Exclusive: Katie Ormerod on overcoming the Olympic injury that almost ended her career

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For most people, the last thing you would do after breaking your wrist is strap yourself to a snowboard. Katie Ormerod isn't most people. 

When the Yorkshire-born athlete took to the wintery slopes of Pyeongchang last year, she wasn't just fulfilling a childhood ambition but flying the flag for a British Winter Olympic team climbing the podium more often than ever. Therefore, breaking her wrist wasn't going to stop her from showing the world her talent in the slopestyle and big air competitions. Sadly, however, a heel injury would.

You'd be mistaken for thinking that Ormerod had smashed a mirror while walking under a ladder, such was the misfortune of her trip to South Korea, and its permutations would threaten the very future of her career. Nevertheless, picking up the phone 18 months after that traumatic day, the 21-year-old was back on the Olympic trail and quite literally standing on two feet again.

Speaking to GiveMeSport, Ormerod recalled the events of that heart-breaking day on the slopes: "I just wanted to show the world what I could do. I was just hoping that everything would go my way, but unfortunately it didn't. At the end of the first day, I broke my wrist, which isn't really ideal, but I knew they'd just put a splint on it and I'd be fine to go again. I wasn't going to let that stop me.

"But then on the second day of training, it was literally the first run of the day and I was just warming up, I came off this rail too early and there was a two-metre drop. It was so cold in Pyeongchang and there was a lot of unlucky factors in the way that I landed, it was almost like ice. It broke my heal into two places. I just knew instantly that it was really, really bad and that was my Olympics over."

The mental strain of injury

In a sport where channelling your inner Nadia Comaneci is a mere training drill, the road to recovery was never going to be an easy one for the resilient Ormerod. Even nine months into her rehabilitation and after six operations, the snowboarder couldn't walk without pain and it became apparent that the metal pins in her heel were rubbing against the Achilles tendon.

Prior to that, Ormerod had been forced to debate her future in the sport, convinced that she couldn't even descend a hill without feeling the aftershocks of Pyeongchang. And above all the aches and pains of both the initial accident and the subsequent surgeries, were the mental strains of having the sport she loves taken away from her. It's something to which the Brit was far from immune.

"It did cross my mind that it could be career-ending and that was the most awful feeling," Ormerod openly admitted. "I've been snowboarding since I was five years old, that's all I've ever know and I saw myself having a long and successful career. I just couldn't quite believe it. Obviously, that put me down, but I was so determined to get back on the board without any pain no matter what.

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Mental health awareness in sport

"It was tough and it was a lot harder than I'd expected, because I am quite a positive person. After a while and seven operations, it just seemed to go on forever. I was really good at the physical side, I loved going to the gym, but it was still mentally tough knowing that I was still in pain. I couldn't walk without limping and things like that would get me down.

"But then I realised, as soon as you talk about it and hear about other athletes' stories, every athlete goes through injuries and we all just need to talk about it a bit more openly. We can all share our experiences and help each other, which really helped me get through it and talking about my difficulties was helping others as well. I did get through it and I'm in a really good mental state now."

Knowing that your experience might be unique but not completely dissimilar to others' was crucial in Ormerod's road to recovery both physically and mentally. Nevertheless, if there was one positive that came from the 21-year-old spending so much time away from the slopes, it was a greater awareness of climate problems that have seen her work towards saving the environment.

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Fighting climate change

Life in winter sports has given Ormerod a unique perspective on how rising global temperatures are impacting our ecosystems and, in particular, the ice and snow reserves on mountains. Speaking with great volition, the Olympian explained: "The snow that I see abroad, it is getting less and less. I see changes every season. It's so important to me as a snowboarder because I need real snow.

"The thought of having to ride on artificial snow in like 20 years is really heartbreaking for me. During my rehab, I came across a documentary that showed me how eating meat can contribute to climate change and as soon as I watched it, I was like: 'wow! I had no idea, I wish I'd have known that.' I didn't get taught anything like that at school and it made me become vegetarian.

"I also went to Austria during a time in my rehab, which is somewhere I go every season, but we couldn't go to the top of the mountain because there was just no snow whatsoever. That was a real shock to me. I'm really passionate about the environment and tackling climate change. If we can all do our bit to save the planet, then we can keep our winters."

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Returning to the podium

It's heartbreaking to see that so many winter-sports environments are being stripped of snow but, if there's any consolation, then more and more of them are seeing Ormerod back on their slopes again. With her rehabilitation concluded, the former gymnast has returned to regular competitions and - as if she'd never left - has frequented the podium in 2019. 

Ormerod opened her season with a Big Air victory in Perisher, Australia, before bagging a silver medal in her first World Cup since returning from injury. These are the kind of performances that have reminded the 21-year-old of exactly what she can achieve when fit and have injected a new draught of positivity as Beijing 2022 peers higher over the horizon.

"It was just so amazing," she said with an audible smile. "I had such a long time off snow when I broke my heel and I'd just been dreaming of getting back on my board and riding to my full potential again. I got gold in Australia and it was just the best feeling, I felt like I finally was back on top. A couple of weeks later, I went to New Zealand for the first World Cup of the season.

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Onwards and upwards for Ormerod

"I got second place and it was just the most amazing feeling. I just felt like everything that I'd gone through over the year, my injury and my rehab, that it was all so worth it just for that feeling of being back on the podium. All the hard work it needed to get back here had been worth it." The results speak for themselves and it can only be hoped that Ormerod continues to build on her post-injury momentum.

Preparation, as with any sport, will be key to establishing that consistency and Red Bull plays an integral role in the snowboarder's training. The Brighouse-born athlete explained: "I usually drink Red Bull halfway through my day to keep myself going and give me energy I need to keep training. I train really long days and a lot in the gym, so I really need that energy."

That mentality to 'keep going' has been at the heart of Ormerod's sporting life long before her injury, but never has it been so overtly apparent as now. Injuries in the world of sport are nothing irregular, yet to be struck with a potentially career-ending crash on the biggest stage of all was the cruellest of fates for Ormerod. 

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However, fast forward 18 months, and that hellish day in South Korea has made her both a stronger athlete and human being. Whether that be dismissing a broken wrist as a mere inconvenience or stomaching a disproportionate dose of Olympic heartache, she has taken to life's obstacles as if it were slopestyle. If there's any weakness to one of Britain's rising winter stars, then it's neither an Achilles nor a heel.

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