My biggest challenge was never adversity or competition. It was never weather nor wealth. My darkest clouds have always been self-doubt. They form on my horizon during dark nights of failure or sunny days of success. But as I often ache with insecurity, I’m reminded that tiny raindrops can become waves and soft snowflakes become an avalanche. Like that, my journey is just a string of small stories, part of a book I’m writing, that add up to a life lived, despite my fears. Bev Sanders 2021
Bev Sanders, founder of Las Olas Surf Retreats for Women, the original surf retreat for women, and co-founder of Avalanche Snowboards. One of the foremost snowboard companies. Bev, along with her husband Chris, were two of the first ever to build, ride, and sell snowboards. Avalanche started from the back of a Subaru in the early '80s.
After more than a decade in the male-dominated snowboard business, Bev launched Las Olas Surfing for Women in 1997 after learning to surf at 44. Las Olas, an all women's surf camp located at a small beach town in Mexico, began with help from the Surf Diva founder, Izzy, and a team of female surf coaches from California, Canada, France, and Australia. At the time, few women surfed, fewer traveled to Mexico, and women's surf camps were unknown.
Bev's motto– We make girls out of women– continues to inspire through the simple joy of surfing warm waves with friends. She still hosts retreats, but as the coronavirus put surf travel on hold, she is currently working on her memoir about the early days of snowboarding and surf camps.
Can you tell us a bit about where you grew up, what sports interest you, and what the 'girlhood' scene was like for you. Who were your role models?
I grew up in New England, where the freedom of winter sports enabled us to manage the otherwise brutal winters. Fortunately, I was introduced to skiing early on.
When I was in the second grade, I begged my dad to include me on a ski trip with my uncle and big brother. My relentless shrieks of enthusiasm (meltdown) must have worn him down, and he resized my brother's skis to fit my boots, and off we went.
On the second run of the day, I fell hard and heard a snap like a tree branch. Just like that, I broke my leg. All I remembered was the cross on the ski patrol's red jacket riding from my view in the toboggan.
It was a spiral fracture to the tibia, the bad kind. The experience was foreign and excruciating. They sedated me in the Vermont hospital and set my leg in a plaster cast. After days in bed, I eventually learned how to cruise around on crutches. Pants wouldn't fit over the cast, but I could wear a dress, and I liked that.
During my recovery, I spent time at my neighbor Joanie's house while she trained her little black poodle to dance or rollover. Using short commands and treats, Champie, short for Champagne de Martinique, would inch closer, locked in a treat trance. Joanie said, "stop," and the little pup stopped in his tracks. When she reached the limits of Champie's patience, Joanie whispered, "Ok," and everyone celebrated. I was so impressed that Champie never touched the treat without hearing Joanie's permission first. I thought Joanie was a magician, or Champie was the smartest dog I'd ever seen.
After my leg healed, my dad wanted me to try skiing again. I joined the family and our neighbor Joanie on a second trip to the mountain. I rode the rope tow up to the top of the bunny hill but was too terrified to point my skis downhill. I started to cry.
Instinctively, Joanie took over. Applying the focusing powers she used on Champie, Joanie coached my snowplow across the slippery mound, inch by inch. As I traversed one small stretch of snow at a time, she kept me looking ahead, focused on her words. The fear melted as I made a turn, a stop, then another turn. Finally, we reached the bottom, and I couldn't remember why I was so afraid. I poled back to the liftline, rode up the hill, and never looked back.
In her iconic '60s style ski outfit, Joanie was an expert skier and my first female role model. Her patience and skill changed the direction of my life. Perhaps I first learned of the potential of women teaching women, and Champie, from Joanie.
We lived between two ski resorts, so skiing was what we did almost every winter weekend. The Sweeney sisters and I made up our little pack of weekend sliders. On Saturdays, Mom dropped us off when the resort opened and picked us up when the lift stopped. On Sundays, it was Dad's turn, even in sub-zero blowing snow. Eventually, I became a familiar face, so the resort hired me to teach the next round of beginners. Although I wasn't much older than my students, I applied what I learned from Joanie. To this day, I still do.
How did you start Avalanche Snowboards?
My connection to snowboarding starts in the early '80s, with my trek across the Midwest plains to Lake Tahoe's snowy peaks. Escaping a dead-end marriage, I scooped up my cat and whatever else I could carry, crammed it all into a creaky surplus bread van, and headed West. Like 'California-or-Bust' painted on wagons crossing the prairie, my peeling paint job read "Wonderbread."
I arrived at the Lake with no home, no job, and no prospects. Just ski instructor experience and a desire to live here were my only credentials. References? No one back home could vouch for me, and my cat turned out to be unreliable.
Offering my unverified skills as a ski instructor, I landed a job right away at Sierra Ski Ranch, but my start date was on hold while we waited for snow. That's ok, I was on a roll, so I applied to a popular pizza joint as a bartender and got the job. An all-you-can-eat salad bar was one of the benefits.
Being from somewhere else made me a little hard to figure out the local patrons, which comes in handy in the bartending game. My nights consisted of serving pitchers of wine coolers to packs of ski tourists and pints of beer to the chain monkeys and snowplow operators. When the snow finally came, I taught skiing by day and poured drinks at night. This went smoothly for a few months. I got a ski pass, made friends with a tribe of ladies who loved to ski and settled into my new life in the mountains.
As usual, when life chugs along seemingly effortlessly, repetition leads to curiosity. Things were going well as the ski season hit full swing. I really didn't need a distraction, but every few nights, a guy came to the bar and, unlike the other customers, was madly sketching what looked like rockets or snowshoes on cocktail napkins. When I made the rounds and retrieved my pen, I asked what he was drawing. "It's a snowboard!" he said.
"A what?" I'd been a skier my whole life and never heard of a snowboard. "I'm making them," he said, "It's like surfing on snow. Want to try it?" This is the part that still makes no sense. I said, "Sure. Looks like fun."
What inspired you? What kind of support did you have?
I was a proficient skier, but learning to ride a snowboard was humbling. I was starting all over on terrain I could easily have skied eyes closed. But I was persistent, and in time, I started linking my turns and skid to a stop without sitting down. There were no other snowboarders to learn from, and boards weren't available, so every aspect of the new sport had to be invented. The equipment was made from stuff you could buy at the hardware store. The riding technique was purely trial and error, and error, and more error.
My commitment led Chris– oh yeah, the young designer at the bar's name is Chris– to make me my bright red board. He built it in a garage, and he printed the word 'Avalanche' on top. It attracted attention at the ski resort and became very special to me. I remember falling in love with my snowboard, the excitement of the new sport, and eventually even Chris.
As unstoppable as an avalanche, our partnership was born.
Being from the East, the word avalanche was a foreign language, but later the Sierras were hit with snowstorms that season that shut down Lake Tahoe for weeks. So after moving to Tahoe and meeting Chris, I heard the word 'avalanche' morning, noon, and night.
The first time we went to an actual ski resort to ride, nobody knew what a snowboard was, so they sold us lift tickets, and away we went. It would be years before ski resorts outlawed snowboarders and years more before they welcomed us back.
I rode the bunny hill while Chris slid behind me, analyzing my turns and stops to improve the equipment later in the garage. As I walked across the parking lot at the end of the day, a guy stopped me to ask what it was I was carrying. "A snowboard," and I showed it to him. "How much are they?" I looked back to make sure Chris was out of earshot and said, "$150."
That wasn't the last time I sold a snowboard out from under my feet. I was riding with Chris and his brother Damian when some young skiers followed us to the lift line. They wanted to buy the same boards we were riding. I said, "Sure!" but this time, Chris protested. If I sold those boards, he'd have to make more boards at night after his day job, or we'd have nothing to ride next Saturday. I said, "Quit your job. We'll never get a chance to start something like this again." I learned quickly it was easier to sell snowboards than to make them, but that's how we started.
Please tell us a bit about Fin Technology in the development of Avalanche Snowboards.
Probably a holdover from surfing, early snowboards had fins. The board I’m riding in the photo above was one of the first finless snowboards. The bindings, molded in our pressure cooker, were paired with Sorel boots and ski boot liners. When I first tried boarding, I couldn’t turn. I propelled straight down the ski run, yelling at people to get out of the way. Chris raced behind me, shouting to stop. Since we were at one of the only resorts that allowed snowboarding at the time, he feared my reckless riding would get us kicked out, ruining it for all boarders. I was convinced I couldn’t turn because my board had fins. Skis didn’t have fins. Why did snowboards? To settle it, Chris found a rock and knocked the fins off the board. I stood, pointed downhill and made my first turns. From that day on, Chris applied finless ski-tech to the designs. His home-built presses were modified to include camber, sidecut, and metal edges. And that is how all boards are built to this day.
What was it like to be a woman in a male-dominated sport?
I never thought much about being the only woman in the sport at the time. It was all new, and very few people, women or men, did it. But as more and more snowboarders showed up at the ski resort, ski patrol started to take notice. Back then, snowboarders were generally rebels (read: punks) while skiing was mostly a sophisticated sport, knees precisely mirrored, perfect linked turns, and red and navy blue everything– snowboarders not so much. Most of them had skateboards in the trunk, spiked hair, and some even showed up in wetsuits.
It wasn't long before snowboarders annoyed the establishment enough, and we were outlawed at most US ski resorts.
My focus turned to convincing ski resort owners to give us another chance. Most ski resort management wouldn't even talk to snowboarders, but I being a woman who was once a skier and did wear powder pants, pried the door open enough to plead my case. I often left the meeting with a fist full of lift tickets for our team who were hiding out in the Subaru. Eventually, resorts started opening up to us again.
The most sympathetic to our cause had to be Norm Saylor at Donner Ski Ranch.
"I don't care how you slide, as long as you behave yourselves," he'd yell at the army of kids stumbling up to the ticket booth.
He owned a small resort near North Lake Tahoe, but he had so much heart and patience that it became a hotspot for boarders. I hope it paid off for him because he and his crew made us feel at home. We couldn't have done it without Donner.
Who were some of the girls/women who were groundbreaking in snowboarding during that time?
I was the lone girl on most snowboard trips until one of our team riders introduced me to his girlfriend, who soon became my riding buddy and a good friend. Bonnie Learey-Zellers was a fearless mountain goat on steep terrain. I admit I taught Bonnie to ride; soon, I had trouble keeping up with her. On our road trips, she slept in the same cramped hotel room with boys and was usually the first one out the door in the morning and the last to leave the mountain.
Bonnie is one of the premier big mountain riders regardless of gender. Later, she became one of the first women on the cover of a national snowboard magazine and landed a sponsorship with The North Face. All this recognition was hard-won for a woman in the sport. I remember at the photoshoot, I suggested wearing pink. Neither of us was crazy about pink, but we wanted there to be no doubt we were women when someone saw the photo.
You sold your company early on - Are Avalanche boards still available?
We sold in 1994. A lot of new brands were coming on the scene then, but Avalanche boards are still available.
Are there any other women-owned snowboard co. on your radar today?
It's been a long time since I've purchased new equipment, but I recently browsed Coalition Snow. I admit my favorite websites are surf- and snow cams. I got new liners for my boots last year, but I still ride a custom-built board Avalanche designed for me years ago.
What advice would you give women today when starting businesses in the action sports world?
Everyone's journey will be different, so keep in mind one size does not fit all. However, there are some universal rules to consider.
Offer up your own original ideas, or you'll forever be chasing someone else's vision. Creativity and reinvention is key to keeping your business fresh and relevant.
But you don't have a creative idea? Think again. I bet you do.
CLARIFY YOUR MOTIVATIONS AND TAKE ACTION.
I was a train wreck in my twenties that resulted in situations that seriously threatened me as a young woman. It sabotaged my self-worth. It was as if I fell off my board and was tumbling underwater, not knowing which way was up.
SURFING has taught me to calm myself and find the light. Once I see it, that's where I go! So, I needed to put the darkness behind me. That's when I 'escaped' to California.
When I was a kid, sports helped me tap into a hidden strength inside. Later, I was passionate about surfing and snowboarding, but that's not enough to start a business. I was driven by a desire to be self-employed and independent, too. I also knew that the woman's perspective in sports was terribly unmet, so I added a healthy dose of feminism. I wanted the results of my work to represent my vision and be more than just a paycheck.
BUSINESS IS FULL OF SURPRISES.
Like the ocean, your journey will ebb and flow. One moment it's calm, the next it's chaos. This twisted me around, so to succeed, I had to be fluid, like water. Being a surfer has helped me understand how to run a business without freaking every time I wipe out.
Surround yourself with the smartest, kindest people you can. Mentors share knowledge and hold you accountable. Coworkers will help carry the weight and enhance your vision. And your partners' and associates' knowledge will be your superpower.
IT IS NEVER TOO LATE.
I had already owned Avalanche for 15 years when I turned a corner and started Las Olas Surfing for Women at 44. I don't remember anyone ever questioning my late start. I think it helped.
I HAVE ALWAYS LOVED QUIET REVOLUTIONS.
by Bev Sanders
In the mid-90s, California took action by demanding that any large automaker selling cars in the state must also offer clean alternatives. In other words, car companies could still sell their gas guzzlers, but they needed to explore zero-emission technology, too.
At the time, our home and company had settled in a small town near San Francisco. I loved it, except we were surrounded by oil refineries constantly billowing gray clouds over our community. I became tired of complaining to city hall about stinky air and chemical leaks. I wanted to be part of the solution.
Late one night, just before turning off the TV, I saw a weird ad that started with multiple household appliances bouncing around a dark house. Toasters and blenders wriggled free of their plugs to join vacuum cleaners and electric mowers out on the sidewalk. A strange, smooth vehicle, like a martian rover, zoomed up to the crowd of cheering appliances.
"The electric car is here." That's all I needed. I was sold.
I called the 800 number and got on the list for one of the first electric cars, the GM EV1. The company contacted me and checked to make sure their car would fit my lifestyle and transportation needs. I let them know I had waited a long time for this and was ready to be my neighborhood's Jane Jetson. Before I knew it, I was behind the wheel of a zippy blue car and became one of the first EV test drivers in California.
The experience went far beyond what I had expected. An overnight charge at home gave me a 100-mile round trip, plenty to zip to San Francisco and back. I paid $8 a month for electricity and loved the convenience of having a full tank every morning. The car was clean, smooth, and oh so fast. I didn't mind being a pacesetter.
Even though a few hundred other owners and I loved our cars, California, pushed hard by automakers and the oil industry, wavered on their clean alternative demand. I lobbied hard for our progress. I drove to the state capitol in Sacramento (and back on one charge!) to lobby hard to keep the mandate, but the other side was too slick. The law was repealed, and the GM EV1 program ended.
Looking back, I believe the success of the electric car frightened them.
So, after zipping around for five trouble-free years, the EV1 was recalled on May 25, 2003. At the end of its (nonrenewable) lease, GM winched it onto a flatbed truck, hauled to some yard in Arizona, and crushed it with 700 other perfectly good electric cars.
I hosted a mock funeral for the car attended by well-wishing friends, neighbors, and local news stations, but it was a dark time for me. Even though the experiment was a success, stronger forces prevailed.
I remembered the bright, optimistic team at GM who helped me get the car. They truly believed they were part of something profound and vital. I celebrate them and their hard work. They can be proud that although they were early, they did start something earth-changing.
Almost immediately after canceling the electric car program, GM introduced the Hummer, the American icon of excess and waste. A few years later, the company went bankrupt and sold its Fremont, CA factory to a little startup called Tesla.
Today, Tesla, the most prosperous car company globally, delivers some of the most popular cars in Northern California. And I just heard Apple and Volkswagen have plans for their own EVs. I'm delighted, but what bothers me still is that waves of people could be have been driving zero-emission vehicle cars for the past decades. Unfortunately, we've been too slow controlling climate change and the troubles that come with it.
Today I live in a small town where I can walk almost everywhere, but I wouldn't mind if my next car is a self-driving electric. My empty car will pull up to the curb, the door will open, I'll get inside, and it will say, "Where to?" And I'll reply, "The future."
The car story is proof of our resolve, innovation, and hope for our future. I still think the EV1 was the little spark that started it. Small actions genuinely make a difference, even if it takes decades.
WithItGirl Factoid: Bev was also one of the first owners of an electric car, and she and I would meet in NorCal to surf. I am forever grateful to these amazing trailblazing women, I took my first wave at Las Olas and began envisioning withitgirl on the beach with Bev + Izzy and the rest of the gals. Many of the early connections also became contributors during the early stages of the withitgirl platform and team.
Bev Sander's Personal website
Bev Sander's Wikipedia
Other Photo Credits:
Early Years Bev’s Season Pass, age 13 First Injury, age 7
Photo by Bev’s dad, Bill Farrell
Early days of snowboarding Photo: Chris Sanders
Bev and the EV1 Photos: Chris Sanders
Copyright © Bev Sanders, 2021 Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
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