When snowboarder Katie Ormerod was lying in a hospital bed four years ago, being told she’d need to learn to walk again – Beijing 2022, which is kicking off tomorrow (February 4th), felt like a long way off.
After slipping during a practice trick, her heel broke clean in two places just days before the last winter games, PyeongChang 2018, having secured her place in the Olympic team. The 24-year-old snowboarder said:
“I didn’t realise it was possible to feel that much pain. It was a freak accident. I just slipped off a rail early, nothing crazy or dangerous or anything. And it must have just been a particular angle that I landed on.”
Medically though, it was complicated. After six operations, including skin grafts and procedures to help her heel produce new tissue, it was four months before Ormerod starting to walk again.
The Red Bull Athlete, who will compete in the Women’s Slopestyle and Women’s Big Air events for Great Britain in Beijing said:
“I’d always assumed I would get back to snowboarding. But around nine months in, I started to get a little bit worried. It was really mentally challenging at that point, because I was physically the strongest I’ve ever been but I couldn’t walk without a horrific limp – I was in so much pain. I knew if that pain didn’t go, I wouldn’t be able to snowboard again.
Every day in the gym was like a day closer to getting back on my board. And I just really focused on the tiny little wins, because that really helped me get through it. I told myself I’d do whatever it takes to get back to snowboarding, even if it took years.”
Thanks to that mental and physical resilience, a year later she was back on her snowboard.
“When I took my first turn, and I couldn’t feel anything, I knew that I’d done it,” adds Ormerod – and was competing again after 18 months.
Remarkably, that season she went on to have five World Cup podium spots, got her first ever yellow bib (for leading in the world rankings) and became Britain’s first snowboard Slopestyle Crystal Globe champion.
“I came back and I was actually better than I was before! I had the best season of my career. To go through a year’s worth of rehab and come back and do that, it just made it so much sweeter.
“I’ll probably be proud of that forever,” she admits. “Going through injuries like that, I now know that I can handle whatever life throws at me.”
Ormerod is no stranger to momentous achievements though. At 15, she became the youngest girl to land a double backflip on a snowboard, and even more remarkably (after narrowly missing out on the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics) at age 16, in the middle of her GCSE exams, she became the first female ever in the world to land a backside double cork 1080.
“That really then cemented my name in women’s snowboarding globally,” she says. “I started getting all the big invites to all the big competitions – that was a big breakthrough moment.”
Naturally, she wants to downplay her medal hopes for Beijing, but is widely tipped for a possible podium place.
“I’m actually going in with a different mindset, I just want to be able to land the best run I can possibly do on the day, and I can’t ask for any more of myself than that. Hopefully, a result will come with that, but obviously an Olympic medal would be really nice.
“I’m in a really good headspace and mentally strong right now,” she continues. “I feel really lucky that I’m even able to snowboard, never mind qualify for another Olympics.”
She won’t know what tricks she’ll do on the course until she arrives in Beijing but says a front double nine is probably the most difficult she could try (“a double somersault with a 180-degree rotation”). So watch out for that.
Having first learned to ski at age three and to snowboard at five at her local dry slop in Halifax, West Yorkshire’s Ormerod spent her childhood going there as often as possible after school and on weekends. She was a gymnast too – “both of those go really hand-in-hand, so I just started to progress really quickly,” she says.
It was the “adrenaline and sense of freedom” that she fell in love with.
“I love the creativity that you have going off a jump, you can do anything you like, there aren’t any set rules in snowboarding. It’s that sense of flying as well when you get off a jump – I absolutely love that.”
So what does it take to be a pro boarder?
“I’m really conscious about what I put into my body, I’m very healthy. Because we train at really high altitudes, it’s important I get enough energy to get through the training day because you just burn calories so fast, so [I eat] a lot of carbohydrates, vegetables, dairy and a lot of nuts – I’m a vegetarian.”
Training takes her to mountain ranges all over the world, depending on the season. Around six hours of snowboarding would be followed by a gym session and stretching in the evenings. When she’s not in the snow, she’s working just as hard in the gym and on dry land.
She never stays still for long.
“I can stretch every day, I’m really into that,” Ormerod says with a laugh. “Running as well – to be honest, I don’t necessarily need that for snowboard training, but I want to keep in shape and keep healthy and I feel like it’s good for your mind to run.
“Mental health is super important to look after; I do a lot of journaling, I try to journal every day, that really works for me.”
Perhaps surprisingly, given it’s her job, she finds snowboarding a great way to switch off from the outside world too.
“When I go snowboarding, I don’t have my phone on me – it’s just me and the mountain. You’re constantly around nature. I can just focus on what I’m doing and everything else around me is just a blur.”
Catch Katie Ormerod competing in the Women’s Slopestyle event on February 5th and the Women’s Big Air on February 14th on the BBC and Eurosport.