A version of this story appeared in the winter 2020 issue of Uncommon Path.
It’s a chilly September evening in Park City, Utah, though you wouldn’t know it from the bare arms and midriffs the women are showing in the ice arena parking lot. The PC Bladies, as they call themselves, are gathering for their weekly blade through town, looking like they put the ’80s in a lidless blender and hit puree.
“I’m sorry I’m late,” gushes Megan Harrod, a former ski racer who helped start the group three years ago. “The traffic and pasties”—she sticks her chest out to show the outlines of star-shaped stickers under her neon-green tank top—“took longer than anticipated.” Harrod, who by day is the alpine communications manager of the U.S. Ski Team (USST), also wears leggings with a velvet-Elvis-style unicorn on one leg and something resembling a Transformer with laser beams coming out of its eyes on the other.
“It’s a robot dinosaur,” she says when she sees me squint-ing at it. “Naturally.”
The PC Bladies made their debut when Harrod and Claire Brown, publisher of Ski Racing magazine, bladed onstage during the 2017 World Cup bib draw in Sölden, Austria, wearing USST speed suits and waving at the crowd of thousands. Sounds intimidating, right? Yet tonight, when first-timer Megan Dingman rolls up in an outfit that Cyndi Lauper probably wants back, these highly decorated athletes erupt in a resounding chorus of “Babe alert!” that instantly converts the newbie’s palpable anxiety into open-mouthed laughter.
This inclusivity is, Harrod says, the whole point. “I had a really hard time when I moved here,” she says as we wait for a few stragglers to join. “I didn’t know anyone outside of the team, and I traveled a lot. There was this book club I wanted to be a part of, but you needed a formal invitation. I felt like Park City was everyone else’s place, but it wasn’t mine. I wanted to create something that everyone could join.”
So she, Brown and other skiers Susie Theis, Katie Ryan and Kristina Tauber set up a weekly skating event with a theme—this week’s is neon—open to all women. Since then, participation has skyrocketed and the group has even spawned offshoots in Minneapolis; Sun Valley, Idaho; and Tahoe, California. Fans have driven to Park City from as far as Pennsylvania to join the Bladies’ annual prom, a fund-raiser for a local nonprofit organization that helps victims of domestic violence. “I have people all over the country messaging me to say, ‘I want to do that,’” Harrod says.
The sun has finally vanquished the clouds now, gilding the surrounding sagebrush and grass in slanted light, and the women are ready to start the 4-mile blade to downtown. We take off in waves down the path—some holding hands, some holding White Claws—while everyone laughs at a steady volley of off-color jokes.
I roll alongside Erin Ruzek and Jill Johnson, both of whom are in their 40s, and the latter of whom was a big-deal mogul skier on the USST in her 20s. Our kids are all nearing the terrifying teen years, so we slip into easy conversation about parental settings on devices, how to handle awkward birds-and-bees talks (or penguins and sea hawks, in Johnson’s case) and what the heck a VSCO girl is anyway. But mostly, we just skate and soak in the feeling of freedom, pavement sliding beneath our wheels and mountain air rushing past our ears. “The minute you put on your blades, you feel like a kid again,” Johnson says, her pink fur leg warmers fluttering in the wind. As we pass a man riding his bike, he breaks into a huge smile and yells, “Hey, Bladies!”
“Where’s Megan tonight?” I ask my partners, referring to Megan Brown Brent, another former U.S. Ski Teamer and ski-cross world champion. Johnson says maybe her knees are bothering her, a result of 20-some surgeries from ski injuries. “I’ve had two surgeries,” Ruzek lobs. “Both of them elective.”
As we make our way to the Bladies’ unofficial HQ, Old Town Cellars, I catch up with Dingman, one of the newbies. She’s wearing Pit Viper sunglasses, a rainbow-striped half shirt, a pink miniskirt and 1990s skates. “My blades might be retro, but they totally slice,” she says.
Dingman’s declaration catches me off guard. It’s so different than the ubiquitous self-defeating chatter inherent to girl code. There’s confidence, sure, which is expected among elite athletes, but that it’s shared by all the women—including a brand-new one who showed up alone, knowing no one—is remarkable. No one downplays their abilities here, and no one apologizes for any lack thereof.
Part of this bravado might stem from the silly nature of the sport itself. But part of it is simply the fact that there are no men here. The group has provided a safe place for women to be unfiltered and bawdy, to show some skin and to be totally confident in who they are or want to be. “Women have a lot of pressure to be a certain way,” Johnson says when I bring up the topic. “To be classy or professional or whatever. We’ve had to fight harder to be taken seriously in our everyday lives, so this is a release.”
Mostly, though, PC Bladies is about community—one carved out by women for women in a town and culture dominated by men. It’s happening elsewhere in the outdoor world, too, evidenced by the recent proliferation of women-only ski, surf, run and bike groups and camps. It’s like hanging out with other women has finally become cool, and we’ve figured out we don’t have to eschew our femininity to be powerful. Perhaps we have more role models than ever before, thanks to the popularity of athletes like Lindsey Vonn and Mikaela Shiffrin—not to mention the entire women’s U.S. national soccer team. Or maybe our current political climate has brought us together in a more profound way, with the linguistics alone of “me too” suggesting a force of conver-gence. Whatever the case, the Bladies have built a culture that lifts women up in a world that has traditionally torn them down—and they get to put on party pants and laugh their asses off as well.
We stagger awkwardly on our blades up the stairs into the OTC, a little wine bar in Old Town, and the bartender calls out casually, “Ladies, blades off in the bar, please,” like it’s a completely normal request. We sit down around a low-slung table upon which are several bottles of rosé and a fleet of glasses, and the women help one another take off their skates. Ruzek puts her feet on the table to reveal socks on the wrong feet, with soles that say Bring me a glass of wine and If you can read this. “Well, I usually cross my legs,” she explains, “so it makes sense.”
We order pizza and fries, which we devour immediately—another sign that girl code is notably absent—and go around the table introducing ourselves for the newbs who might not have met everyone yet. There’s Heather, a 44-year-old midwife and single mom in baggy silver pants, a bright green shirt and purple dreads down to her waist. She found the group through Instagram. Carla is a first-timer who joined tonight because her daughter is a friend of Harrod’s. The group spans all ages and income brackets—as many walks of life as there are in a ski town, anyway.
Then we just hang out, a bunch of women in ridiculous outfits laughing about nothing and everything. “I have a BeDazzler,” someone yells over the merriment. “You look like Christina Aguilera right now,” shouts someone else. Then Johnson tells the story of a woman who approached her in the grocery store with a pair of 1970s gym shorts that she wanted the Bladies to have. “We can pass them around—after we cut out the built-in undies,” she says. “It’ll be like the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants!”
Johnson’s phone rings. It’s her son. “I’m busy right now, honey,” she replies. “Can you call your dad?” Kids grow up watching their moms sacrificing so much for their families, she says after she hangs up, and it’s good for them to see her putting herself first. “Bladies is my form of self-care,” she says, reaching for the bottle of rosé. “I’m going to have one more.”