Saturday, April 18, 2015

Girl at the Grinder: Meet Jackie the Boot-fitter. Part one of a series on Women in Skiing.

Last month, I drove to Park City to ski with a client for a few days. While I was there, I had new boots fit by Master Bootfitter Brent Amsbury, a true magician at his craft. He has been in business for over a decade and his little shop has grown from his garage to a small one-room outfit, to a bustling business called Park City Ski Boot where he outfits much of the Park City ski team as well as instructors, competitors and recreational skiers from all over the world. He has also done something unusual in his industry, he has hired a female bootfitter. And she's fierce, talented, and dedicated. 

Jackie Reis of Park City Ski Boot

Watching Jackie with the customers while I was being foamed myself by Brent, I knew I had to ask how she overcame the obstacles of being mistaken for the “girl that answers the phones” to being respected as a professional bootfitter. She was happy to sit down with me for an hour or two while the feeling came back into my toes.

Kate: Hi there. Why don't we start with you introducing yourself.

Jackie: Okay, so I am Jacqueline Reis.  I go by Jackie. 

Kate: How did you get involved in boot fitting?  Tell me the story.

Jackie: When I was growing up, my dad fit my boots when I was ski racing. and then two years ago, I met bootfitter Matt Schiller at Mount Hood.  I started working for Matt at Mountain Summer Ski Camps, and one of my friends was his intern, so I had already been hanging out at the Atomic house where they worked. Eventually, Matt moved to Park City and was doing a fit night for Park City ski team, and I had also moved to Park City where I was coaching the ski team. I ran into Matt at the fit night, and he asked me if I wanted a part-time job.   Initially I came in to do every-day maintenance; computer cleanup, and then Matt told me that I was going to learn how to punch and grind and start learning the skills. I was kind of part-time on the computer, part-time learning, and then, this year I said, “I want to fit full-time.”

Kate: Did you have interest in boot fitting before you got the part-time job or it was being in the environment really spark your interest in becoming a fitter?

Jackie: It was not something that I actively pursued as a career before I got this job, but I had always had an interest in it.  I had found it fascinating when my dad was doing my fitting.

Kate: So what aspect of what your dad did with you that you found most interesting?

Jackie: Both my parents coached skiers, and I grew up in a very skiing-oriented family. It was nice to have something else that I could connect with my dad, and I thought what he was doing was really cool at that time.  I was 12 or 13, and he was measuring me, looking at my canting and doing all these other things to help me be a better skier.

Kate: Did you have that kind of moment of skiing insight ever with your dad’s fitting where you weren’t skiing as well or to your potential, and then a fit changed the way that you were skiing or matched your skiing, or have you experienced that yourself as a skier, with your dad or with Brent or anybody else?

Jackie: You know, for me, I don’t think that anything as far as canting really did that, but as far as comfort level, especially now with coaching, standing around a lot more, and even as a racer being comfortable, I mean, you are still looking for that high-performance fit, but there is going to be a comfort factor there. It’s a really fine line. You go too far one way or the other, you can make someone unhappy but perform well. I'd like to do both. Comfortable and performing their best.

Kate: When you said you wanted to fit full-time, and then you started to move towards that, what drew you to it?  Why did you want to fit full-time?

Jackie: I became more interested in it last year as I was learning the little skills, and it was really fascinating to me that it is a combination of science and art. I got really into it. I did a clinic with Brent at Wintersteiger BD, Intro to Bootfitting, and a lot of skills were things that Brent and Matt had already taught me, but I learned a lot more at the clinic.

Kate: So, as you move forward in your career, are you interested in continuing boot fitting... 

(Brent walks in)

Kate:  I am sorry, your boss is here. Maybe I should wait to ask this question?

Jackie: Oh, no, that’s fine.  Ha, ha, ha.

Kate: Are you interested in diving further into it?

Jackie: For sure.

Kate: What kind of classes or certifications do you have to take to further your career?  

Jackie: [I learn a lot here as an apprentice.] I think that the skills are a little bit more traditional when they are taught in a clinic. When Brent taught the Winterstieger clinic, he was talking to us about the foot anatomy in pronation, supination, kind of technical terms, but then we do a lot of hands-on, made foot beds, and he showed us and then everybody did one… so I was making foot beds.

Kate: Was that scary?

Jackie at the grinder, shaping foot beds at Park City Ski Boot

Jackie: At first it was really scary.  I was like, “Oh, my God.  Let me out!” I feel like I am getting more comfortable with every fitting.  I feel like I can talk more about the boots and about what the person needs and this is what I am seeing.

Kate: Are you seeing it faster?

Jackie: Yes for sure. Brent and I actually did a fit together on Friday, and it was cool to sit back and listen to him. 

Kate: It’s like standing next to the head coach.

Jackie: Yeah, yeah, exactly.

Kate: Did you have in your journey so far a real A-HA moment where you suddenly understood, you had a shift in your understanding of what you are doing and how it affects the client?  And if so, what was that?

Jackie: Probably the second or third full fit that I did on my own where I went through the whole process from measurement through the foot bed and the final fitting and handed the client their boots and said, “Here you go, go and try them.” I think it was more of a confidence thing than anything else. Even getting feedback from people saying, “Here are your boots.  Go try them.”  They come back in.  They go, “Yeah, this worked great and need a little bit more here…” 

Kate: So let’s talk about the elephant in the room.

Jackie: Okay.

Kate: What is it like to be a chick in the boot-fitting world?

Jackie: Pretty much like being a chick in any other part of the ski industry.  (Laughs.) A lot of guys have a lot of ego, I mean not so much here at Park City Ski Boot, but in the industry in general. I have noticed that with coaching and just dealing with, even male customers who come in look at me and go, “No, I don’t…  Where is Brent?  Where is Matt? I need a male to talk to.”

Kate: Have people said that to you?

Jackie: Not directly, but some are just looking at me and moving on…

Kate: How do you handle that?  What do you do with it?

Jackie: I am not going to lie. It hurts personally. Any person is going to feel that when somebody looks at you and doesn’t know anything about you and just automatically rejects you because you are female. But I don’t really take it too seriously anymore…

Kate: Are you able to cope with it more easily as you go on?

Jackie: Yes, my confidence is growing, and I know what I know and just because they don’t take the time to understand that I know what I’m doing, it is not taking anything away from me.

Kate: I watched it this afternoon.  Right?  The guy was sitting there, and you were like, “Okay, let’s get you fit.”  And he said, “Oh, it’s you!”

Jackie: Yeah.  (Laughs.)

Kate:  And there was this moment, he walked up and sat down, you said, “Right, put your foot here, blah, blah, blah…” and he kind of had to get over it, and then you could get on with the fitting. What does that feel like to you to step into it and sort of be, “I am the boot fitter.”?

Jackie: There is something empowering when you are just kind of like, “Look, I am ready to go…”  I know I feel like I have gotten so used to it because I have been in the ski industry for a couple of years now, and that’s how I grew up, with some really strong female role models.  My mom - clearly she is my biggest role model. It has been “it is what it is.”  I know what I know.  I love skiing, and I am here to promote the sport, so take it as you will.

Kate: It was cool to watch you do it because it seemed to me like rather than talking about it or apologizing or any of the other avenues that you could take, you really just walked across and did your job. And he really kind of had no choice. 

Jackie: I think that’s something, if we don’t really give people the option to be like, “Oh, no…”  And if you are putting out confidence, then they kind of don’t have a choice.

Kate: That sort of goes toward erasing the gender differences, right, in boot fitting?

Jackie: Yes for sure. 

Kate: What might, if any, be an advantage to being a female boot fitter?  Do you think that your gender brings any sort of bonuses?

Jackie: Hmm, I think as far as fitting female clients, that’s a huge thing as far as the comfort level, and you know, like we talked about, like, “Oh my feet, I am so self-conscious,” so there is that, and just…  I think I just bringing another perspective to it. I think if you only have one perspective, then you are only going to get so far.

Kate: When you collaborate with one of the guys in the shop, do you feel like you are able to solve problems by coming from different perspectives? 

Jackie working with a client at Park City Ski Boot
Jackie: Yeah, I think I am still green and I take away a lot more than I have to offer right now, but I learn a lot. And I want to help and if I see things, I will point them out, and I will say, you know, “This looks like a good shape for this punch” or something like that.

Kate: What do you think about the future of women in boot fitting? Do you want to promote other women to come in and joint it? What happens if you find yourself as eventually as an ambassador for ski boot fitting?

Jackie: It would be sweet.

Kate: Would you feel comfortable in that role, encouraging more women?

Jackie: Yeah for sure!

Kate: And what about if they run into issues with, you know, gender in the locker room as it were, what kind of advice would you give to somebody who feels really passionate about boot fitting or how important it is, but feels reticent because of that, what would you say to somebody?

Jackie: You know, I would say, “Stick to your guns and be true to who you are.”

Brent: You know, I have a few things to say. I wish there were more women boot-fitters. Even though it is a somewhat male dominated sport, men don’t have the empathy that women have from their emotional development…

Jackie:     (laughs in agreement)

Brent: And we actually have probably less skiers today…. because we don’t have enough women boot fitters, because we don’t have as much empathy with the misery and the pain of getting equipment setup. And I think also guys would be happier if there were more women boot fitters because their wives would be happier skiers… They would get better boot fittings from someone whom they would trust more to listen to them, and therefore, we don’t have the guys because a lot of guys don’t get as much ski time because their wives…

Jackie: They are unhappy.

Brent: Because they are unhappy and pissed off. “This sport sucks, I am going to Florida.”

Kate and Jackie: (laugh in agreement)

Brent: I think that if there is a way we could promote more women into boot fitting as a legitimate career, it would be a huge boost to the skiing industry…

Kate: Ski industry in general.  I would agree with that and I would have to say too, as we are talking, two things occur to me.  The first thing is that it is interesting to me that Brent can say because women have empathy, but then it is difficult for Jackie as the female boot fitter who is coming up to say, because I can have empathy that a guy can’t have.

Jackie: That’s true.

Kate: And that’s maybe…  I mean that’s pretty typical of women who are in male dominated industries because part of our job is to be tough enough to belong.  Right?

Jackie: Right, that’s for sure.

Kate: But then when Brent was saying that, it makes me think too if you have someone who comes up and really understands what they are doing and also has that empathetic connection…

Brent: Yes.

Kate: How fantastic might she be fitting a high-end male skier because she can understand him that way.  Right?  Or how might that skill set transfer back and forth in your shop where she is welcome and mentored, you know.

Brent: Absolutely.

Kate: You can realize, “Oh, she is connected in a way that this other person isn’t.”  You know, Jackie is learning one skill set and maybe your male boot fitters are learning her empathy.

Brent: I would like to know why women look at boot fitting as maybe something they are not interested in or they don’t think about it.  Maybe they look at it as it’s too physical, yet it’s not. It’s maybe they are fearful of the emotional appearances of ski boot fitting. You know, that it is male dominated, and there is all this tradition that’s been handed down year after year in this industry, but you know it would be great to see those boundaries broken down and all those fears dispelled because we could use change in the ski industry all the way across the board.

Kate: Brent, you are revolutionary in your thinking. Jackie, it sounds like you are in good hands! Good luck to you and thanks for talking to me today!

Thanks to Brent and Jackie for allowing me to interview them. Photos by Brent Amsbury.


Kawsar Ahamed said...

Simply wanted to inform you that you have people like me who appreciate your work.

John said...

Go GO Jackie!