. Her parents happily supported the sisters O’Brien with their snowboarding and brought them to their competitions on the weekends. By the next year, Spencer aspired to go pro — but as any grom will realize, getting sponsored ain’t easy.

“When I was 13 I sent a hand-written letter with a photo of me doing a method to the Burton offices in Vermont. I got a rejection letter (which I still have) about a month later, but the Smalls Team Manager at the time sent all my info to my local Burton representative, Jeff Martino,” Spencer admitted of her early sponsorship tribulations. “Martino also turned me down, but told me to keep him updated with my progress.

“I emailed him every result I got, even if it was last place, for over a year and in 2001 I got 2nd at Nationals in Halfpipe.” At this point Spencer adds “Go figure” and rolls her eyes due to the fact that her strengths have always lied within Slopestyle. “I’m not sure if it was that placing or the overwhelming amount of emails, but either way he finally hooked me up.”

This is when things started picking up for our Canadian heroine. She did really well at a bunch of local contests and got picked up by Dragon and Etnies. When she turned 17, Spencer got moved up to the National team for Burton. Just two years later at 19, Spencer was moved up yet another level of sponsorship with Burton and put on the Burton Team itself, a status she retains today. “With all the support I was getting it really made me think twice about what I was doing and I realized that it was more than just a hobby,” she said.

At this point in her then-hobby-now -career, Spencer has an impressive collection of medals and awards, including the 2005 US Open Outstanding Rookie Award, 3rd at the US Open Rail Jam 2005, 2nd at the US Open Slopestyle 2006, a TransworldSnowboarding Check Out, and 3rd at the 2008 Winter X Games Slopestyle,

For her efforts, Transworld Snowboarding has given Spencer a lot of attention, granting her a Check Out page, and the 2008 Rookie of the Year Award. Spence’ even landed herself the 2006 cover of the first Snowboard Canada Women’s Annual.

In the past few years alone Spencer has traveled to Chile, Japan, New Zealand and Australia, and her contest schedule has included the Burton Opens, Winter X Games, Baker Banked Slalom, Vans Cup, Roxy Chicken Jam, Transworld Team Challenge and Women’s Snowboarder Magazine Superpark. “I’ve spent more time on airplanes in the last three years than I thought I would in a lifetime,” Spencer said.

Her accomplishments are more than impressive, and yet a first place finish at a professional event still eluded Spencer O’Brien. Until now.

Enter Breckenridge Winter Dew Tour 2008

Back at the top of the course of the Women’s Snowboarding Slopestyle Final, the winds were starting to die down as Spencer waited, biding time before her final run. The pressure was on from the moment she took the lead at the Pre-qualifiers.

“Prelims are always nerve racking for me because I’m never sure if I should play it safe or go for my actual run. I decided to play it safe based on what I had seen in practice and it worked out,” she said. “I landed a clean run that I thought would put me in Final, but never imagined in the top qualifying spot.”

Qualifying behind Spencer in the Final and close on her heels was some fierce competition. “Jenny Jones was riding so solid all three days [of practice] so it wasn’t a surprise when she was on top before my final run. Bev [Vuilleumier] was riding so good too, and when I saw her final run I knew she was going to score big,” she said. “Jamie [Anderson] is another one that all the girls are a bit worried about. She’s so consistent and a really good competitor- she can pull it out when it matters the most,” Spencer explained. “I think though that all the girls have the skills to win, it’s just a matter of who’s on that day.”

Since Spencer had qualified first, she was set to drop last in the line-up (per the format of the event). “I wasn’t sure if being able to see everyone else go would be an advantage or if it would just mess with my head. In the end I think it was really a great spot to be in.

“When the wind picked up before my last run it definitely sketched me out. I was really worried that if I asked for a wind hold they’d just tell me I’d have to drop because of TV. Everyone was super understanding though and let me wait it out.

“It lasted a lot longer than I expected and a lot of thoughts ran through my head at that point in time. I just tried to keep focused on what I was about to do and keep my mind clear so I didn’t let it get the best of me. When the wind cleared I was ready to drop and although I was still super nervous, I was confident in what I was about to do.”

For those of you who watched any of the Breckenridge stop of the Winter Dew Tour, than you already know what happened after that. Spencer laid down an undisputedly good and technical run. Dropping in switch to the first jump, Spencer laced together a Switch Backside 180 to a Backside 360 to a Backside 540 thru the triple set, and finished off her winning run with a 50/50 over the up-flat rail. Her score of 85.00 gave her a huge lead and won her first place at the first ever Winter Dew Tour in Breckenridge — and took her first ever top podium placement at a professional. (For more on Spencer’s winning run click here.)

“It felt amazing to win! I was totally speechless when they announced my score,” she said. “I’ve been placing top three every now and again for the last three years so to finally win was just a great feeling,” Spencer said, adding her victory was made even better by the fact that she won the first trophy to be given at Winter Dew Tour. Shortly after her run, Spencer was all smiles — even welling with tears — in the finish corral. As the hordes of press started crowding in on her she leaned over to one of her friends, laughing and whispering, “I’m such a dork, I totally started crying!”

Back home in Vancouver, her family awaited the news. Her sister Meghann was home with their mother, aunt, and granda. “We were so happy and excited when we heard it,” she said. “I’ve seen the (footage) on the internet and am so proud of her achievement, she deserves it so much. She’s really grown a lot in the last year and it shows in the way she is living. I think this is the start of a really great season for her.”

As for the rest of Spencer’s season, the remaining two stops of the Winter Dew Tour will be an essential part of it. “I definitely want to keep this going. I’d be stoked to win another one of the stops, but I just want to ride the best I can and if that brings me to another win or even the overall title then so be it,” Spencer said. “I’m just stoked to be a part of it and to be able to ride such awesome courses.”

Keep your eye out for Spencer at the Mount Snow stop this weekend and at the final 2008-2009 Winter Dew Tour stop and Toyota Championships at Northstar-At-Tahoe, CA February 19th-22nd.