Australia’s femme fatale of freeride, Natalie Segal, has been mixing it with the best freeskiers out there, getting great results on the Swatch Freeride World Tour after a triumphant charge through New Zealand last winter. From the World Heli Challenge in Wanaka to the FWT in Chamonix, she’s been dropping into shady steeps and fearlessly shredding them. Until a snapped ACL ahead of the Kirkwood FWT event abruptly ended her season.
Owain Price caught up with her back home for successful surgery in Melbourne.
The season started great for you with a podium place in the first event at Revelstoke. That course looked pretty ominous watching on web TV [the whole tour is webcast live, check freerideworldtour.com for details], was it as tough as it looks?
Yeah it was pretty challenging. At first I was thinking, “Woo this looks awesome!” But then a few of the girls pointed out, “we’ve got 40 guys in front of us, you’ve gotta be really smart about what you ski here”.
At first I was planning to ski the same line as Christine Hargin (who won), but when I decided it was going to be really scraped out and the landings were going to be pretty bombed out I went a different way, a bit more playful. I was pretty upset that at such a great venue, with powder snow, that we didn’t we get to ski it under good conditions. Everything combined made it so difficult to ski.
[The ski women went last, after snowboard men, ski men and snowboard women – 49 competitors.]
How steep is it up the top at the Revelstoke slope?
It’s definitely one of the steeper venues I’ve ever skied, just because of the shape. I remember in Montana the pitch was high 40s or 50 degrees, and the MacDaddy face at Revelstoke felt steeper. Watching the first girl drop I thought, OK, so let’s take the top pretty easy.
Had you skied against most of the girls before, or has the level stepped up now it’s a combined tour with more talent?
I had skied with most of them. The American and European tours were quite different in the way they were judged. There are a lot of strong girls from racer backgrounds who send it on both tours. But I always thought the level on the Freeride Tour in Europe was a little higher. I think it was because of the judging, fluidity was much more important in Europe. Whereas for the American girls it was more the line score that mattered, so they were more strategic and skied differently.
I definitely think having a global tour means everyone steps up a lot. You’re against a lot of different styles. I don’t personally try and jump off huge cliffs, I try and ski interesting lines, and ski them really fast. I can ski technical lines really fast, so that’s my strategy.
Other girls are happy to go off huge cliffs and don’t care if they crash a comp or two, so they just keep sending it.
Is there a balance point between the size of what you drop off and what you do off it, like flipping and stuff?
If any girls start flipping in competition then as long as they ski well the rest of the run they would easily win. It’s the way the sport is moving ahead. Much more on the men’s side too, the women go big but consistently the men go a lot bigger.
Some guys are pushing 100 feet in competitions, so it’s getting really dangerous. There have been fatalities in some comps. So making the progression more about tricks and freestyle rather than the size of the air means that things are going to be a bit safer. I agree with it, though the process of bringing tricks on board is difficult.
I am working on 360s off cliffs at the moment, but it’s a while off, I need to practice – I just don’t have that natural ability. There are girls I know who do it, they just need to put them into a comp run, which is hard when you don’t get to hit an air prior to the event to practice.
How much scoping opportunity do you get at the comps?
In the qualifying events it’s a little different depending on which country you’re in. Sometimes we got to ski through it, or have a hands on inspection. But in the FWT you generally only get a visual inspection – you’re not allowed on the face at all. You have to just work out what it looks like. It’s like filming in many ways.
Except in filming it’s just the talent in the film, whereas if you go last in the comps it’s trashed already.
Yes, that’s the complicated part. In the qualifiers we got to ski through it, so you knew what the snow and landings were like, so it’s a lot easier to send it. But in the FWT if you’re the first or second to hit an air, you’re okay, but after that bomb hole builds up it makes an air a lot harder to stomp.
Winding it back a bit, how did you guys get to be so good – how much were you skiing as kids?
We used to be part of Omega lodge, so growing up we would go up most weekends. Then by the time I was 12 we were going up pretty much every weekend, either mum or dad would drive us up.
Were your parents both good skiers?
Different abilities. My dad used to be a long distance runner so his uni roped him into cross country skiing, whereas my mum was obsessed with skiing when she was younger. She ended up ski patrolling in Buller and she did an exchange patrolling in Austria for two winters. So she understood where we were coming from when we started getting into it.
Did you go through TBR [Team Buller Riders]?
Yes, we both did Race Club, then we moved to TBR, Anna when she was 13 or 14, and I was the year after – I’m 2 years younger – and I did moguls till I was 17.
So is there a point when you start to get into steep stuff, like were you guys ducking off to the back of the Summit from an early age?
A little bit. I went to a mogul camp when I was younger and we skied a bit of pow, but I didn’t really get into it till I quit moguls when I was 17 and coached for a while. I was just having fun skiing around, and I randomly ended up in Chamonix. I was a good skier, I could ski all mountain, I just started skiing every day. I didn’t really ski the gnarly stuff, I had friends we went adventuring with, finding pillow stashes and powder. That’s when I really started skiing steep stuff. I think somewhere between having a mogul background and just freeriding mucking around at Buller I just had the technique straight away the first year in Europe.
Chamonix would sort you out pretty quick.
There’s something definitely to be said about having the right terrain to train on and using it well.
So when you got back there for the World Tour event this year you felt at home?
I was so excited, I was so happy to be back there. I’d been in America for 3 seasons, so I got to see a bunch of people I hadn’t seen for 3 years. There’s definitely something magical about Chamonix, the mountains, it’s special.
You never had the urge to follow Anna down the freestyle path?
I quit moguls because I wasn’t very good at tricks past the 360, I never learnt how to flip, I could spin but not super well. So I went and did a bit of park after that. It’s funny, I love jumping off cliffs, but there’s something about park jumps that I’m not interested in pursuing past a certain point. Once I get comfortable on rails again I like playing on them, but it just doesn’t feel as natural as skiing really fast. Anna was always a lot better in the air and better at aerials, I think she’s got a natural ability. She just pushed it further. I don’t have that ability and I have to work really hard to do anything other than a straight grab.
The thought of going to Breckenridge and skiing park for four months was never something I’d naturally say ‘oh, that sounds like so much fun!’ to doing.
Now you’re based in Jackson Hole. That says it all about what you really like to ski I guess.
I was based in Jackson Hole this season. There is the best terrain, amazing powder, and great aprés, just a really good vibe. The mountains are just incredible, they are the only thing like Chamonix I’ve ever found in America. I remember skiing there and thinking I want to come back here.
Do they sponsor many skiers?
The overall standard is so good there that it would be hard to pick out a team! Their ambassador team has just five athletes, including people like Travis Rice, and Crystal Wright (FWT champion). But I have a good relationship with the resort which makes it even more of a great place to ski and train for the winter.
They used to say at Jackson “you don’t lose your girlfriend, you lose your place in line”. Has it mellowed out, are there more girls there now?
There are definitely still more men, but there’s a lot more women in the last five years. I know a lot of good skiers in Jackson who are females.
Are they more accepted as good skiers too?
There are cliques who go out and do really gnarly stuff and I have to say there are many women among them . A lot of the time when I went skiing in new areas it would be with women rather than men.
In our winter you’ve been spending a lot of time in NZ, and doing great in their comps. How do you like it over there?
Yeah, there’s hopefully going to be 4 events this year, including a 4 star event which would be huge. Now the tours have been merged New Zealand will be even more competitors coming down to visit, a 4 star event can mean the difference between a top 3 and a top 10 ranking.
How do you find the NZ terrain – it can be pretty gnarly, and at Whakapapa, the snow, well, legendarily it’s basically crap?
The terrain in NZ is rad. That’s where I ski during the southern hemisphere winter. Each resort is a bit different. I usually ski at Treble Cone but we travel to a lot of the resorts during the winter for competitions. When we competed in 2012 at Whakapapa I definitely went into survival skiing mode. You would slide through everything. I remember watching one of the boys and he was just sliding to his air, making it look like he was turning, but actually just sliding all the way down. Usually New Zealand conditions can be more variable. Even the Whakapapa event sometimes the snow loosens up a little bit and you get some corn. It’s really fun and you become a really good skier as a result of dealing with the variable conditions. There are two guys on the tour who are born and bred in NZ [TC’s Sam Smoothy and Charlie Lyons from Mt Olympus]and I think that says something about the conditions there.
Are you getting some good sponsorships, do you make any sort of living out of it?
I still work in the off season quite a lot to support just base line stuff. This last year was the first time I was had any type of backing outside of products from sponsors, for the last three years it was all off my own back – which is totally fine, I think it’s kind of a selfish sport so you should know how to support yourself. But this year it’s been really helpful, I wouldn’t have been able to get to the tour stops I did without my sponsors. I’m working with Volkl/Marker Europe, Dalbello, and a really cool new company called Strafe Outerwear from Aspen. They’ve just bought out a new line of technical outerwear. It’s cut really well for the freeride skiers. I also ride with POC Australia, so I’ve got great helmets and goggles, and Icebreaker. This year I started riding for Astis Mittens, the really furry mittens with the beading.
With the combined tour there’s a lot of media coverage, they put in a big production team, so it’s really getting out for the sponsors.
It’s something the sport didn’t have before. I think back country skiing is getting really big, and it’s cool that at the forefront of that there’s a world tour that shows some of the best riders in the world doing it. It’s live streamed so anyone with decent internet can watch it. It’s a really exciting time being part of the sport. It’s great exposure for us, and for the sponsors. Also having a decent amount of women on there is good. They started with about 15, but I’m the third to get injured and a couple dropped out, so it’s down to 10.
Yeah, that’s a shame – you were right in contention for the top 5 to qualify for the final event at Verbier.
Getting to Verbier was my main goal, but the biggest goal was to re-qualify for 2014. I was sitting in 4th before I injured my knee and I had to stay in the top seven. I finished 9th overall this year, which is not too bad considering I missed three events. Now I just have to be patient and wait to see if I manage to make it into next year. Otherwise I’ll jump back on the qualifying tour and take it from there.
How long are you out for minimum?
At least 6 months. I can probably ski groomers at the end of September, maybe some light touring to build some muscle. Then I’ll probably just go back to Jackson in November.
Any positives from the injury and the lay up?
I’ve learnt a lot from this injury already and I’m sure there will be more to come. I now realise that I tried to pile too much on my plate. Like trying to do photo shoots all the time and running off on crazy adventures instead of having down time. It was great fun but I think next year if I get back on the tour I need to know what my goals are and stick with them.
Looking longer term, any plans for how long you’ll keep going, or will you fall back on that degree in fine art with a gallery in Buller?
I plan to be skiing, competing or not. I’m also really interested in doing more expedition type stuff. Me and a few girls from America have put in for a grant to sail and ski tour in Greenland next May. I’ve had a lifelong goal to ski on all the continents. Africa, Antarctica, I really want to go out there and explore new places.
OK, to wrap up have you got a tip for how lads like me can ski like girls like you – especially dropping those steep shady faces. How do you/we overcome the fear factor?
Taking a rational approach is the best way to face your fears. First of all you need to work out what you’re scared of. For the most part when you are skiing, your fear is falling over and hurting yourself, which is fair enough. What I’ve learnt is 98% of the time you fall because you don’t think over what you are about to ski through, e.g. you ski into the terrain too fast, you get caught up on bad snow, etc. Or you don’t have the confidence to do it, so you hesitate. In order to ski something you are afraid of you need to commit to it 100%. If you can’t do that, you’re obviously not ready to be skiing something that hard. Then you need to plan in your mind how you are going to take the line, factoring in the snow conditions. I usually imagine the worse case scenario, “if I hit the cliff too slow I’ll land on that rock, too fast and I’ll be safe in the pow.” Visualizing yourself skiing is usually the best way to prepare yourself. Don’t imagine falling because the more you think about it, the easier it will be to fall. This is how I usually pick my line when I ski, I imagine every part of it and if there is something that makes me uncomfortable or less confident, I don’t hit it.