TV & Movies

What It’s Really Like to Be a Pro Snowboarder

In our 9–5 series, we ask boss babes what a day in their work lives entails. This week our friends at Fido, the title music sponsor for the 2016 World Ski and Snowboard Festival, hooked us up with exclusive access to Olympian snowboarder Mercedes Nicoll, who will be competing in Whistler this week!

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Age: 32

Times she’s represented Canada at the Olympics: Three (Turin, 2006; Vancouver, 2010; Sochi, 2014).

Length of time in current gig: More than half my life. I started when I was 13 and won my first professional snowboarding contest when I was 16.

Did you always know you wanted to be a professional athlete? No, I didn’t even consider myself an “athlete” until these past few years; I was just a snowboarder. I got a concussion at the Olympics in Sochi that put me out for about two years. Having sport taken away from me, I realized I was an athlete.

What drew you into the world of competitive snowboarding? I used to figure skate, but I quit that because it got too competitive. There were rivalries, and I cared more about my friends than I did about competing. I got into snowboarding because a friend and I were looking for a new challenge. I started doing local contests because it was the thing to do on the weekends and all my friends were doing it.

How was the vibe with snowboarders compared to other sports you’ve done? It’s still an individual sport, but we go out and we push each other and challenge each other to go bigger or do a new trick. It’s a different sport in that sense, because it’s you working with your friends to better each other. It’s not a rivalry. That’s what really sold me on the sport: having those friendships but still being able to compete at a top level.

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Standing at the top of a hill before a run, what’s going through your mind? It depends. If I’m at the top of the half pipe, I’m going through my run mentally and then I’ll just breathe and tell myself, “Relax. You got this.” But if I’m just going down a run on the hill, it’s totally second nature to me so I’m not thinking about anything. There’s no pressure and no stress. I just let it ride.

How do you calm your nerves and get in the zone at competitions? I do yoga breathing if I’m nervous. When you’re at something like the Olympics, you’re so focused on the task at hand that you literally can’t even hear the people around you. If I do hear the crowds that are cheering on either side of the half pipe, I’m not focused.

What type of look do you go for when picking snowboarding gear? I usually wear bright clothes so I show up in photos when I’m in the air. Right now, I have a bright coral jacket with camo pants. Most people wear face masks so they don’t get the hideous goggle tan, but I love the sun so I just wear sunglasses—and then get a raccoon tan.

What are some of the challenges of being a professional athlete? It’s super hard being an athlete. There are sacrifices and choices you have to make—going to the gym, missing birthdays, holidays and all that. It sucks. But it’s my choice.

 What is your training schedule like? It’s a lot of travel. In the summertime, we can either go on the glacier up at Whistler or down to Mount Hood in Oregon, where there’s a half pipe. Then, from the end of July through September, we go to New Zealand. In the fall, we’re in the gym, gearing up for winter. Then we usually head to Colorado to do training and do the first contest of the season. December to March is pretty much all on the road either with training or competitions. April is mostly riding for fun up at Whistler to keep my legs going. This stretch of time is also a chance to work, if you can, along with training.

How do you make money? I’ve been fortunate enough to have some great sponsors throughout the years. Being on the Canadian national team, there’s also eligibility to get government funding, which is potentially $18,000 a year, so that has helped. But having suffered a concussion, you lose sponsorships. As an athlete, you don’t always have the opportunity to gain job experience because you’re training so hard. Right now, I’m working at RBC as part of their Olympians program, which gives me an opportunity to get some experience for my resume, while still competing. They work around my schedule.

Olympian Mercedes Nichols

How many times have you been injured? I don’t even think I could count. I’ve had two wrist surgeries, knee surgery, broken ribs, I had a few vertebrae in my neck get out of place, lots of bone bruises, which take about a year to heal, and lots of torn ligaments.

How do you get back into competitive shape after an injury? After my concussion in Sochi, I couldn’t walk or talk for about three months. I had to re-learn everything. This January, I got back in the half pipe. I started off easy, doing little jumps and going back to the basics. If I was doing a 900, which is two rotations in the half pipe, I would literally just stand at the top of the pipe, and do two rotations just standing, like spinning around in one spot.

 How are the Olympics different than other competitions? When you get out on the stage during the opening ceremonies and see all the other nations, you realize how vast it is. It’s not like any other contest. It’s so much bigger.

You’ve hit the slopes all over the world, what’s your favourite place to snowboard? My backyard: Whistler Blackcomb.

 If someone wanted to snowboard professionally, what attributes do they need? You gotta have guts. I ride a 22-foot ice wall that’s more than 500 feet long. I can reach speeds of over 70 km/h and go out at like 10 feet, with the possibility of dropping three stories.

How do you unwind after a long day of training? I do yoga, and I binge watch TV shows. I just finished Scandal. I love Scott Foley. I want him to win.

(World Ski & Snowboard Festival runs from April 8-17.)

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