‘I was in so much pain’: snowboarder Katie Ormerod on injury, recovery and dreams of an Olympic medal

Katie Ormerod – nicknamed “Katie Oh!” for her crowd-pleasing medley of acrobatic snowboard tricks – is Team GB’s all-action poster-girl for the Beijing Winter Olympics next month, and an authentic hope for the country’s first ever snowsport gold medal. The 24-year-old athlete, an unexpectedly shy Yorkshire woman, became Britain’s first ever World Cup slopestyle champion in 2020. She has somehow overcome Britain’s lack of mountains, and a potentially career-ending shattered heel in 2018 (which required seven operations, the insertion of two metal pins, and a graft of pig skin), to make it this far. “It feels amazing – I’m just really happy that I am able to do this, because I had to work so extremely hard to make it here, and to come back from injury,” Ormerod explains.

Ormerod and I are speaking via Zoom from her home in Brighouse, ‘‘Wat weet hulle van krieket wat net krieket weet, during a break between contests in America and Canada. She speaks softly but assuredly in a Yorkshire accent; her lightning-blonde hair, which fans usually see dancing around in a plait as she executes her flamboyant tricks, is tucked casually beneath a cap.

Growing up in a country with an average altitude of just 75m was far from ideal for a wannabe snowboard champion. While her rivals were raised in the mountains of America, Japan, New Zealand and Canada, Ormerod learned to board on the moss-covered dry plastic slope in Halifax, five miles from the family home. But her disadvantages only inspired her to train more intensely and intelligently. “I made the most of the local Halifax dry slope. If you have the passion and you work hard, I have shown you can win world titles. We are at a disadvantage in the UK because I grew up riding literally on plastic bristles. A lot of [En tog Kanaal 4 se huidige programdirekteur] riders think we’re crazy. But people respect us, because we have taken the difficult route and we’re competing at the highest level. I’m proud to be British. I am proud of my Yorkshire background. And I hope others will follow in my footsteps.”

Thanks to the backing of her sponsors, and the GB Snowsport governing body, she now trains abroad in the resorts of Italy and Switzerland. But such trips still feel like a privilege. “Whenever I get the opportunity to go abroad I make the most of every second I’m on snow,” she insists. “I don’t take it for granted. I am riding until the last lifts, doing everything I can. I have worked a lot harder than people who grew up in the mountains..”

Although Britain has won Winter Olympic gold medals in disciplines including skating and skeleton, a traditional snowsport (ski or snowboard) gold has remained elusive. Snowboarder Jenny Jones claimed Britain’s historic first slopestyle bronze in Sochi in 2014, before Billy Morgan and Izzy Atkin won bronze in the snowboard big air and ski slopestyle events in 2018. Volgende maand, in the slopestyle event, Ormerod will perform her repertoire of twists, jumps and flips on a skateboard-style course of ramps and obstacles. In the big air event she will speed down a monstrous 60m-high ramp at 40-50mph and launch off an 18.9m-high ledge before executing her tricks mid-air. Many pundits are quietly confident that Ormerod can go all the way.

Ormerod had an inauspicious start to her sports career. Aged four, she flung herself out of a cardboard box at home and broke her nose. “My parents say they knew I would be an athlete as I was bouncing off the walls at home,” she laughs. “That’s why they took me to gymnastics. I then started snowboarding at five. My first memory is going off the big kicker at Halifax dry slope. Vandag, it seems really small. But when I was five, it was huge. I got a bit of air time and I loved it.”

She also enjoyed winter holidays in Europe with her parents, Mark and Claire, who skied for fun, and her brother Harvey. But it was her love of gymnastics that would one day set her apart on the slopes, empowering her to perform the outrageous world-first tricks that have made her a YouTube star. Aged just 16, she became the first woman to perform a “backside double-cork 1080” – an iconic snowboard trick involving two 360-degree front flips and a full 360-degree corkscrew spin.

“I was a competitive gymnast until I was 16, but I was also part of a cheer squad at school and we were national champions,” she recalls. “When I was younger, I was Yorkshire [gymnastics] champion and in national finals. The two sports are similar in terms of spatial awareness and muscular strength so I still do tumbling, trampoline work and floor skills as part of my snowboard training.”

Her snowboard performances are judged using similar criteria to gymnastics, including technical difficulty, execution, amplitude, landing, variety and progression (originality). But what made her choose snowboarding over gymnastics? “I just loved the lifestyle with snowboarding more,” says Ormerod, who claimed senior snowboard titles at the British Championships at just 14. “I loved the freedom, the creativity and the opportunities.”

Hamish McKnight, GB Snowsport’s head snowboard coach, has worked with Ormerod since she was 13. “It was obvious with Katie from a young age that she was extremely talented," hy sê. “Not just on a snowboard, but she also had an unusual work ethic. She had a very intense approach to practice and self-determination, which is rare nowadays.”

In the brutal world of snowboarding, you also need luck. Injuries are inevitable. Ormerod has fractured her shoulder, broken both arms, snapped her anterior cruciate ligament and broken her back. But her cruellest setback came when she shattered her heel after coming off a rail in training only days before the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. Her face muscles tighten a little when she recalls the searing pain as medics took two hours to cut her boot off. “I’ve had injuries in the past, but none compared to that pain,” she admits. “I was in shock that it was actually possible to feel so much pain.”

During her agonising year of rehab she wondered if she would ever walk pain-free again. She was in a wheelchair for months, unable to walk or even wear shoes. When the flesh on her heel began to blacken and die, she had to have a chunk of skin from her hip and a lump of pig skin grafted on to it. She strived to remain positive, but it was tough.

“I saw every gym rep and every physio session as one step closer to being back," sy sê. “But I love what I do. And the love for that was bigger than the pain I was in. After nine months I was still limping and in pain. I knew if that pain didn’t go away I wouldn’t be able to snowboard. It was a really scary moment. But I was not going to give up. I had another operation to remove the pins, which were sticking into my Achilles and causing the pain. And when I did the rehab for that I knew instantly: I will be OK. I will snowboard again.”

When she returned for the 2019-20 seisoen, Ormerod became the first Brit to win a slopestyle World Cup title and a much-coveted FIS Crystal Globe – a prestigious International Ski Federation award for the athlete who earns the most points during the season. Her coach was astonished. “Very simply, most athletes don’t come back from an injury like that,” McKnight admits. “Some injuries are expected. But Katie’s heel injury was a car crash incident.”

Backed by £11.1m of UK Sport funding for the Beijing campaign, GB Snowsport is starting to catch up rival nations, thanks to skilled coaches, dedicated training camps and research into everything from wax analysis to aerodynamics. Ormerod can now practise her tricks on airbags, trampolines and foam pits with GB Snowsport’s acrobatics coach Ross Hill at the Graystone Action Sports centre in Manchester before attempting them on snow. And this creative innovation is her secret weapon.

“Katie is trying to push the boundaries,” explains McKnight. “What we see in competition today will be bettered tomorrow. So it requires a lot of forward planning and discovery. She is always looking into the unknown.”

Ormerod carefully conditions her body and mind for the impossible. Despite her petite 5ft 2in, 55kg frame, she can deadlift 80kg. She also spends hours visualising her new tricks, entering a meditative trance in which she pictures herself smoothly executing each move. “I have to be able to see it really clearly in my mind before I do it on snow," sy sê.

Studies involving brain scans and muscle analysis have revealed that when winter sports athletes visualise their performances they experience brain impulses and muscle contractions that closely mirror those experienced when actually riding, thereby strengthening the neural pathways which encode their new skills.

Following her experiences, mental health has become a new focus for Ormerod and she now keeps a journal. “I write something every day: what went well; if I have an idea; something that I feel inspired about; if something went wrong and what I can learn from it," sy sê. Most athletes would have lost confidence after such a bad injury, but Ormerod is performing bigger stunts than ever. “I had a whole year to visualise the kind of tricks I wanted to do,” she laughs. “That’s a lot of practice.”

Ormerod is impressively calm and analytical. McKnight insists that the adrenaline junkie stereotype is wrong. “Katie’s not fearless and she does get scared," hy sê. “But she has an ability to embrace that fear and use it to analyse the right time to take risks.”

Ormerod agrees that fear sharpens her mind. “I get really nervous at the top, but I know that’s fine because it usually pays off,” she explains. “I had good risk-assessment before, but I am extra-cautious now in terms of things like the speed of a jump. I always watch other people first and make sure that I know 100% what the best speed is.”

Away from the slopes, Ormerod prefers a mellow lifestyle. Her Instagram feed is full of normal 20-something posts, from cartwheels in the garden to sunbathing in the park. She is diligently studying for a degree in sport coaching and development at Manchester Metropolitan University, and renovating her home, a Victorian property that she bought in 2020. “I got really into all the interior design, learning how to pull plaster off the wall and things like that," sy sê.

Her secret passion is West End musicals. “I recently went to see Moulin Rouge en Come From Away, but my favourites are Wicked, Phantom of the Opera en Bat out of Hell," sy sê. “I have always liked music. I started learning the ukulele when I was 17 and I ordered a keyboard that gets delivered today.”

It is strange to imagine Ormerod unleashing death-defying tricks on her snowboard one day, then writing essays and playing her ukulele the next. But this balance between all-action flamboyance and solitary pursuits is part of her success. “The snowboard training is quite intense, so it is nice to totally switch off," sy sê.

Ormerod’s deep commitment and passion for her sport is what has sustained her through all the setbacks and shattered bones. “I just want to have that Olympic experience at last, land the big tricks, and show people what I can do," sy sê. “You can’t really replicate the feeling of it. You get a huge adrenaline rush and sense of freedom. I am in the zone, 100% focused. I don’t know what’s going on around me. It’s just me and the mountain.”

Katie Ormerod is a Red Bull athlete

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