Pemberton-based snowboarder and newly minted Natural Selection champ Robin Van Gyn always knew the first stop of the inaugural Natural Selection Tour in Jackson Hole, Wyo. would be her “kryptonite.”
The powder-covered, feature-packed course was “so conducive for the contest girls,” Van Gyn explained. “I’ve been in the backcountry for a really long time, but in the past few years, as I age in backcountry snowboarding I’ve done less and less hitting jumps and doing tricks. My focus has changed to more line riding, so I knew [the event] was going to be really hard to get through.”
Conceptualized by big mountain snowboarding legend Travis Rice, the three-stop Natural Selection Tour set out to redefine what a snowboard contest entails while crowning the world’s best male and female all-mountain freestyle backcountry riders.
After years of planning, the series kicked off in Wyoming in February with 24 of the biggest names in the sport, from a variety of disciplines, coming together to compete in head-to-head matchups. It was there that backcountry veteran Van Gyn was initially eliminated at the hands of 20-year-old New Zealand contest phenom and reigning slopestyle world champ Zoi Sadowski-Synnott.
Fortunately, a combination of COVID-19 border restrictions and a revamped format gave Van Gyn another shot in the form of Natural Selection’s second event. Held in B.C. at Baldface Valhalla, an all-Canadian crew of 10 of the country's top riders were given one week to film a line and a video part. Van Gyn made the most of that second chance with a few high-flying straight airs, surfy pow turns and a frontside 360.
It was enough for her to secure the win in B.C.—alongside Whistler rider Chris Rasman in the men’s contest—and punch herself a ticket to Alaska, where she earned redemption against Sadowski-Synnott in the final to take the title of first-ever Natural Selection women’s champion last month.
The two-day event at Alaska’s Tordrillo Mountain Lodge saw four men—Rasman, Mikkel Bang, Mark McMorris and Ben Ferguson—and three women—Van Gyn, Sadowski-Synnott and Hana Beaman—compete in head-to-head battles. Each athlete had three laps, with the highest-scoring run earning that rider the win.
On the men’s side, Norway’s Bang bested McMorris in the semi-finals before outscoring Ferguson in the final heat to take the overall win. McMorris and Rasman battled it out for the third spot on the podium, with Rasman falling short to Saskatchewan’s best-known snowboarder.
'My strategy was just to do what feels good and do what I know how to do, and focus on making it to the bottom without falling'
The rest of the world found out about the biggest highlight of Van Gyn’s career when the Tordrillo event aired on Red Bull TV last Friday, April 16.
But what was her reaction when she first heard the results in real-time after her last run?
“Honestly, I needed them to repeat it before I could really believe it,” she said, over the phone from the Pemberton property where she’s riding out her mandatory two-week quarantine, after returning home from the U.S.
Van Gyn “felt really overwhelmed,” she continued. “I was obviously so excited, I didn’t really know what to do with myself. I just kind of sat there for a second, and got a little teary-eyed. It’s like a pinnacle moment for me in snowboarding, so yeah, it was really emotional.”
Along with bragging rights, Van Gyn is riding away from the tour with a brand-new Polaris snowmobile, courtesy of her win at Baldface, and a Ford Bronco Sport for winning the overall title.
In the year leading up to the tour, Van Gyn added in a few new strategies to help hone her competitive spirit after a career focused on filming—entering a freeride competition and working with a sports psychologist, for instance.
That said, “The only training for snowboarding is snowboarding, so you’ve just got to get out as much as you can,” she added. “At the end of the day, you’re just going to do the run that feels good to you, and the outcome is out of your hands. It could be your day, and you could land everything, and it may not be your day, you may not land anything. And it’s the same for every single other person.
“My strategy was just to do what feels good and do what I know how to do, and focus on making it to the bottom without falling.”
Van Gyn credits that mindset with her ability to shake off the pressure, focus on being grateful for the experience and compete without any expectations in terms of results. “I was just stoked to be there," she said."I didn't really expect to get first, I really didn't expect it second, anything would have been fine with me. I was just psyched to be at the last stop.
“To take the win was like an extra cherry on top.”
That’s not to say she dropped into the iconic Alaskan spines without any tactics at all. At each of the previous stops, she’d study the judges’ criteria and analyze which decisions reaped rewards for other riders. For example, picking one consistent line, working to improve it each run, dialling back tricks in favour of staying on her feet—all strategies that worked just as well for Van Gyn in Baldface as they did in the finals.
Ultimately, she chalks up her winning score to good flow and a mind-blowingly massive cliff drop she first hit in her second of three runs—what she’d intended to be a safety run after "blowing the whole second half" of her first run, Van Gyn admits.
After the feature caught her eye, “I had planned on hitting [the cliff] in my final run, but not my second run. And as I went down, it just looked so good that I was like, ‘I’m just going to go,’” she said. “And yeah, it worked out.”
Van Gyn earned a score of 76 in that second run to beat out Sadowski-Synnott's top score of 64 in the final heat.
With the first Natural Selection Tour done and dusted, Van Gyn said she hopes to see the series continue gaining momentum in the winters ahead and continue inspiring people to get outside.
“It’s just kind of changing the game and bringing snowboarding back to its roots,” she said.
Watch the Natural Selection Tour finals below (catch Van Gyn's winning run at 1:34:00), or head to Red Bull TV to re-watch the first two Natural Selection Tour stops.