From Underdogs to Overachievers | The Secret Story Behind Britain’s Winter Olympians
Team GB's skiers & snowboarders have come a long way in just a few short years. We visited their private state-of-the-art training facility in Mottolino, Italy, to find out how
Words and pictures by Tristan Kennedy
It’s just before Christmas, less than two months before the Winter Olympics kick off in Pyeongchang, and snowboarder Katie Ormerod, one of Britain’s brightest medal hopes, is about to drop in for a training run.
She does a little sideways shuffle on her board as she eyes up the jump below her - a huge, icy wedge standing 12 feet tall, its sharp, sculpted edges glinting in the morning sun. There’s the briefest of pauses, and then she drops. She tucks low on the run-in, gathering speed.
Her control as she rides up the kicker is perfect. But as she leaves the lip and launches over the 60-foot table top, something goes wrong. For a sickening few seconds Katie flies through the air out of control, arms flapping wildly, before coming down hard on her head.
"For a sickening few seconds she flies through the air out of control before coming down hard on her head."
It’s hard not to be shocked watching her stricken form slide down the landing slope. But as she gets up and dusts herself off at the bottom, Katie is all smiles. “It was my first time riding it switch," she tells me cheerily. “The transition’s really fast, so it kind of shoots you up and I just took off very wrong.
“But I didn’t care at all. You’re just in the air and you’re like: ‘Oh, it went wrong. Who cares?’"
As talented as she is, this blasé attitude isn’t the result of any supernatural powers on Katie’s part. It’s because the crash wasn’t onto a regular snowy downslope. Rather, she’s landed onto a massive, soft airbag.
Custom built for the GB Park & Pipe team, the airbag is the ultimate freestyle training facility. A secret weapon that allows the UK’s top skiers and snowboarders to learn new tricks without hurting themselves in the run up to the Olympics. “It’s the first day of riding it and it’s been amazing," says Katie, who’s been working on improving her cab 900s - a trick that might win her a gold medal in Pyeongchang.*
Chris McCormick, a young Scottish skier who’s training for future games, agrees: “It’s so much fun to ride. You’ve got all these tricks stacked up that you want to try and you get here and you’re like ‘OK, I can do literally everything I want.’ You can get it pretty much as wrong as you want, onto your head, it’s absolutely fine."
Later on the head ski coach Pat Sharples, who trains Chris and the rest of Britain’s top freestyle skiers, puts it into context: “All the guys learned three to four new tricks yesterday, within like four to five hours. And every single one of them at one point, if that bag wasn't there, would have probably killed themselves."
The stats behind the big air bag make for pretty mind-boggling reading. It’s 55 metres long, 22 metres wide, 18.5 metres tall at its highest point, and weighs around seven tonnes when deflated. Made by the Dutch company Big Air Bag, it took 2,000 production hours to piece together at their factory in the Netherlands.
Building a jump big enough to house this behemoth meant moving 16,000 cubic metres of snow, requiring the services of an army of shapers and countless snowcat hours. It costs “at least 100,000 euros" (£90,000) to generate that amount of snow using cannons according to Lesley McKenna, GB Park & Pipe’s program manager, “and that’s just for the snowmaking, not the cat time." On top of that the bag itself cost a cool £100,000 to make.
"Manoeuvring a multi-ton airbag into position 2,400 metres up a mountain in subzero temperatures is tricky"
It is, however, a world first. Made to the exacting specifications set out by Hamish McKnight, GB Park & Pipe's head snowboard coach, its design is completely unique. There are similar bags in the US and Canada, Hamish explains, but “they have to sit on a semi-flat landing, not a full-pitch landing."
A steeper landing means it feels more similar to the kind of jump skiers and snowboarders will actually ride in competitions. It also features an unusual “double chamber" design that means you can make the top layer of more of less solid as required. Softer is better for learning initially, but when you're starting to nail a trick you'll want a more rigid landing to practise riding it out.
The process of turning a dream training facility into reality has not been an easy one. Manoeuvring a multi-ton airbag into position 2,400 metres up a mountain in subzero temperatures was always going to be tricky, but it’s proved more difficult than expected. It’s been “a long few days, and a lot of sleepless nights," Hamish says.
But that pales in comparison to the effort that's been put in behind the scenes. The training session we witness is in fact the culmination of nearly a decade of hard work and negotiation by Hamish, Pat and Lesley. Finding funding and bringing together the partners on the project - Big Air Bag, the Austrian park shaping experts Schneestern and Mottolino, the freestyle-friendly Italian resort who are hosting the whole thing - was no easy feat.
“The first sketches I did of this type of training bag were in late 2008," says Hamish, “and I started trying to action it, in terms of pricing it and trying to get some investment, in 2009." There have been numerous false dawns since then, most notably in 2014 when a deal to set up the bag at Rossendale dryslope in the UK fell through at the last minute. “We were devastated," says Lesley.
Understandably the three of them are over the moon to see it finally fall into place. “Nobody would ever understand the amount of work that's gone on behind the scenes to get to this," says Pat, “it's nuts." But while the airbag is impressive in and of itself, it’s doubly so because of what it represents.
Just a few seasons ago, the idea of building a hundred thousand-pound, world-class training facility for British skiers and snowboarders would have been unthinkable. The fact that they’ve managed to make it happen is testament to just how far British skiing and snowboarding has come in recent years.
Britain, it’s safe to say, is not a nation traditionally known for its skiing or snowboarding prowess. Before 2014, the grand total of Olympic medals won by Brits in snowsports stood at zero. Yet even by these lowly standards Vancouver 2010 was a lowpoint.
Just weeks before the games Snowsports GB, the sports’ governing body, went into administration. An emergency replacement was cobbled together to allow athletes to compete. But perhaps unsurprisingly given the circumstances, the performances from the UK’s two best medal hopes were disappointing. In the immediate aftermath UK Sport, the lottery-backed body that funds Olympic programs in Britain, cut snow sports’ funding to zero. Elite British skiing and snowboarding, already down, looked like it was on its way out.
Given this context, the turnaround in fortunes over the past eight years is even more remarkable. So what’s changed? The simplistic answer needs just two words: ‘Jenny’ and ‘Jones’. When slopestyle was announced as an Olympic discipline ahead of the Sochi 2014 games, Britain’s best snowboarder was suddenly given a shot a medal. It was a chance she grabbed with both hands, stomping a brilliant run that won her the bronze, and helped to unlock UK Sport funding for the future.
Of course that only tells part of the story. In the same way that the airbag represents the tip of an iceberg, so Jenny’s medal was the culmination of a huge team effort. Before slopestyle and ski halfpipe were added to the Olympics Pat, Hamish and Lesley had been working with top-level British athletes, but operating largely independently of each other. However they knew each other well and shared a similar philosophy when it came to training, so when the new disciplines were announced they decided to join forces.
"Convincing bean counters who were more used to counting milliseconds than considering style wasn’t easy."
“All three of us feel really strongly about empowering the athletes to make their own decisions and own their own learning," says Lesley. Working together they developed a new approach which they believed would work best for both freestyle skiers and snowboarders, and then approached UK Sport for joint funding. “We presented a hypothesis that if we trained in this way a medal outcome was possible."
Convincing bean counters who were more used to counting milliseconds than considering style wasn’t easy. “We were doing things really differently from all the other UK Sport-funded sports, so we had to create this whole system and evidence the system," Lesley says. “[Even then] we could only predict. But Jenny's medal proved the hypothesis. That was a massive deal."
Jenny's medal of course meant the world to her, and the millions who tuned in to cheer her on back home. But it also meant a lot from an elite sporting point of view. Just how much was obvious from the reaction of Paddy Mortimer, who at the time was performance director of British Ski & Snowboard (the new governing body that had been set up in the wake of the Vancouver debacle). Standing slopeside in Sochi next to Mpora as the results came in, he predicted this could be the sport’s “Chris Boardman moment".
The reference to the cyclist, who won the UK’s first track medal for 72 years back in 1992, was no accident. In elite sporting circles British Cycling, who used UK Sport funding to build a medal-winning machine, have long been held up as an example of how things should be run.
"Athletes who have proven they can stand on podiums get funding. Those who can’t, don’t."
“UK Sport's mission is to win Olympic medals," explains Dave Edwards, who's been the CEO of British Ski & Snowboard (BSS) since 2010. “They operate something they used to call ‘the no compromise approach’. They've probably got a different name for it now, but it's the same basic premise."
The idea is that athletes who have proved they can stand on podiums, or have the potential to do so, get funding towards coaches, travel and building a program around them. Those who can’t, don’t.
It sounds brutal, but it’s also brutally effective. British Cycling being a case in point. In the space of a single generation, the UK’s track cyclists have gone from virtual no-hopers to one of the most dominant teams in world sport. In the process they've inspired millions of Brits to get on their bikes, and helped to kick start a cycling revolution.
“Cycling costs about two and a half million quid a medal," explains Dave Edwards, investment which then creates a virtuous circle, inspiring youngsters to get involved in the sport and increasing the size of the talent pool for future Olympics.
“It has worked extraordinarily well," Dave says. So it’s small wonder that BSS under his management are looking to learn from their two-wheeled counterparts, even going so far as to employ ex-British Cycling staff.
In December 2016 Paddy Mortimer left BSS to be replaced as performance director by Dan Hunt. Hunt had worked with British Cycling for four years, followed by a further four with Team Sky, where he was part of the team behind Bradley Wiggins’ historic 2012 Tour de France win.
The way Dan sees it, the path to success for snow sports is a fairly straightforward one - a question of cause and effect. Invest in the right areas, employ the right coaches, back the right athletes and the medals will come.
“What fascinates me is the opportunity to help transform an entire sector of British Sport. We've done it in the summers and I'm proud to say that I was part of that - transforming the team from pretty average beginnings.
"I think what we showed in cycling was that we started debunking myths that existed. You know: ‘Britain can't be good at cycling,’ ‘a British rider can't win the Tour de France’, ‘British people can't ski’. Well, we can."
"In cycling we started debunking myths. 'A British rider can't win the Tour de France?' ‘British people can't ski?’ Well, we can..."
So far, Dan’s first steps have mostly focussed on the BSS’ other disciplines, employing Norwegians to coach the cross country team, and bringing in a Swiss moguls expert. But he admits that none of this would have been possible without their previous successes of GB Park & Pipe, and singles out Pat, Hamish and Lesley’s approach for particular praise.
“I think it is difficult to overstate the importance of that bronze medal at Sochi," he says. “In terms of attracting investment, in terms of getting the coaches, and you know what, it also gives people [the] belief that Britain can do this, which is massive."
He believes that like cycling, snow sports can go all the way. “Our vision [is] to become one of the top five ski and snowboard nations by 2030," he explains. It’s certainly an ambitious target, but given how far they’ve come in the past eight years, you wouldn’t bet against it.
Certainly watching rider after rider learn new tricks on the airbag, it was hard not to be swept up by the current of enthusiasm. “It’s been amazing," said Jamie Nicholls, another medal hopeful in slopestyle at Pyeongchang. “I’ve been working on something I’ve never tried before, back triple cork 16s." The weeks since that session have proved that this confidence wasn’t misplaced either. GB Park & Pipe athletes have notched up a string of impressive results, including two medals at the X Games.
Hopes are undoubtedly running high in the final few days before the Olympics. “For the first time we've got a number of athletes going to this games who've got a proven history of delivering medals at an international level," says Dan. “I think that's really exciting - we've never been in this position before."
“Most importantly [though] the team seems like a different place. People are happy, they're looking to the future [and] people are excited about snow sports in the UK now. That is a tangible change."
Read the rest of Mpora's Olympic Issue here.
*Tragically for Katie, shortly after this story was published the news came through that she was out of the games after breaking her ankle in training.