Interview by Stan Leveille
Precious Leader Woman tells Spencer O'Brien's story of her connection back to her family and First Nations heritage, as she begins the next chapter of her snowboarding life in the backcountry. The video above is the boiled down action, and boy oh boy are we here for Backcountry Spence. We sat down with O’Brien to chat about her process for the movie, her future goals, and more!
What sparked your interest in making this project, and did it feel conflicting?
My director Cassie De Colling reached out to me about telling my story as a 15 min short for a film grant. I was coming back from my second ACL and figured it sounded like a cool opportunity. We didn’t get the grant, but Cassie kept pitching the film. While she was pitching it, my knee ended up taking an extra 7 months of rehab, Covid hit, I lost my last few sponsors and I actually applied for a team manager job (which I conveniently didn’t get the same week we got green lit). When we got the go ahead from Telus in October 2020 I figured I owed it to myself to dedicate the year to the film and riding backcountry.
I didn’t feel conflicted because I honestly didn’t know how the film would turn out until it was done. The story really took on a life of its own and I think the end result surprised both me and Cassie.
Can you talk about the importance of acknowledging your indigenous ancestry as it pertains to you being a professional athlete?
For most of my career all I cared about was being known for my snowboarding, especially once the Olympics started up and all of a sudden my heritage seemed to be all anyone wanted to talk about. It felt really strange to have people talk about my heritage over my accomplishments and I struggled with that role at first. In hindsight I’m grateful to have had that placed on me because it forced me to start that journey of reconnection. That process isn’t finished and probably never will be, but the more I learn about my culture and heritage the more content I feel in my own skin. I don’t think that answered your question though haha.
You discuss your relatively secretive battle with rheumatoid arthritis which is an autoimmune disorder that occurs when your immune system mistakenly attacks your own body's tissues. Why were you hesitant to tell people you were suffering before getting your diagnosis?
I was diagnosed so close to the Games that I think I had to lie to myself to even get there and get through them. The last thing I wanted was for people to pity me and to be asked about it all day when I was trying to forget it so I could do my job. It took me a while to process that and be comfortable speaking about it publicly.
You revisit your open letter after the Olympics in 2018. Do you think there has been any progress in the treatment of female athletes since this letter?
I’m not sure how much progress there has been. I wish I could say it was better and we’ll never see a situation like Pyeongchang ever again, but I can’t say I totally believe that. I don’t think we’ll ever see the progress we want until snowboarding breaks away from FIS and has its own governing body that puts the athletes and snowboarding first.
Where is it still falling short?
Again, our own governing body. I also think we need to see the rider’s stand up and be more involved in the process again. It’d probably help if all the independent events were disappearing too. It was honestly hard to retire from competition feeling like I left it in a worse place than I found it. It’s sad that the riding is the best it’s ever been and yet the sport has taken steps backwards.
Does Backcountry Spencer have her eyes set on anything in particular this winter?
Haha, I can’t believe the nickname stuck. I wouldn’t mind taking a crack at Natural Selection if I get the chance to go and I really gotta go back to the Hurley, things been haunting me since February. Still ironing out season plans, but I’ve got some cool trips lined up and smaller projects with good people so I’m just excited to keep learning in the backcountry. Hopefully, we’ll see Big Mountain Spence come out a bit more too.
What do you think the most important takeaway from this project is?
For me personally, I grew a ton and learned so much about my family and myself while making the film. For the public I hope it just makes people feel not alone. I felt that way for a long time so I hope that my story can resonate with people and make them want to explore those parts of themselves more.
Part of this movie that makes you most proud?
I guess how vulnerable and honest I was for it. That can be pretty hard for me so it feels really good to have something that is so personal feel authentic.
Part that makes you most uncomfortable?
I think for me it’s just the reminder of how disconnected I used to be and how little I cared. That was a hard thing for me to talk about and put on display in the film.
Where can we watch it?
Next chance is Sunday, November 14 at 8:30 pm PST on ESPN2 for a World of X Feature. After that, it’ll be streaming internationally via Kendal Mountain Film Fest and we’ll do a big in-person premiere at the Whistler Film Fest on Dec 2.
Anything we missed?
Thanks for having me and watching the movie, you guys rule! Oh and print’s not dead, support your local snowboarding mag. :)