Photos by Gina Hopper"If you make it up the climb, you get three ice-cream points,"
says Jaime Hill as we come to the tricky portion of the climb that forms part of a loop that we'll be practicing corners on. The group of 11 to 15-year-old girls pause and let gaps form between one another to improve their chances of making it up the climb before gearing down and focusing in on it. A couple get close to the top, but no one cleans the tight, loose switchbacks this time around. They push their bikes to the top of the climb and pause, awaiting further instruction and more opportunities to earn points towards an ice-cream cone as they catch their breath.
I'm at an Intro to Racing event that Hill, a former competitive gymnast turned competitive mountain biker and coach, has organized in Squamish. Hill had some of the girls she was coaching this spring asking her about how to get into racing and how to improve their race skills. She also realized that many of them did not have a vary large roster of female role models in mountain biking or know who Miranda Miller was despite living in the same small town. Hill decided to connect Miller with the girls she coaches in a fun skills-based mentorship event as her answer to help bolster Miranda’s connection with up and coming female riders in the community and provide these girls with more positive female cycling role models.
Miranda Miller winning World Champs in 2017 in Cairns, Australia.
Top 3 results for Jaime Hill in the Whip Off event at Crankworx in 2018 and 2019. Photos: Matt Staggs Visuals (left) + Boris Beyer (right)
While the Intro to Racing Clinic was about introducing Hill's group of girls to a female mountain bike role model, it also provided a sense of purpose for Hill and Miller in a year where many of the events they were focused on were cancelled. Being an elite athlete can feel like a selfish pursuit if you don't look beyond the race tape and see the way your actions there can inspire the next generation of riders.
Looking at the dozen or so 11 to 15 year olds at the event, it's clear to see that it's inspiring for them to meet someone who has been able to make a career out of being a professional mountain biker and that female athletes like Miller can help pave the way for more women to succeed in the mountain bike world.
Growing up competing in XC in Quebec, I watched my idols Gunn-Rita Daehle, Marie-Helene Premont, and Catharine Pendrel compete at the Mont-Sainte-Anne World Cup every summer, but I was one of very few girls on my mountain bike team. Pedalling around with Miranda Miller, Jaime Hill, Laura Battista and the dozen attendees of the event, I wished that I was a decade and a half younger and had had this group of girls to mountain bike with at their age.
As you can imagine, the reality was very different for Hill who was competing in gymnastics. "I had so many strong female role models growing up doing gymnastics, whether it was coaches or my teammates, or the older girls and my idols that competed. There was never a lack of strong female mentorship or someone to look up to,"
said Hill. She says that's something that made her want to start a coaching business with a focus on mentoring young female athletes.
I'm the only girl in this photo of some of my teammates and I. Digital cameras have improved in the past decade and so has the ratio of girls to boys in mountain biking.
Me back when I was about the same age as these girls.
A blurry photo I took of one of my idols, Marie-Helene Premont, competing at Mont-Sainte-Anne.
At the top of the climb, Hill, Miller and Battista have set up the FreeLap timing system and give out watches to each of the girls. They do a track walk and then lap the short course a couple times to get a feel for it before getting up to speed. Coaches stand on the sidelines and offer encouragement and technique cues each time a rider comes down and the feedback, in addition to better knowledge of the corners, has everyone getting faster times as they progress through their laps. With the cornering drill turned into a fun game, it's impressive to see how fast some of the girls can rally the corners.
Hill says she never meant to start competing in mountain biking after retiring from gymnastics, but there was something about competition and the life skills it teaches that drew her back in. "Whether it's teaching kids that not everything comes easy, you have to really work for progress, or teaching them about perseverance, dedication and positivity. Those are all things that can apply to life in general,"
Throughout the event, the girls peppered Miranda Miller with questions. One question the came up was "How do you get over losing?"
, a huge thing to understand as a kid. Miller responded that it's about trying to be the best that you can be, continuously improving, and not worrying about the things you can't control like your competitors. Racing helps provide these valuable life lessons. Hill, continued that sentiment with the understanding that it is important to avoid tying your self-worth to your results – failure happens, and you can learn from it but there’s no point beating yourself up.
After the cornering drills, we head to another section of trail, where the FreeLap system is once again incorporated into the day. Miller goes and stands in the woods on a tricky section and gives the girls some of the cues that her coaches have given her over the years, one of those being Miller's first coach Katrina Strand. I was surprised Miller had had a female coach in her career, since it seems like there are so few of them. Even Hill also works as an accountant, not a full-time coach, despite her qualifications and experience.
While she doesn’t know the exact nature of why there are fewer female coaches, Hill explains that studies by the Women’s Sport Foundation indicate that many women don't see coaching as a viable career choice because their earning potential tends to be lower and the opportunities for them to coach higher level sport are not as prevalent. She also believes that some of the reasons are linked to there simply being a smaller pool of female riders to draw on. Even Hill said that she has felt some effects of gender discrimination in coaching and was passed up for a role despite having some of the highest qualifications and experience as a coach. "It definitely made me question myself and the viability of coaching as a full-time profession, but I want to help bring about change to some of our societal norms and so feel a duty to keep moving forward,"
Hill is starting to break the mold and her junior coach mentorship program goes one step further into getting more girls in coaching. "I'm really dedicated to getting more female coaches trained and gaining experience from a younger age, funding training to enable girls to obtain their certifications at the youngest age they can. I've seen such a powerful chain reaction of events that have come from that already,”
I also asked Hill about why she likes to offer girls-only sessions and she said that the girls-only programming makes it easier for pre-teen and teenage girls to feel comfortable and the atmosphere is generally less intimidating and competitive. There are a lot of things going on with hormones, emotions, and everything under the sun around puberty and Hill said there's just not the same openness when it's a mixed group.
With girls-only sessions she's able to create a safe space which in turn allows the girls to focus on learning and development.
As a gymnast, Hill said programming goes from co-ed to split classes around five years old. "There is something that happens when you're a girl, especially when you're getting into your teenage years, where there is often this big worry about what the opposite sex thinks. Even as a 'tom boy' myself, I’ve felt it and I’ve seen it through my years of coaching, and I'm pretty sure many girls and women have thought about not wanting to look stupid in front of the boys as some point in life."
With the right mix of tough love, encouragement and enthusiasm, Hill has turned dozens of girls into mountain bikers and is helping pave the way for future generations of female mountain bikers with her skills-based training sessions. If girls can see a future for themselves in the sport, whether it's because they like riding with their friends, they like coaching like Jaime Hill does and want to become a junior coach, or they want to race like Miranda Miller, they're far more likely to stick with mountain biking.
As the event wrapped up with swirled fruit ice-cream donated by Alice & Brohm, one of Jaime’s community partners, there was talk of signing up for the next session of coaching. Most of the girls' first question to Jaime was, "Who is already signed up?"
or "Who will be in my group?"
Yes, mountain biking is fun, but it's really important that you have peers to ride with and role models to look up to.
If you build it, they will come seems to have been proven with Jaime Hill and her Hilltop MTB coaching business. Hill started her business three years ago and only had two or three groups of six riders. By the second year, that number had doubled. By the third year, it doubled again. This year was her fourth year runnning the business and there have been over 200 registrations for girls programming.