“What I’ve learned through watching and being part of the snowboarding world is that mental & physical battles are almost a must. Everyone’s got their own, and they all deal with them in different ways. Having said that, watching Niqi ride street literally threw me off the bus. I don’t know what I was expecting when we called her to come film for Fake Teeth Real Friends, but she managed to make it REAL clear that she belonged where she was and was definitely not going to back down on anything. And when I say anything, I mean ANYTHING. I’ve seen Niqi ride through parks in resorts, but Niqi in the street is a whole other Niqi. She is ferocious and hungry and does not give up. She rode in a freezing blizzard in the Czech Republic, winched on the winch bike on a rail over the street with cars and trucks passing by and battled till she could no longer feel her broken thumb. No matter the fear, the struggle, the actual pain, Niqi battles and conquers her struggles.”
Intro: Chiara Grisorio
Interview: Theo Acworth
Photo: Mikael Prouza
So you’re Dutch but lived in Canada for a bit, and have been in Innsbruck for the last couple of years. What brought you back to Europe?
Covid. It was super hectic. I had a job that my visa was attached to, working in finance for a company that owns a bunch of bars and
clubs. Not the most exciting job, but they were flexible with my snowboarding. I had just done Miss Superpark and Snowboy’s Back to the Village at Banff when my family called and told me that Italy was shutting down and that I should come home. What? I was home, I live in Canada. I’m not just gonna pack up. That makes no sense.
The next day Whistler Blackcomb announced that they were closing for a month, and everyone at my company got fired. So I have no job and no visa, I don’t know if the mountain will open again, and I also heard that airlines were going to stop flying. I thought I could stay, then thought that it would probably be good to be close to family in case something did happen to any of them. I booked a flight and flew home four days later. I’d been living in my apartment for two years and had to clean the entire thing out, just throwing stuff on the street or trying to give things to friends. I couldn’t take anything to a recycling centre because everything was closed. Then I got on the plane and was back in the Netherlands, and I wasn’t really sure what to do with my life.
Wow, that’s crazy. I sort of assumed you wanted to come back, I didn’t realise it was such a forced change of circumstances.
I never really got to process leaving. It happened super fast. So I was at home for a while with family, which was kind of nice actually, and I ended up coming to the Kaunertal opening at the start of the next winter. I saw Jacco [Bos], and he said that I should move to Innsbruck. I’d never even been to Innsbruck, but why not? It was meant to be temporary until I could go back to Canada, and then I ended up getting really settled in by accident and liking it a lot more than I thought I would.
“I've wanted to do this for so long and struggled to do it on my own, then all of a sudden I just rolled into it. It was crazy.”
Yeah, that happens a lot here.
I felt welcomed and accepted really fast. There are a lot of really sick women here who are really active that I’d never heard of before. They don’t ride to get sponsored or to be popular or anything, they just enjoy themselves.
Were you filming much in Canada?
A little bit. Never really around Whistler as it’s kind of a ski resort town. I did this project with Kayli Hendricks. We did street trips and also events at local resorts just for women. We did one at Troll, which was really fun because she’s from there. We also went to Edmonton, it was -30. Crazy cold, but really good with the girls.
Was this past winter one of the
first times you’d joined a crew filming street rather than trying to do it yourself?
Yeah. I’ve known I want to ride street for at least ten years. When I started snowboarding, I was immediately watching street videos and knew that was what I wanted to do. It’s not really possible to do it in the Netherlands, and at the time, there weren’t many women doing it in Europe, so I thought I had to go to the US. But it’s hard to only spend six months somewhere and try to get in with people.
I always found it frustrating that filming street seemed so private and secret. I get it. If you have a crew that works good, why would you just invite everybody along? There are so many unspoken rules to figure out if no one tells you. So I would try to create my own projects and be open to include people who were down to do the same thing, but it never really worked. I never got to film the way that I wanted. This felt like the first time I was sort of ‘allowed’ in with a crew, if you can say it like that. It felt like a dream. I’ve wanted to do this for so long and struggled to do it on my own, then all of a sudden I just rolled into it. It was crazy.
So a year after joining Drake and Northwave, would you say it was the right decision?
It’s so much better than I ever thought. I’m a pretty loyal person, so it was hard to break that relationship with Niche and go for something else. I’d only just met Alex [Stewart] and Chiara [Grisorio], and they ended up inviting me to Zermatt. The whole vibe of these few days was so good with everyone. I just wanted to be a part of that team. They also developed a lot of the products, and a couple of months later, I got to try the DFL pro, which Chiara designed with Paula [Benito]. I didn’t expect to like it as much as I did, and it might actually be my favourite board ever. So I get to hang out with people I really like and I get to ride a snowboard that I really like. I didn’t see any downsides. I didn’t even know if I’d be involved with any filming projects. It just felt like a family, and they were good to be around. It felt like the right decision. Looking back, fuck yeah it was the right decision.
That’s great to hear. How were the filming trips last winter?
Super different. We were in the Czech Republic on two different trips. The first was just street with Alex, Chiara, [Nicholas] Bridgeman, and Dusan [Kris] was there but then he had to leave to do a coaching thing. We stayed with his parents, even though he wasn’t there. The second trip was for the TAO of Beginnings clip with the Simpson brothers, Alex, Klaus [Schroll] and Nata [Selena Karen Sanchez]. It was a mixture of street and riding at Wena’s Backyard Park.
Sounds like a nice mix. How did the first trip go?
I felt a lot of pressure. It was crazy and surreal to have people who knew what they were doing filming me and shovelling for me, and asking me what I needed. Everyone starts giving you advice at one point, which can also be a bit overwhelming. I was feeling almost guilty that I wasn’t landing. I felt easier about it after I’d shovelled and put some work in for their spots. At the first spot, Bridgeman just started cutting down my drop-in without asking me because he could see that I was going too fast. I got kind of mad because I didn’t know I was going too fast! He was right, though. Alex was also shovelling out the stairs to make the shot look better but was doing it secretly as he didn’t want to mess with me mentally. They could see what was going wrong and were just trying to help me get the shot. Alex also really took a lot of time to work through things with me when I was battling. It was so sick how he supported me so much. Just letting me be there. He’s very analytical, and so am I. I never felt like I was that talented, so I analyse everything in my riding. The way he gave advice helped so much, like how I was locking onto the rail. Things would just click. He’d say it would just be a matter of time, and then I’d keep telling that to myself.
That’s rad to hear. He’s definitely had his fair share of experience. But having a whole crew of people all throwing that experience at you at the same time must have been pretty intense.
I also felt like all of these people were investing time in me. I’d never had that before, and I really didn’t want to fuck it up. I didn’t want to disappoint anyone, and I also didn’t want to disappoint myself. I wanted it really badly, and I wanted to show that I appreciated the opportunity and make the most of it.
You said just now that they ‘let you’ be there. For sure if you’re there, it’s because they’re down with you and your snowboarding. I know I am too, you rip. They wouldn’t have asked for you to ride for them if they didn’t back you and want to do stuff with you. But I’m pretty sure it’s hard to have that perspective while you’re watching someone cut up your drop-in and dig out your stairs while you’re already stressed out.
Yeah, especially when the whole situation is new. It took me a few days to figure it out. I don’t know if I did though, really. I just knew that it was basically my dream, so I was going to work as hard as I could to make it happen.
So you’ve got a cast on in some of these photos. What happened?
I broke my thumb. I’d kind of got the shot on the wooden down-flat-down but I wanted to get it better. I slipped off early and smacked my hand on it. I couldn’t even strap in anymore. A few days later I was also using the winch for the first time and doing it one-handed.
One-handed winch bike? Even with two hands, that thing is rowdy.
I didn’t think the spot would be too gnarly with the winch, but I ended up slamming a couple of times badly and almost hitting my head, which I’m always really scared of. At one point, I said I was done. I sat down with Alex and Chiara in their van, which was right next to us in the parking lot. I wasn’t happy with the shot, but I was mentally through with it. Alex made some tea, and we talked about it. After a while, I said that I thought I should try it again. I asked him what he thought, and he said that I should do it again… but that I didn’t have to because I was hurt.
Classic devil’s advocate.
It eventually worked out, but it was mentally pretty rough. Sometimes I get a little scared if I’m whipping my head and neck because I’ve had so many problems with concussions.
When was the first time you had a concussion?
My first winter here. I did a pretty fast backlip on an icy park rail and stuck, flew off and smacked my head. I thought I might be ok, but then I started getting really tired, and when I woke up the next day, I could barely do anything. I went to the grocery store and was really overwhelmed by all the lights. That was when I thought I probably had a concussion. I’d never really taken them that seriously. I thought it would just be gone in five days or something. Then a few months later, I had another pretty light concussion, but it was actually worse. I couldn’t have good conversations with people, and it took me a long time to feel like myself again after that.
“They told me that I wasn't bleeding in my brain and basically just said good luck.”
Damn, that sounds pretty intense.
I was having really bad headaches and couldn’t really look at my screen either. I just wanted to know when it would be done. I got a brain scan at the hospital, and they told me that I wasn’t bleeding in my brain and basically just said ‘good luck’.
That must have sucked to feel like you didn’t have a solution.
It’s really different. With other injuries, there’s quite a clear step-by-step recovery process. Have surgery, do physio, get stronger. With a concussion, you don’t have anyone telling you when you can go back to snowboarding. I was trying to find out information, and there are so many things that you don’t really know about. Basically when you get a concussion, it reduces your brain energy levels, and it takes about 22 to 45 days to fully restore, even though your symptoms might be gone after the first 10 days. If you hit your head again before your levels are fully restored, it drops even lower than the first time and could cause permanent brain damage as well as it then taking between 90 and 120 days to restore.
Damn that’s crazy, and not riding for that long is pretty hard for a snowboarder working in winter.
Yeah, and most people think they’ll just be fine after a week and they can go riding again and will be fine. It takes a long time until your brain is fully recovered.
What did the next few months look like for you after that?
It was really difficult because I was experiencing issues for quite a long time afterwards. And it’s not like an injury you can see, like a broken bone. It’s an invisible injury. If I told people that I had a headache, they would tell me to drink some water or maybe go get my eyes checked or something.
I know where the problem is coming from, but you feel kind of crazy because everyone is kind of telling you that you should be fine already, and they can’t really understand it. That made it difficult. You know you’re not feeling ok, and you know that your brain isn’t processing things properly, but you can’t really explain it. I did talk a bit to Melissa Ritano and Kelsey Boyer from Save a Brain. It was nice to have their support. She also sent me this cookbook that they made called the ‘Concussion Cookbook’, which is food that is good for your brain and that sort of stuff, which was really quite helpful. So many snowboarders still don’t wear helmets, and we don’t think about the serious effects of how hurting your brain can affect who you are as a person. But I did exactly the same thing for so many years, despite having friends who had been through similar situations. There also aren’t that many helmets that actually prevent concussions. We really need to get onto that.
Anon seem to do a pretty good job with their helmets. They have this crazy 3D material that diverts the force from rotational impact by crumpling and gliding. We should try to get you one.
Yeah, they use Wavecel. I was reading that different helmets have different ratings and that MIPS [Multi-directional-Impact-System] would be more effective in some than in others. But all of this research is done by the helmet companies themselves, so they’re not really legally allowed to say if a helmet could prevent anything. So, in the end, you’re kind of left with nothing. I tried really hard to find this information. But it’s hard to find what’s actually going to help protect my brain.
Since those two concussions you mentioned, have you had any others?
Nothing huge since then. But it’s hard to be snowboarding and know you’re vulnerable to concussions. I’m wearing a helmet, but it feels like it doesn’t take much. I also throw the helmet away after each hit and buy a new one. I feel like many people wear the same smashed-up helmet for years and don’t realise it’s useless after hitting your head once.
Are the long-term effects of concussions something that you worry about?
Yeah, sometimes. I saw a lot of that stuff about football players who hit their heads many times and die. But they can’t diagnose it until they’re dead and they’ve cut open their brains and analysed them. But those players might have had hundreds of concussions. But I’ve already got some stuff that I don’t really talk about that much. I just try to deal with it. There are some things that linger, like I struggle with focusing too long on screens or reading things for a long amount of time and also headaches.
And these things are with you on a daily basis?
Yeah. They’re not super crazy, but I’m definitely not the same as I was before, and that’s quite difficult to deal with. I’m ok to speak about it, but as I said, it can be difficult because people can’t really see it, so it can be easy to wave it away and say that I’m imagining it or something. I know what I’m feeling. I just have to deal with it on my own, basically.
It sounds quite isolating.
A little bit, yeah. I mean, everyone has a headache once in a while, so it can be hard to explain because it doesn’t really feel the same way. My sister has had a lot of concussions from being knocked out in icy pipes. She would sometimes have non-stop headaches for three months in a row. She’d just have to go to bed and close her eyes and not do anything. I can talk about it with her, and we can understand each other pretty easily. Sometimes you want advice, but you want it from someone who really knows and understands what’s going on. When you open up about things, people often feel very inclined to give you advice, even if they know nothing about it. So that can sometimes be a reason not to talk about it.
Street snowboarding is obviously a pretty high-risk environment. How do you manage the fact that you’re choosing to put yourself in situations where there’s a good chance of falling?
So last winter I hit my head at DIYX, and then hiking at Patscherkofel, so I hadn’t really been snowboarding since then. Then Alex hit me up about the trip, and I 100% wanted to do it. It’s what I’ve always wanted to do. So you know that you can’t really afford to fall on your head, but am I going to pass up the opportunity? I went and rode Laax for three days and was feeling kind of good, so I decided to go. I was definitely thinking about it a lot, just weighing up how badly I want to do it and is it worth it? If it feels like it’s worth it for me, and I really really want to do it, then I’m gonna do it, and I just have to hope that it goes alright. And besides my thumb, it went fine.
“You've just gotta really love it and really have the passion, because why else would you put yourself through it, you know?”
So you got through both trips ok?
On the second trip, the pressure was getting to me more. There was one spot where I wasn’t really in the right mindset and was falling and whipping my head a bit, and I just thought, you know what, I actually don’t care about this spot that much. So I stopped, and kind of broke down a little bit. If I’m going to risk it, the reward has to be big enough. So that was a bit of a struggle, but by the end of the season, you kind of forget about it and start feeling better. But on those trips, I was definitely weighing things up.
That’s a lot to carry. Even when you’re feeling fine and on point, filming street is an exhausting and intense environment.
I talked to Klaus about it. She’d had knee surgery and was still having pain in it, so we kind of connected a bit on that. We both wanted to ride our best but felt like we couldn’t. That was actually really nice to have that support in the team and to talk about it. Not everyone can relate to that. If you haven’t had a big injury, it can be hard to understand how it affects you mentally. I’ve had so many injuries over the years that didn’t affect me at all until heavier things start happening, and you don’t know if you can actually snowboard again. That’s really difficult to pull yourself through and somehow come back to snowboarding again. You’ve just gotta really love it and really have the passion, because why else would you put yourself through it, you know? It makes no sense otherwise. And if you don’t love it, then I think you’d quit. It doesn’t make sense to struggle that much mentally and physically. I never used to understand why some people would stop snowboarding, but now I do. I understand why some people reach that threshold where they decide that they no longer want to risk their health in this way.
“If you're not making women visible, why should women support what you do?”
Unless you have a personal connection to a rider, you often never know the reasons why they step away from filming, even though they’re still really good.
There are other things in life than just being good at something and being a snowboarder. But for me, I haven’t done enough yet where I’d be happy to quit.
How’s the overall feeling of the team at the moment? It seems like Alex and Chiara are really pushing the women’s side of the brands?
Yeah, they’re going for a 50-50 split. That’s the goal. No one has done that. No one. It seems like a bizarre idea, but why? Shouldn’t that be kind of normal? The participation rate of women in snowboarding is still lower than men, but it’s rapidly growing. If you’re not supporting it and making space for role models, you won’t encourage new participation or growth, and those rates won’t change. It’s a vicious circle. If you’re not making women visible, why should women support what you do?
Exactly. You have to make space for growth instead of just wondering why it doesn’t happen.
I noticed a shift in myself too. I’ll watch every women’s project and read all the interviews, but I’m less interested in men’s stuff. There are so many good women, and it feels more attainable and inspiring to you. Men’s snowboarding is inspiring, but I never really questioned the lack of women when I started riding. Watching Videograss movies, you think you can do something like that, then you realise that there are no women in them, and you start to doubt that you can be a part of that. If you see women snowboarding, chances are it’s because they’ve had to make their own project. I thought that I had to find other women to ride street with and then create my own project, otherwise I’ll never get to ride street. And that’s kind of the reality of it, which is really frustrating.
How's the overall feeling of the team at the moment? It seems like Alex and Chiara are really pushing the women's side of the brands?
Yeah, they're going for a 50-50 split. That's the goal. No one has done that. No one. It seems like a bizarre idea, but why? Shouldn't that be kind of normal? You could say that the participation rate of women in snowboarding is still lower than men, but it's rapidly growing. If you're not supporting it and making space for role models, you won't encourage new participation or growth, and those rates won't change. It's a vicious circle. If you're not making women visible, why should women support what you do?
Exactly. You have to make space for growth instead of just wondering why it doesn’t happen.
I noticed a shift in myself too. I'll watch every women's project and read all the interviews, but I'm less interested in men's stuff. There are so many good women, and it feels more attainable and inspiring to you. Men's snowboarding is inspiring, but I never really questioned the lack of women when I started riding. Watching Videograss movies, you think you can do something like that, then you realise that there are no women in them, and you start to doubt that you can be a part of that. If you see women snowboarding, chances are it's because they've had to make their own project. I thought that I had to find other women to ride street with and then create my own project, otherwise I'll never get to ride street. And that's kind of the reality of it, which is really frustrating.
I never noticed how totally male-dominated videos were until it was pointed out to me.
It's hard for us to navigate this industry and know where to send stuff. Maybe it's a confidence thing where women are less inclined to hit people up and ask them to watch or post their stuff because it feels like there's no space for it.
Readers, brands and media, take note and make some space. Do you have plans for next winter?
I think we're still figuring it out. I know Dusan and Bridgeman really want to ride pow, and Alex is down for both pow and street. So we might split, but we'll figure it out and will definitely be filming something.
We didn't actually get into the TAO project yet. How did that one go?
That was crazy, too, with everyone riding the same board. It was totally different compared to the other trip. Joe and Jake's pace is so high, doing five spots a day, but the sort of spots that you would never think of yourself. I was exhausted and couldn't really keep up with them, but it was fun to see a totally different perspective. It's cool how everyone approaches it so differently.
That's what makes snowboarding rad.
I was actually talking to Alex about all the tricks that I still want to learn, and he just said, “Why? You don't need it. You've pretty much got the tricks you need for street. Just focus on making them look good and putting your style on it, and that's all you need”. For me, it's always been about progress. But he gave me this calming sense of confidence by saying that. You always feel inadequate because there's always more to learn. Sometimes I just hate my style and change how I do everything. It was so comforting to just try and make it look good instead of trying crazy shit. I know I'm not that snowboarder who can just land anything. So it can be good for your mental health to look at it like that.
I think most of us appreciate simple things done with style. And some people have their certain signature tricks that you're always hyped to see, and it doesn't matter if they do them a lot.
I started having that thing where everyone would tell me that my backlips were sick, and I told myself that I would just stop doing them because I was tired of people thinking that I could only do one trick! I can do other things!
*laughs* It sounds like a lot of self-doubt?
I definitely over-think things, and I'm also a perfectionist. That's sometimes very good, but sometimes it keeps you in this negative space where you're really critical about what you do and how you do it, and you think that everybody might hate it. So it's finding the balance between allowing it to motivate you and push you to do your best and not letting it paralyse you to the point that you can't do anything. But the older I get, the better I get at it.
Well it sounds like being a part of this team and crew is a good space to be in to help with that too. Are you happy with your shots?
You never really are, but I also haven't seen them for a while.
Having some distance on them is never a bad thing.
We didn't film for too long, and I wish I could have done more. I'm definitely not happy with how it looks, and that's hard to accept when you know how you could do the trick in the park, but it's not the same in the streets with all the circumstances around it. Shovelling, being tired and struggling with the mental side of it. In that scenario, that's the best I had. I gave it everything my body had, and I'm happy with the effort because I don't think I could have done any more.