Sheffield trio journey on upward slope to reach Sochi

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KATIE SUMMERHAYES was eight years old when she first walked up to James Woods to introduce herself.

Woods was celebrating his 13th birthday by parading his latest skiing trophy to friends and family at Sheffield’s Ski Village.

Sheffield's Katie Summerhayes

Sheffield's Katie Summerhayes

Despite his tender years, the long-haired adolescent was already the rock ‘n’ roll star of freestyle skiing and the patrons of the dry ski slopes overlooking Penistone Road were his fans.

“I looked up to him massively, we all did at the time,” recalls Summerhayes of the king of Sheffield’s slopes.

“It was his 13th birthday, and I went up and said ‘happy birthday Woodsy’. I was only eight.

“From then on, we were inseparable. We went everywhere together. We hung out even when we didn’t ski, mainly because we both did freestyle.

Sheffield's freestyle skier James Machon.

Sheffield's freestyle skier James Machon.

“I spent so many hours up at that ski village. On a Saturday we’d start skiing at 10 and wouldn’t finish until five, and our parents would have to drag us off the slope.

“We had so much fun. The crew we had together made it even better.”

Part of that ‘crew’ was James Machon, who is a year older than Woods.

“It was a great group with Woodsy and Katie, and a great training facility,” adds Machon.

“We used to encourage each other to learn new tricks, and it was great fun.

“My mum got pretty sick of me saying ‘just let me have one more run’.”

The three of them were part of the Sharks Ski Club, an organisation for juniors that allowed its members free rein of the facilities at the ski village.

An artificial halfpipe – built because the senior skiers had been forced off-piste to attempt risky twists and turns – was their main piece of apparatus.

The texture of the surface they practiced on – described by all three as like learning on a toothbrush – gave them no other option but to be perfect with their somersaults and spins, or else they would wind up suffering injury.

The only one not to abide by those safety principles? Woods.

“I was always too cool to ride in anything other than a tee-shirt with no gloves, so it was very sore and your skin could get really cut up if you touched down,” he recalls.

“It was pretty gnarly even at the best of times. There were bits of metal sticking out all over the place.

“It’s easy for me to forget about all that now because the world I’m living in now is so distant, but what I do remember is how fantastic and happy those days were. We were kids messing around outside and having the most fun. It’s quite heart-breaking what’s happened to the place. It was a good place for kids to go and, more than anything, it just made me happy.”

Those innocent, formative days led to something far greater for all three. For tonight in Sochi this trio will walk behind the British flag as part of this country’s delegation of athletes at the 22nd Winter Olympics.

Over the coming days in the mountains overlooking the Russian Black Sea resort, they will compete for gold; Woods and Summerhayes in skiing slopestyle and Machon in skiing halfpipe.

The latter’s chances of delivering a medal are slim, given he spent much of the last 18 months recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee.

This injury is tough enough for any skier to recover from but it was made worse for Machon when he suffered an infection which was mis-diagnosed for a period.

Woods is among the favourites to win a medal in slopestyle. He has been one of the dominant forces in a sport that is traditionally found in the X Games but is now part of the Olympic programme.

Summerhayes has had her own battle against injury in the run-up to Sochi.

She required two operations on a knee injury, the last of which came last May, that left the 19-year-old fearing her Olympic dream was over before it had even begun.

“It’s been really hard, because as soon as I found out I’d done it a second time it was only nine months until Sochi, so I was worried I wasn’t going to make it,” she says.

“The first time I found out I’d done it I cried for two days but my coach, Pat Sharples, lifted my spirits. He was the person that made me believe I could actually come back.

“I needed those words. I spoke to Woodsy and he was a big help as well.

“But the knee is now completely fine. I’ve been skiing for two months so I’ve had enough time to prepare.”

It has certainly not derailed her preparations, with Summerhayes returning to World Cup competition in Switzerland last month and winning a silver medal.

That achievement underlines her potential in Sochi to emerge from Britain’s strongest ever team of skiiers and snowboarders to be the first from this nation to win a Winter Olympics medal on the slopes.

Because the schedule for Sochi has the women’s slopestyle running on Tuesday, two days before the men’s competition, she could even beat her old friend and inspiration Woods into the history books.

“It would be funny to beat him,” she laughs, “but I just want to ski as best I can. I’m so happy to be here and skiing in the Olympics. As long as I’m happy with my performance and there’s nothing else I could have done, that will be pleasing.

“But like everyone I want to win a medal. It would be pretty cool to make history.

“If you win an X Games medal you’re known in the skiing world; if you win an Olympic medal you’re known throughout the country.”

If she, Woods or Machon achieves a medal, it will be a historic accomplishment celebrated long into the night by the surviving members of the Sharks Ski Club, one that has relocated to Castleford’s SnoZone because of the fire that destroyed Sheffield’s Ski Village in 2012.

The tangled steelwork left is an insult to the memory of the happy times this now famous trio spent learning the sport they love, but the club is about more than bricks and mortar.

“It’s fantastic for the club that we have three of our own in the Olympics,” says Loretta Marsh, of the Sharks.

“They’re an inspiration to our younger skiers and Katie still comes back to the club whenever she’s home.

“That facility in Sheffield was fantastic for them.

“They’d spend hour upon hour up there, just challenging each other to go one better with their tricks.

“And now they’re at the Olympics.”