Finding Strength in Adversity: A Talk with Silvia Mittermüller
Silvia Mittermüller’s road to success as a professional snowboarder has has been fraught with injury, from three knee blowouts to broken collarbones, and most recently an Achilles tendon tear in the run up to the 2014 Olympics. But if you think this would be an excuse to quit, then you don’t know Silvia very well. Instead of throwing in the towel, Silvia has drawn strength from her challenges and has pushed beyond them to have one of the most successful careers of any female snowboarder. Her positivity, fortitude, and straight up skills on a snowboard—whether on a slopestyle course, cruising the park, hitting a halfpipe, or shredding powder—have made her one of our favorites to watch.
Her accomplishments have spanned over a decade, and she’s not done putting her mark on women’s snowboarding yet. Back in 2005 Silvia Mittermuller landed herself a silver medal at X Games in slopesyle, and a decade later she stomped her first ever 1080 at the 2015 Nine Queens, joining a short list of female riders to ever do so. So what does it take, especially when your injury list is as long as Silvia’s, to be at the top of the game for so long? We talked to Silvia to find out and to glean wisdom from her extensive experience on a snowboard.
We caught up with Silvia shortly after she had wrapped her Northern Hemisphere season with Kimmy Fasani’s Amusement Park. She was on a plane to Bali for some R&R before heading to Australia to take advantage of their winter.
How was Amusement Park this year. It looked like it kicked off with some fresh snow?
Amusement Park was amazing once again! It´s just so sweet to ride together with a group of motivated girls, on a good set up, without contest pressure, after all the events are done—it feels like a snowboard vacation with the best crew ever. And yes, it did snow this year. the first day was a pow day, cold like in winter even though it was the end of April. That snow was a blessing, Mammoth had been low on snow before but with the white extra coat the park crew could make the features look and ride even better.
Last year Amusement Park was the first big jump you hit after coming back from your injury. How did it feel to be back and healthy this time?
I was very excited to return to Amusement Park healthy this year, especially after having had a very good spring right before. Unfortunately, with the little snow Mammoth had this year they weren´t able to build the same kind of perfect private jump as last year, but it was still great to be back there confident and not have to wonder if I´m actually able to take the landing without feeling a lot of pain.
Tell us a little about your injury last season. What happened? Have you had any other major injuries during your career?
I’ve had so many injuries throughout my career that by now I don´t even consider things an injury if they don’t require surgery or take me out for more than a month. The bigger ones in chronological order are a broken wrist, a broken collarbone, 3 ACLs in a row, a dislocated (major ligament/muscle tears, therefore surgical) elbow, then that collarbone broke again (surgery), and most recently in the run towards Olympics I ruptured my Achilles tendon 2 months before the Olympics.
That was a really heavy hit, I had been riding well and then everything was (once again) taken away in the blink of an eye. I came short on a frontside 720 on a very cold day and landed twisted and toe heavy. I heard and felt a snap. I was still hoping maybe it’s not that bad, but instinctively I knew it was bad. I knew I couldn’t try to walk. And when they squeezed my calf muscle (while laying on my stomach) later on in first aid, my foot didn’t move. That’s the first indicator for a ruptured Achilles. And that was the end of my winter. Took 2 months to start learning to walk again. I´m not sure what was worse, my Achilles or the worst knee blow out I had. Both were really hard injuries. But I was happy to get the Achilles last time, after 3 blown out knees I´ve really had my share. At least a new injury is a new experience and when you overcome it is a new accomplishment.
What did it take to come back and take 3rd at the Mile High in Australia so soon after your injury?
Hmmm…right when I crashed and felt and heard the snap in my Achilles, I somewhat split into two personalities. One Silvia that just wanted to be left alone in the snow and freeze to death real quick, and the other one that was on the phone with the doctor before ski patrol even arrived at the scene. It took that second one to win the battle over the self-pity version and then pull through with 100% from there—deal with insurance as fast as possible to schedule surgery as fast as possible (30 hours past accident). And to create something to look forward to—I said I will be at the beach as soon as I can walk barefoot. I will watch the Olympics from the beach. I barely made it. Flew to Barbados the day of the Olympic opening ceremony. Still couldn’t walk well, but I flew there with a bicycle as transport and rehab tool. Swam every day at the aquatic center against the crazy swelling that I got in Caribbean heat. I created a different life while I couldn’t snowboard. That was very important to stay sane and happy.
I never saw a physio once during my seven weeks in Barbados, it was another scary challenge since I never had an Achilles tear before and wasn’t sure if I could really figure out all my rehab alone. But your body tells you what it needs to do and its all about learning to hear it and listen to it. When I came back from Barbados the doctor said I can gently go back on snow. It hadn’t even been four months. The first days I could barely go on my toe edge and the only run I could handle was a 100m long beginner pommer lift. But you have to start somewhere, and then take it step by step. I did. By the end of the season I was able to jump at Amusement Park, and then went to Australia in the summer and ended up 3rd at the Mile High. It definitely helped me that it was a jam session final. I ride better when I don’t have the stress of two runs only at a certain time. But also this entire story, first it kills you, then you find your willpower and courage, and every step along that way that you succeed at gives you strength. I felt good in Australia. I was fired up how I came all this way, especially relying so much on just listening to my own body. Ending on the podium at the first comp back was the icing on the cake.
Take us through this season a little. I know you’ve been riding in Summit County a lot. What competitions or events have you been to this year? Have you done much traveling?
Yes, I started out my season in Colorado in November and got into Dew tour the last day before the first practice. Now this is a little personal but since Shred Betties is a girls thing I´ll just throw it out. I wished someone would have told me years ago, and maybe it could have saved me from some injuries—but then also not many girls realize. Maybe some are less affected by it than others. I had to learn it the hard way, after 5 surgical injuries I realized all those injuries always happen in the last week of my cycle. I put some research into it and there isn’t too much, but some studies have looked into it and prove how the change of a women’s hormones does influence the stability of your ligaments, muscle strength and coordination. Once I realized how all my injuries happen in that week I got more aware and took it easier in that week when I felt weak or clumsy. My Achilles still happened in that week. But overall I am more conscious now and I do think it has saved me sometimes. I think there isn’t too much science on this subject since the average women doesn’t jump 60 foot jumps on ice where a small fail results in a big injury. The studies I found were looking at ankle sprains and such. But they did prove ligament laxity in the second half of a woman’s cycle, of course still differing between individuals. Why am I telling all this? Because this year I got into Dew tour and it was that week. Dew tour is the biggest and longest course of the season, together with X Games. It was the sketchy week. I felt weak and scared. I did a bunch of straight air runs in practice but I felt it was too risky to really try to do a good run. So I dropped out. Officially I said that I just wasn’t ready yet after the Achilles—but it was more.
To go back to the question though, after Dew I was in Colorado until World Champs in Austria, then did the Mammoth and Park City Grand Prix and went to Europe for the World Cup in Czech and Nine Queens. Then back to the USA, Breckenridge until closing day and Amusement Park on top. It was a good season.
You’ve had an impressive competition career so far, and you’re still going. What keeps you motivated to keep pushing yourself in competitions?
It is a combo of lots of things. First overcoming all those injuries does make you feel strong, you want to come back, and you get back, and then you want to get better than before, and you do. And then its so fun because you feel confident and are landing new tricks and you get so stoked you want even more.
Competing also tends to get you to ride perfectly maintained courses, I like the polished takeoffs and creative rail lines and putting together a full run. Another reason why I’ll compete in a bunch of World Cups this winter is that I’m trying to get the German Federation’s support—also to make it to the next Olympics in the long run. It’s the only event that I haven’t don’t in my snowboarding career yet.
You’ve competed in slopestyle, of course but also rail jams and halfpipe. How important do you think it is to be an all-around rider? Whats your favorite type of competition?
I definitely like slopestyle the most. Its the most demanding kind of snowboard competition since every course is so different to the other and you never know what to expect. Its very exciting to figure out courses and puzzle together runs. Sometimes I just wished we had more practice and it would be even more fun. But I also do like rail jams and pipe is fun to ride too. But pipe contests never made me as happy as slopestyle, I never had enough halfpipe airtime to feel remotely as good as jumping slopestyle jumps. And a pipe always looks the same. It got a little old to only ride pipe. I like it more now that I only ride pipe occasionally.
In the decade or more you’ve been competing, how has women’s competitive snowboard evolved?
Hmmm, the jumps have gotten bigger and there are less events with 2 takeoffs now. The rails have gotten crazier. More wallrides and closeouts and stairs everywhere. Prize money is equal only at some big events. They still do stupid price money cuts like 10G for first, 4G for second, 1500 for third and if you get 4th you get nothing. The runs from back in the day could trick-wise still do okay at events now, but since the jumps are bigger there is still progression even though the tricks are sometimes still the same. On standout courses you do see next level standout riding though. I think the biggest thing to hold back further development in competitions right now is not ideally built courses with not ideal speed and weather.
This year has been huge in for women’s snowboarding —especially at Nine Queens where you put down your your first ever 1080. Why do you think this has been such a breakout year? How do you think we’ll see it affect how women approach competitions next year?
I was at Nine Queens and it was the most progressive snowboard session I have ever experienced. Why? Because the jump was a perfect true table. If you look at a step down versus a true table jump in terms of physics, on the true table jump you reach the height you start out on a drop down jump at about a third of the airtime, as a thumb rule generalization. So if you build true true tables you can make them a third bigger while not getting any more impact.
Nine Queens was 75 feet to the knuckle and over 80 to the sweet spot. That’s a big jump for women’s snowboarding, but it didn’t feel that big because it was a true table. The landing had less impact than many 45 foot jumps I’ve hit. Less impact means less injury risk, less injury risk means more comfort, more comfort means more courage, more courage means better snowboarding.
I came to Nine Queens with a sprained ankle from the Czech world cup and ended up trying and landing the first frontside1080 of my life. It was a great low impact landing and big jump that didn’t feel that big. The day that contest people build jumps like that in courses is the day that women’s snowboarding will broadly progress even more also in general competitions. Same thing for rail lines. The more perfect rails are set up and the less circus-stunt-style they have the better tricks people will see. It’s usually the simple down rails with no stairs that cause switch blunt sameways, 270s or similar.
What’s your favorite thing to do on snowboard when you’re not competing? Who do you spend most of your time riding with?
I do love riding park and doing as many tricks in a day as I can. Try something new. Try something I did two years ago but not ever since. Do a new grab on an old spin. Do a trick until you do it that one time that it felt as perfect as you can imagine it to feel. People-wise I usually don’t make plans but just ride with whoever is around. Half the world is in Breckenridge almost all winter, its not hard to find people to take laps with. But sometimes I also like riding alone. I actually often ride better by myself than with people. Just listen to music, dive into a different world, be more in the moment.
Favorite thing to do when you’re not snowboarding?
I love sports in general. Anything that’s physically demanding has the power to stop our brains and take us into the moment very fast and efficiently. And that’s like a nap for your brain. It feels so good. I also enjoy playing piano and chess for the same reasons. I go to the gym a lot. Have gotten more into Yoga since this winter. Like reading and a good German beer. And I surf in the river waves at home in Germany when I am there.
Any big plans for this spring and summer?
Yes, I just spent some weeks in Munich surfing in the river and am now on the plane to Bali where I meet my Australian boyfriend the first time again after over two months. I´ll stay in Bali for seven weeks and then go to Australia from there for the Australian winter. Do Mile High again. The World Cup in New Zealand. And come back to Breck in November.
What does the future look like for you?
It always looks bright if you like to believe in the good.
Posted by Gabby Rainville on 08/23/15