Anyone who had the pleasure of negotiating Halifax’s old dry ski slope will know that it didn’t exactly brim with Alpine atmosphere – and that wasn’t just because there wasn’t much in the way of aprés ski. If you landed badly, the nylon track was also guaranteed to leave a pretty nasty burn and most went once and departed safe in the knowledge that snow sports were best left to our French and Italian cousins.
Fortunately by the time Katie Ormerod arrived, things were a little different. The original single slope had been replaced by a virtual mountain, complete with moguls and a quarter pipe for snowboarding. Out had gone the nylon and in had come artificial snow.
“I must have been about five years old when I had my first go on the Halifax slope and I loved it immediately,” says the 19 year-old from Brighouse. “My mum and dad are both good skiers and so I think I probably inherited my love of it from them.
“Pretty soon we were going every week and quite quickly I began to specialise in snowboarding and then at 13 I finally got to go abroad for the very first time.
“I think I knew then that this was something I wanted to do and not just as a hobby, but you never know how things are going to work out. I have been very lucky.”
Luck has certainly played its part, but claiming her first ever World Cup gold earlier this season has also taken a lot of hard work.
While Team GB might have excelled on the water and in the velodrome, winter sports are not something we have been historically good at. During the 1980s and 90s, Graham Bell competed in five Winter Olympics, but never made it to the podium and the enthusiastic but hopeless Eddie the Eagle Edwards best summed up our prowess on the slopes.
When Alain Baxter won a bronze in Salt Lake City in 2002 it seemed like the door might have finally been crowbarred open. However, when he later tested positive for a banned substance, GB’s first ever Olympic medal went and so did the sport’s funding and any hope of elevating it to the next level.
“For a long time skiing and snowboarding wasn’t something where we made a great impression, but in the last few years we really seemed to have gathered a lot of momentum and it really feels like we might be on the brink of something really special,” says Katie who has all but confirmed her place in next year’s Winter Olympics after a succession of podium finishes. “This has definitely been my most successful year, and winning gold out in Russia was really special.”
The teenager pipped Austria’s Anna Gasser to claim her maiden victory in extreme -29C temperatures in Moscow and, having continued a run of impressive results with a silver medal at the Air + Style snow sports and music event in Austria many are now predicting that this will be Katie’s year.
“I compete in the ‘Big Air’ category which will make its Winter Olympics debut in South Korea and so to be coming into the form of my life right now feels like perfect timing.
“There are so many great snowboarders out there that every event is hugely competitive and just one tiny mistake can be the difference between being on the podium and not.”
As the profile of the sport has been raised, funding streams have opened up again which have given athletes like Katie the opportunity to compete on a world stage.
“The funding for sports like snowboarding is better than it’s ever been.
“As well as UK Sport’s National Lottery money we also have support from brands like Roxy and Red Bull. That means that not only do we have the money to be able to travel to events, but that we can also afford to train abroad.
“The facilities we have back home are amazing compared to what they were 10 years ago and we have a great base up in Glasgow, but to compete with the best in the world you need to spend as much time as you can on proper slopes. The whole operation is more professional than it ever has been and that’s now really starting to show in the results we are getting.
“Funnily enough though what I think gives us the edge is the fact a lot of us grew up on dry slopes which are harder to ride than real snow. If you learn most of the basic tricks on a dry slope, when you do them on snow you realise it is a lot easier.”
One of Katie’s idols growing up was Jenny Jones. She became the first Briton to win an Olympic medal in a snow event after winning bronze in slopestyle at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi and is now one of the country’s most recognisable faces when it comes to extreme sports.
“When I was little, apart from Ski Sunday, you never really got to see winter sports on the television, certainly not snowboarding.
“But I knew there were all these really incredible events going on, so I would spend hours watching them online. Jenny is such an inspiration because she kept on pushing and pushing and never gave up.
“Having someone like her get an Olympic medal is great for the profile of the sport. She is the perfect ambassador for British snowboarding and proves that we were dedicated athletes who are there to be taken seriously.”
Katie made history in 2014 as the first female snowboarder to land a double cork 1080, at the age of 16. Many had doubted that a woman would ever have the strength to land two 360-degree front flips and a full 360-degree corkscrew spin but Katie was determined to prove them wrong.
First practising indoors on a small skateboard, going down a wooden ramp and jumping into a foam pit it was in Austria that she attempt the trick for real and the footage quickly became a YouTube hit.
“Because it is so hard to do I had to put a lot of preparation into it,” she says. “The first time was scary and I didn’t get it right at first but after that I was fine. It’s a really cool trick to do, especially in the second half, because you are holding on to your grab and you see everything going upside down again.”
Talent – and a sense of fearlessness – seems to run in the family. As well has having parents who are pretty nifty on the slopes, her cousin is fellow Team GB snowboarder Jamie Nicholls, who grew up on a farm just outside Bradford. At the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014 he missed out on a podium finish by just one point and both he and Katie are hoping to right the wrongs of those Games.
“I was injured so wasn’t able to compete at all. I don’t think there’s a professional snowboarder out there who hasn’t taken a few knocks. I’ve broken my shoulder and my arm, I’ve cut my eye open, but tearing my anterior cruciate ligament in my knee was definitely the worst. It happened when I was doing one of my easiest tricks, but the weather was bad and there was an uphill wind, which is never good when you are competing. I had the right speed but then at the last minute I got a gust of wind which meant I landed on the flat. It put me out for six months.”
God willing, she should be on the start line in South Korea and, when she is, she will do as she always does.
“A lot of the snowboarders have a little routine and I’m no different. Before I set off I always tap my helmet and pull my trousers up. I don’t know why either, but it’s just one of those little things I have to do.”
Superstitious or not, it seems to be working.