Katie Ormerod burst onto the scene when she became the first female snowboarder to land a double cork 1080 trick aged 16 – in between AS Level exams. She enjoyed enormous early success before breaking her heel in two places in the buildup to the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games.
Since then her career has been defined by a resolute determination to overcome setbacks, having recently been sidelined for 660 days by a bone infection.
Now she’s back competing on the slopes, Katie explains her story to the BEAA.
You hit the headlines for being the first female snowboarder to land a double cork 1080 aged 16. How did you find the attention?
That was a huge deal at the time because everyone thought only men would ever do that trick. It was a really big deal for women’s snowboarding globally. To be honest, I loved the attention! It was nice. Finally feeling like I’d made it in the industry, because it is tough to get to the top of any sport. It was a really big moment for me and I’m still proud of it.
Why did that one trick become your focus?
I had no idea how to do the trick because it was so complicated, but we started learning it to see how it would go. That was in the middle of trying to qualify for the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
I unfortunately just missed out in qualifying and was so gutted because I’d put everything into it. I thought: ‘You know what? I’m going to turn this frustration into something positive.’ I thought that if I couldn’t make a name for myself at the Olympics I’d do it another way.
I kept working on it and then in between my AS-Level exams I flew out to Austria with my coach and a film crew and got it done. I think I was so excited that everything fell into place, even with my exams!
Did life change almost overnight, from pre- to post-trick?
Very much so. The frustrating thing was the film crew made a mini film about it but couldn’t actually release it until the company agreed. It was ages – weeks and week and weeks – before they did. That was really stressful because I thought: ‘If anyone else does it in that time they’ll get rewarded for it.’ As soon as it came out everything changed: I woke up and my phone had gone mental.
You didn’t struggle to stay grounded afterwards?
Not really, to be honest. I’d been working so hard my whole life to get to the top level and be recognised, because I put so much work into my training that I kind of wanted the recognition. I got all the recognition when I did that trick. It didn’t really affect me in a negative way; I used that as motivation to keep on going and keep progressing. It fuelled my drive.
You broke your heel in 2018, a major injury. How did that experience prepare you for the last two years?
Breaking my heel was like no other injury I’ve ever had. It was horrific and really traumatic, actually. I knew that if I could overcome that, which was very close to being career-ending, I could overcome anything. I’ve gone in with that mindset for every other injury.
Because I’d gone through all the troubles with my heel injury, multiple surgeries, and not knowing whether I was going to be able to snowboard again, by overcoming that I had practice in some sense. I thought the bone infection was going to be career-ending again. I thought my body was failing when it actually wasn’t.
For months and months I didn’t know it was a bone infection, I was just in A&E all the time, in hospital, really poorly and didn’t know what was happening. I had to use what I’d learned from my previous injury about staying resilient and positive when I didn’t know what was happening. That really helped me through.
Not knowing what it was must have been incredibly difficult.
It was terrifying. I was only 25 and I genuinely thought my body was failing me. I didn’t have a clue what was happening, the surgeons didn’t know what was going on. It would start to heal up, so, great, it must have been a random infection. Then just as it healed it would open up again and I’d end up in hospital again really poorly, and it just kept doing that over and over.
Did you begin to prepare a contingency plan for life away from snowboarding?
Yeah. To be honest, I’d already started doing that when I broke my heel in 2018. Again, even though I was only 20 then and assumed I’d have years and years to go with snowboarding, I then realised that I need a backup plan.
When this happened I started to have the same thoughts, thinking I needed to start looking into it. I actually did. I started speaking with my Performance Lifestyle advisor, exploring options. Even that was scary in itself because I didn’t want to give up on snowboarding, I wanted to get back to my normal life.
How did you find the support available?
There was a lot of support. My issue was I genuinely didn’t know what I wanted, because I’d always thought about snowboarding. Since then I’m now doing a master’s degree in leadership in sport. I’m loving it, really enjoying it, and am really happy that I’m doing this alongside snowboarding.
I should finish in the next year and then will have a master’s that I can take into any aspect of the sporting world. Now I feel a lot happier. I have something in the background just in case, though I’m hoping that won’t need to happen until I want it to, until I decide that I want to stop snowboarding and go into something else.
That’s what I always imagined my career would be like: I’d snowboard until I wanted to stop, then I’d go into something else. I never thought an injury would make that decision for me.
How do you balance studying for a master’s with training and competition?
It is hard work. Most professional athletes are quite similar in the sense that, in order to be a professional athlete, you have to be really motivated, resilient and driven. All those aspects work really well with studying as well. So I get it done. I set myself some time on an evening after training, do the lectures, do the work, and I’m making it happen.
How did you feel to be back on the slopes after 660 days?
I absolutely loved it. Being back in the start gate at a competition just felt like I’d got my normal life back. I absolutely love competing and feel really lucky that I love competing because I love my job. It was the best feeling ever, getting normality back, all the nerves and adrenaline.
I landed a really good run and came 12th in my first World Cup back. That was a really proud moment. I thought: ‘I’ve still got it, and still got so much to work on.’ Going forward I know how to improve and I still have tricks I want to learn. Going into next season, the first Olympic qualifying season, I’m feeling really confident and excited.
What’s your message or lesson to someone in your shoes two years ago?
Aside from the obvious, to just try and stay positive and resilient and all that, really focus on the small wins rather than the big picture. Sometimes if you’ve just got injured and are then looking to get back to your sport it can seem so far away.
If you just focus on the everyday wins, the day you get to throw your crutches in the bin or do 5kg extra in the gym during your rehab, really focus on those little wins. It will keep you really positive and keep your mind working in a good way. That worked for me, keeping me motivated.