Snowboarding: Gillings the best of British in a dangerous boarding school

British snowsport competitors are having an excellent winter. In the high-profile alpine events, the Scottish downhiller Finlay Mickel has grabbed five top-20 finishes, and Chemmy Alcott has consolidated the progress she made last year. But I bet you can't name the 19-year-old who is the highest-ranked Briton in the World Cup.

British snowsport competitors are having an excellent winter. In the high-profile alpine events, the Scottish downhiller Finlay Mickel has grabbed five top-20 finishes, and Chemmy Alcott has consolidated the progress she made last year. But I bet you can't name the 19-year-old who is the highest-ranked Briton in the World Cup.

She won the season's opening race last September in Chile, her only World Cup victory to date, and is currently fourth with three races to go; here's another clue, she is from that little-known alpine kindergarten, the Isle of Man. Struggling? Let me introduce you then to Zoë Gillings, Britain's No 1 snowboarder.

She hasn't done it the glamorous way, in the half-pipe or big-air events. Gillings' speciality is snowboardcross, or boardercross. In just four years, Gillings (pronounced "Jillings") has battled her way to the forefront of this, the rough-tough end of competitive boarding. In each race, four boarders compete against one another down a course of high-banked turns and jumps. They shove, they jostle and, often, they fall - to progress through the heats to the final race of each World Cup event takes a slice of luck, a bit of elbow and a lot of guts.

"I love riding next to my competitors," says Gillings. "I don't have too much technique, I'm still a bit crazy. It's not meant to be that physical, but you can sort of push them and get away with it. Most people are good sports about it." They probably have little choice: "I don't know my weight, but I'm quite strong," says the 5ft 7in Gillings. "You can be small and slip through the gaps [in races], but it doesn't happen that often."

Nevertheless, even robust competitors such as Gillings have had to face up to the sport's dangers. Last year the Swede Line Ostvold died from injuries sustained in training before the opening World Cup race in Chile (the race that Gillings went on to win).

"It brought home to me the possibility of serious injury," Gillings says. "You pick up a lot of speed, 50mph. Every course is different, and you can crash anywhere: on a jump, a big corner, or someone might fall over in front of you."

The hard work continues through the off-season, too. Anyone who still believes snowboarders are congenital slackers should read Gillings' online diary of her summer training, both at the English Institute of Sport in Bath and in the Alps: the gym work, the cycling... So there isn't much time for surfing with her friends, or her family, who run a hotel on the Isle of Man. "I'll go home for about nine days this year," says Gillings, who is based in Switzerland for the season. "Then I don't get to go home until after the Olympics."

Although it is still a minority discipline compared to the big alpine events, boardercross will be a full Olympic event next year in Turin. Which raises the possibility of that rare beast, a British Winter Olympic snowsports medal- winner. Her coach, Craig Smith, is bullish about Gillings' prospects, even comparing her with the most successful female snowboarder ever, the French racer Karine Ruby: "By 2010, Zoë would like to be in the same shoes as Karine and be able to say she's won as many World Cup races, maybe even more."

Gillings finished eighth in last season's boardercross World Cup; in January this year she had a disappointing World Championships, finishing 14th. But she is certainly a contender - with today's race in Lake Placid, Friday's in the Sierra Nevada in Spain and the following Thursday's finale in Sweden, Gillings still has a chance of winning this year's World Cup boardercross. "I'm hoping to try to get rid of that reputation of underachievement the British have [in snowsports]."

Then Gillings says something that, these days, sounds less daft from the lips of a British snowsports competitor: "There's no reason why I shouldn't win the World Cup."

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