British snowsport on the rise following Winter Games medals

Ian Findlay
 Ian Findlay from Snowsport England

Team GB’s skiers and snowboarders have helped to rewrite the country’s sporting history over the last four years.

Snowboarder Jenny Jones got the ball rolling in Sochi as she became the first ever Brit to claim an Olympic medal on snow with bronze in the slopestyle.

This landmark success was followed up in 2016 by freestyle skier Madi Rowlands as she secured gold and bronze at the Winter Youth Olympics in Lillehammer two years later.

And then, in PyeongChang, Izzy Atkin and Billy Morgan took bronze medals in the ski slopestyle and snowboard Big Air respectively to further demonstrate the upward trajectory of British snowsport.

It’s an exciting time for skiing and snowboarding in Great Britain.

Team GB’s biggest ever squad of skiers and snowboarders headed out to South Korea with 25 athletes, at an average age of 24 years old, competing across more disciplines than ever before.

Participation levels are on the rise and more and more role models are coming to the fore as the GB Park and Pipe Squad goes from strength to strength.

The success of Paralympic alpine skiing stars Kelly Gallagher, Jade Etherington, Millie Knight and Menna Fitzpatrick has also ramped up a great deal of interest with medals won on the international circuit.

Ian Findlay, Snowsport England’s Talent Development Lead, is tasked with supporting skiers and snowboarders, specifically in park and pipe disciplines, on their journey to world class success through the talent pathway.

Findlay’s been with Snowsport England for the last five and a half years and has close relationships with young athletes and their parents as he acts as their main point of contact and looks to guide them on their decision-making.

He is excited about the rate of progression of many budding skiers and snowboarders, and the promise this holds for the future at senior level.

“We’ve got a huge participation base with lots of people going out skiing and snowboarding,” he said. “We want to engage them in the sport at a young age without any real barriers or restrictions so the focus and ethos within Park and Pipe is individual development.

“At the lower end of the pathway we’ve run regional sessions where the only requirement is that you need to be able to control your speed, direction and use the lift.  We’re not looking at results or too much at the age of the athlete – it’s about what they can do, how much they want it and whether they enjoy doing it.

“Our numbers have increased [participation] but what is most of interest is the ability levels of the young athletes which has really gone up. There are 10 and 11 year olds who can do what 14 and 15 year olds were doing at the top of the pile in our pathway five years ago.

“The progression, particularly at the bottom end, is massive. I’m seeing 14 and 15 year olds at the moment, younger athletes even, and the upward pressure they could put on the team in four years’ time and beyond.

“There’s lots of excitement about how good the team could be – it’s only going to get stronger with more depth.”

Findlay has been working for Eurosport on the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, covering the freestyle skiing and snowboarding, as well as ski and snowboard cross, as lead commentator.

He skied at a local level as a youngster and started coaching at 16. By the time he turned 24, Ian was coaching ski cross at the World Cup before deciding to undertake a sports coaching degree at the University of Stirling.

Findlay, through his role with Snowsport England, has seen the real value of maintaining links between the grassroots level and the very top of the pathway within park and pipe.

“The top athletes are very accessible as they are still connected to the grassroots side of the pathway,” he said. “There are athletes in the Park and Pipe Academy who were just starting training as those now at the Olympics were beginning to come out of it.

“It’s great because the younger team members can see a clear route and it may only be a few years away for them potentially. They realise that they have to keep working hard to progress, by listening to their coaches, because it is such a tough sport and the talent and the size of the pool globally is increasing massively year-on-year.

“It’s becoming harder and harder to achieve the top results and it makes it even more impressive to see what the British athletes are doing. Having them so connected to the bottom end of the pathway is inspiring for the younger athletes. They’re coming to events in England, they’re going to the Brits, and it makes it very real.

“It’s different to certain sports when they hit the Olympic level and it can look so far away for youngsters. You know that once you get to a certain level you’re going to be pushing to get on that main team. The standards are getting higher so that level is going up all the time.”

Peter Speight benefitted from both TASS and SportsAid support during his development

The pathway’s clear but snowsport can become expensive for up-and-coming athletes and their families with the level of travelling and the cost of equipment.

The impact SportsAid has had on young skiers and snowboarders is demonstrated by the fact 22 members of the Team GB squad for PyeongChang had support from the charity at different stages of their development.

Yet Findlay feels it’s important to look beyond those selected for the Olympics to truly understand the difference SportsAid has made to the lives of many skiers and snowboarders who didn’t reach those heights.

“SportsAid has supported so many athletes that made the team which is fantastic but it’s also about those who have been helped but gone onto other things,” he said. “It’s allowed them to push themselves and the experiences they’ve had from snowsport stands them in good stead in other aspects of life.

“That’s the brilliant thing about snowsport. It throws you into an environment, usually abroad, where you have to adapt and learn quickly. SportsAid is making that possible. We know that not every athlete is going to make the team but in many cases it is giving them opportunities.”

Giving talented athletes the opportunity to pursue their ambitions in snowsport alongside their education is a big priority for Findlay. TASS has helped many of the Team GB squad as they studied at university.

Freestyle skier Pete Speight is a prime example. He received SportsAid awards for four years before moving onto TASS and gaining a 2:1 in history at the University of Manchester.

Findlay is a major advocate of athletes balancing their sport and studies, and sees the opportunities this can provide for them in the future.

“That’s certainly what I try to do in my role by managing those two aspects,” he said. “I’ve been encouraging athletes to go to university or stay in education as long as possible to underpin their sport and help set themselves up for further down the line.

“Pete’s the perfect example of that system working. He’s gone and got his degree and been able to pursue his education while continuing to be an elite athlete.

“What you’re doing with SportsAid and TASS is keeping athletes in the sport and making it possible for them to progress on. The value of these programmes speak for themselves.”