by Julie Brown
I stumbled over the words when I asked professional skier Elyse Saugstad the question. As a woman, with all the ways gendered norms and societal expectations have altered the word, I’m not sure there’s a good way to answer it. But Saugstad responded casually in the affirmative.
“I actually think that’s an adjective I would use to describe myself in general,” she said.
“It’s just a feeling of security of where I’m at and what I’m able to do in skiing, and what I’m able to do off-the-hill, as well.”
The quality of confidence in a woman is tricky and often misunderstood. One theory, called the “Confidence Gap,” used to reign over psychology for working women. It argues that women manifest less self-confidence than men, which hinders a woman’s success. This theory led to a flurry of self-help prescriptions that encouraged woman to build their self-esteem and, as Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg put it, “lean in” to the workplace.
But a growing body of research refutes the “confidence gap,” pointing to studies that reveal that women are just as confident as men are. Rather, women avoid expressing their confidence or self-promoting, because they are afraid of retribution.
so that she can respect her limits in dangerous terrain, absorb education and feedback, and gradually expand her horizons. In that way, confidence is a circular process that allows her to grow and grow.
“Everyone needs to know where their boundaries are,” said Saugstad. “There are certain aspects of my skiing that are at a very, very high level, but there’s always things that can be improved, for sure.”
We were sitting down for coffee in Truckee, California, on a warm, spring morning. Saugstad had just returned to her home in Lake Tahoe a couple of weeks earlier, after a trip to Alaska to film for a ski movie. As always, Alaska is a testing ground. She skied incredibly steep terrain that was on the limits of her comfort zone. But even someone like Saugstad, one of the best skiers on the planet, gets knocked down. Her trip ended with a crash. She was in the runout, holding on and skiing fast, when she got bucked.
“Alaska is the kind of place where, if you jump right in, and get over your head and crash, it knocks your confidence so far down, you’re not even starting from baseline,” said Saugstad.
From an early age, Saugstad knew that if set her mind to a goal and accomplished it, confidence and self-worth would follow. And it’s easy to look at Saugstad’s rise as a straight shot, but that would miss some of the times when she had to muster the grit and energy to overcome a hurdle and move forward. In 2012, Saugstad survived the Tunnel Creek Avalanche because she was wearing an avalanche airbag. In the aftermath of the tragedy, which killed the other three people who were caught in the slide with Saugstad, she endured criticism for the decisions she and the group made that day. She became an advocate for airbags, because one saved her life, but she received blowback for that as well. She responded by getting back on her skis, just days after the avalanche, and by turning inward, to look honestly at the role she played that day.
“I think that to be confident, you still have to have humility,” said Saugstad. “All of us, what our shortcomings are, what we did wrong in the situation. If we learn from it, then we grow.”
In November 2013, Saugstad did a TedX Talk about this very thing—when passions and fear collide. She also partnered with a group of other professional skiers to start a women’s avalanche course, called SAFE AS Clinics, that is designed to empower women to be confident in the mountains and use their voice.
SAFE AS gives women basic skills for backcountry ski travel and avalanche rescue. But the clinics hosts also talk about the best ways to communicate and ask questions, so that women won’t be perceived negatively for speaking up, even if you’re in a group of critics.
In Alaska, this spring, Saugstad’s objectives were steep, spiney faces. Alaskan-born, Saugstad says it’s vital to approach this kind of terrain with humility and respect, but also a calculated approach so you can stay present and focused. “Alaska—it’s why we like to go there, because it’s a reminder of how much room we still have to grow as a skier,” she said. “But it’s also something that you can’t let consume you.”
Her first line of the trip was one that intimidated her. Standing at the top, her stomach was in her throat and her nervous feelings made her mouth dry. She had to remind herself that she’s good at what she does, that she can ski this line.