On the rail

At just 22 years of age, Zoi Sadowski-Synnott has been a key driver and role model at the leading edge of the rise and rise of women’s snowboarding. From X Games, World Championship and Olympic glory to her next Winter Olympic campaign, the wonder from Wanaka just keeps carving up the competition.

Aug 17, 2023

Words Cameron Officer Images Lars Baron, Fiona Goodal, Adam Petty, Joe Allison and Gettys 

Portland, Oregon, sweltering as it is in 30-plus degree summer heat, might seem like an incongruous location to find New Zealand’s preeminent women’s snowboarder. Especially when it’s winter at home and the slopes of Central Otago have been on the receiving end of some decent dumps.

Turns out, however, Zoi Sadowski-Synnott isn’t just in town to sample craft beer and coffee. The lofty slopes of Mount Hood, 110km east of and 3,400m above the city, is where her focus lies. Snowbound at its uppermost altitudes even in the middle of a Northern Hemisphere summer, Sadowski-Synnott will be riding the rails at Timberline as part of her training regime.

Time on the rails is essential training for the slopestyle segment of competition that Sadowski-Synnott excels at.

Slopestyle is a discipline that consists of rail and jump features which athletes link together from the top to bottom of a run, while Big Air – the other discipline Sadowski-Synnott competes in – consists of one large spectacular jump which athletes then use to perform technical tricks in. Each run is evaluated based on progression, amplitude, variety, execution, and difficulty. Athletes are scored out of 100 points.

“One of the benefits of getting involved in the sport at a young age is that I was able to establish what works for me, both in terms of physical and mental prep,” says the 22-year-old. “Yoga is super important, and I always go hard in the gym. Training also means spending a lot of time on the trampoline working on my aerial awareness.”

Training and physical preparation are part and parcel of any campaign build up, but the natural ability Sadowski-Synnott brings to snowboarding is obvious.

Born into a keen skiing and snowboarding family, she was already skiing as a preschooler, but had traded skis for her first board by age nine. Competitive by nature and encouraged by her family, she established competition goals and entered anything she could. But it was in 2016 that things stepped up a gear. Sadowski-Synnott set off to follow the 2016/17 World Cup tour throughout the Northern Hemisphere.

She competed in her first Big Air World Cup in December 2016 at the age of just fifteen and ended up finishing ninth. From there, Sadowski-Synnott set a goal to finish on the podium at the Junior World Champs in the Czech Republic in 2017. She took out fourth place in slopestyle at the World Cup in Mammoth Mountain that same year, before going on to podium a week later with a bronze medal in Big Air at the World Cup in Quebec, Canada, incredibly followed by silver in Slopestyle at the World Championships in Sierra Nevada, Spain - not the Junior World’s - and rounded out the season with the gold in Slopestyle at the World Cup in Spindleruv Mlyn, Czech Republic.

Bronzes then silvers. Silvers then Golds. To reel off a list of Sadowski-Synnott’s placings in major competitions such as X Games, World Cups and – of course – the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics where she stood atop the podium as the first ever Winter Games gold medallist for New Zealand… it's like charting a periodic table of the elements.

Clearly that Beijing Winter Olympic victory will forever stand as a high-water mark for the young competitor. First ever Winter Games gold, yes. But it’s also worth noting she scored a truly impressive 92.88 on that final slopestyle run. She was also the first woman that year to land a back-to-back frontside double 1080 and backside double 1080 in competition. Days later she was back for silver in big air.

Of course, that was then. Now, the focus – beyond world championships and X Games – is the 2026 Milano Cortina Winter Olympics. The work starts here.

When not competing, Sadowski-Synnott gravitates towards skating and surfing in her downtime (although won’t be drawn on her favourite secret surf break, suggesting only that it’s somewhere along the Otago coast). Board sports – on water, tarmac, or snow – go hand-in-hand, and it’s not uncommon for a proponent of one discipline to be keen on the others.

In the seven years since she received her High Performance Sport NZ carding, Sadowski-Synnott says it’s amazing to see the rapid legitimisation of sports that, less than a generation ago, were often deemed ‘outsider’ pursuits.

“It’s awesome that snowboarding, skating, and surfing are all being recognised as methods of personal development in schools, and all over the place school teams are being established and encouraged. It’s going to mean the degree of competition in the future is stepped up a lot. It also means the people we see at the top of those sports are going to be achieving bigger things at younger ages, which is going to be amazing.”

The other thing about Sadowski-Synnott: she is constantly traveling. In the fortnight it takes us to nail down a time for our chat for 66 Magazine, Sadowski-Synnott has gone from being in Europe, to back home in New Zealand for a nanosecond, before heading for the Mount Hood training camp in the United States. She even slyly reveals she managed to squeeze in some brief R&R in Bali somewhere in amongst it all.  Next stop Jindabyne, Australia for dry slope and airbag training.

“There’s no disadvantage to being based down in New Zealand because, to be honest, you just travel to where the competition is. You’re chasing the season, so you accept pretty early on if you want to do this, you’re going to be on the move a lot. I’m never anywhere for longer than a couple of week

“It’s actually nice having Wanaka as a base though because when I’m home, I’m truly home, and we’re so lucky with the mountains in that part of the world. As far as powder goes, I think Alaska would probably be my favourite spot, but you can’t beat Wanaka for everything else. The quality of the jumps, of the rails and halfpipe – it’s world class and Cardrona is a very well-run park. And of course, you’ve got the town itself nearby too, which is a great place.”

And such is the terrain in Central Otago, that the world often comes to New Zealand, as will be the case in August and September this year when the popular Winter Games NZ will see some of the world’s best freeskiers and snowboarders descend on Cardrona.

Sadowski-Synnott’s reputation extends well beyond New Zealand. She might only be 22, but such has been her meteoric rise on the global stage, she has garnered fans all over the world, let alone Kiwi kids carving it up on local ski fields with one eye on World Cup or Olympic glory.

Infectiously enthusiastic about snow sports – and absolutely honest about the tough training regimen required and risk of injury that is part of the deal in snowboarding, like any sport at the top level - Sadowski-Synnott is characteristically straight-up when it comes to what advice she’d offer anyone wanting to make a name for themselves.

“Work hard and think big. Someone has to do it: someone has to be the next big thing. So, you may as well try and make sure it’s you.”

Indeed. Someone does have to be the next big thing. On that note, who, in her opinion, are the next household names we should be keeping an eye out for?

“Definitely Lucia Georgalli, she’s awesome. She’s a 16-year-old from Wanaka and yeah, really talented. She’s had some impressive results already and has big ambitions, so it’ll be good to see what she achieves coming up.”

Georgalli has amassed impressive competition results, including a win at the 2022 Cardrona Freestyle Nationals FIS Australia New Zealand Cup slopestyle, and a second at the 2022 World Rookie Finals (slopestyle).

Already familiar to many from her own campaign at the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics, Sadowski-Synnott also points to the fantastically named Cool Wakushima as another true talent.

Born in Japan, Wakushima moved to New Zealand with her family when she was six and now counts Queenstown as home base. A growing list of career highlights (gold in Big Air and silver in slopestyle at the Aspen Open in 2021, a fifth-place finish at the LAAX Open Snowboard slopestyle World Cup in 2022 to name a couple) marks Wakushima as a future star of the sport.

“It’s just so awesome to see the girls coming through the ranks,” says Sadowski-Synnott. “There are so many more girls on the snow now than when I started. I was the only girl entered in my first ever competition, but that has well and truly changed these days.”

She thinks for a moment, wavering over another future star’s name to add to the list, before crinkling her nose.

“Yeah, no need to mention any of the boys, they get enough attention!” she laughs.