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For the Girls: How Wakeboarder Nicola Butler is Changing the Conversation

Growing up in South Africa Nicola Butler was exposed to a variety of sports but it was when her family moved to England that she would truly fall in love with one in particular: wakeboarding. She hit the water and hasn’t looked back as she now resides in the United States and competes as a professional wakeboarder, and one of the best at that. In 2016, Nicola was named the overall series’ champion in both the Malibu Evolution Pro Series and the Wakeboard World Series.

Being a professional athlete is not without its challenges, particularly as a woman. Recently, Nicola and her fellow female wakeboarders felt discriminated against based on their gender. Instead of getting angry, Nicola directed her energy into something positive creating “For The Girls,” a powerful film with a message for the next generation of female wakeboarders, as well as anyone who might think to question women’s commitment to their sport.

WSF: You are very involved in sports and actively enjoy surfing and yoga, and you compete as a professional wakeboarder. When did your love of sports begin?

Nicola: I’ve loved sports my whole life, really. My dad was really into soccer and surfing when I grew up, so I surfed a lot with him. Then when we moved to England I played soccer, netball and other sports. I’ve always had an interest in sports. One day in the park I happened to see wakeboarding; they were hosting their nationals there. In South Africa I used to get behind an outboard boat on a surfboard, so my dad was like, ‘hey, that’s like what we used to do, you should try it.’ So I did and I was just a natural at it, plus it’s really fun. Sports have always been a part of my life.

WSF: You and your fellow female riders released “For The Girls” on the eve of International Women’s Day. What prompted the creation of the video?

Nicola: It was inspired by the conversation surrounding a prominent wake magazine. One of my best friends was the first to publicly make a comment regarding one of their primary annual awards and ask why was there no female elected this past year. It took them a while to respond, which kind of built up all this energy. I knew that International Women’s Day was coming soon, so I thought instead of getting into the argument over the internet why don’t we do something positive. I wanted to show that the girls are deserving of the award, since part of their [the magazine’s] response was that there was no female rider deserving. They had a couple of other awards that were meant to be humorous, but the only actual girl award they gave out was ‘wake butt of the year’ so obviously the girls did not respond well to that. On top of that there were numerous other awards given out to the guys, some serious and some funny. All of that combined just got everything fired up.

WSF: How did “For The Girls” come together?

Nicola: We have a group of over 20-30 pro women all in a chat online and we were all just talking about what was happening because the girls were all putting out their own statements of how they felt. So using that platform I asked all the girls if they could send me their videos or best clips, since I only had 5 days. I was also able to work with some really good filmmakers and ask if I could use certain pieces of their film. They were all super helpful. As for the copy, it was between myself and about three or so other female wakeboarders who wrote the transcript for the piece.

The moving narration of “For The Girls” is second only to the incredible action footage of female wakeboarders. We asked Nicola her thoughts on the film’s message.

[You can find a full transcript of the video here.]

WSF: “This is for the girls who are told they can’t.” The video certainly speaks to a lack of support for girls in the sport. What is your personal experience?

Nicola: There have been years where the girls have been completely pulled from the tour or when we have only had two events. We are told this is because it’s too expensive or they don’t get the sponsorship to run a full tour like they do the guys. We were fortunate Rockstar Energy put in a lot of money last year to have the girls on the Wake World Series. That was the first year we have had that and it has an equal number of events as the guys. But then, on top of that the guys still had a pro tour with multiple stops and they still have a couple male-only events. So, I think one of the major things I’ve experienced is not really being included in events. This especially saddens me when I think about the next generation of girls coming into the sport. I feel like they aren’t going to have the opportunity to make this a full career if they’re not making the money to support themselves.

WSF: “For the girls who realize it’s time to Change. The. Conversation.” What do you believe needs to happen for the conversation to change regarding women’s participation in wakeboarding and in all sports?

Nicola: I think it’s going to take both parties, men and women. I think feminism can only go so far with just women. It’s when the men decide to stick up for us too that we can see further progress. If some of the men pro-riders were behind us and were like ‘hey we want everyone to be treated equally’ or, even, to have equal pay that would be amazing. So I think both genders working together versus the girls having to fight so much on their own would really make a difference and help our voices be heard.

WSF: “This is for the girls who are pushing boundaries and breaking barriers.” WSF President Grete Eliassen is someone you attribute as giving you inspiration. Would you mind sharing more about that?

Nicola: I met Grete when I joined the Oakley team. I got signed with Oakley as one of my first sponsors when I was 16 and it was just exciting to be a part of it all. The first time I met her was on an Oakley women’s clothing testing trip. We went out on a boat together and I remember surfing with her. She’s a little older than me but I remember being in awe of her and her social media presence. She has such grace and it was always inspiring for me. Then after she lost her friend and fellow skier Sarah [Burke], just seeing her go through that, since I had a similar situation, it was really inspirational. She’s just always been someone I’ve looked up to, particularly in how she handles situations with such poise.

WSF:We don’t need permission to change the world.” What advice do you have for young girls who want to enter the sport – or any non-traditional career – who may face criticism or discrimination?

Nicola: Just do it and ignore what anyone says. It sounds cheesy but follow your heart. I think when you’re younger there’s all this pressure to fit in and to say the right things. I know that when I was younger I didn’t want to step on any toes. I didn’t want to be louder than I should be and looking back I regret that. I went on team trips where I was treated so badly. The girls were always made fun of, would have to ride last, or had to ride in the worst conditions. Looking back I wish I’d spoken up. I don’t want anyone younger than me to go through that. So I’d say do your own thing. Don’t try and fit in with the guys.

WSF: “Why should we recognize your passion, your sacrifice, your dedication?” This is certainly a satirical line but it packs a punch with its meaning. The WSF is committed to providing athletes with the skills and exposure needed to advance in their sports, and transition to successful careers after competition. In 2015, we established the Athlete Leadership Connection. What lessons have you learned in sports that translate into the workplace or just your day-to-day?

Nicola: There’s a quote, “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.” I was taught that a lot when I was younger. You can get this cockiness when you do have a natural talent and then it’s a surprise when someone beats you because they’ve been putting the time in off the water. So, I’ve been applying that [motto] to my life outside of sports now. If you want to be the best at something it’s taking the time and training outside of the job, too.

The film is a powerful stand for girls everywhere to continue to chase their dreams and to always believe in themselves. Sports are important to the growth and development of girls and women as they teach the foundational benefits of leadership, self-esteem, confidence and perseverance. Sports are essential and the Women’s Sports Foundation believes all girls and women should have equal access regardless of gender, race, disability, age, religious beliefs and beyond.

For The Girls closes on a familiar refrain, “So remember girls… When they go low, we go HIGH.”