Snowboarding: Gladiator prepares to repel all boarders

Zoe Gillings has broken new ground in the rough and ready discipline of snowboard-cross. Mike Rowbottom hears how she plans to make the leap on to the Olympic podium next month

Back in April she took part in a stunt involving the British team sponsors, Audi, which left her with a broken foot - the worst injury of her career.

"I was doing a thing for a magazine," she says sheepishly. "I was jumping over a car. I cleared it no problem. But there was a little uphill bit of snow before the landing of the jump, so I came down in just the wrong place. It was my first jump of the day."

Despite that unscheduled disruption, the 20-year-old, who has become Britain's leading exponent in snowboard-cross, finished the season fourth in the overall world rankings, and is heading for Turin with realistic hopes of challenging for a place on the Olympic podium.

Unlike so many of her competitors from Austria, France and Switzerland, Gillings grew up without any natural advantages for a potential skier - her family home is in the Isle of Man.

"It's strange, I know,' she says, giving a shake to long hair that involves an extravagant amount of bottle red. "But my parents have a house in Albertville in France. I've been skiing with family since I was three and a half and I kind of got bored with skiing when I was 10. So I switched to snowboarding."

What is made to sound like a relatively simple change of direction actually involved an unusual amount of independence and determination - at the age of 16 she travelled to Canada on her own to work with a professional coach, Craig Smith.

"It didn't seem like such a big thing at the time," she recalls. "I had competed in international competitions from the age of 13, and I had met Craig while I was at the European Youth Olympics. I wanted to take the sport more seriously, and when I found out he was running a programme for talented skiers I asked him about it and he said, "Yeah, come along."

Gillings was able to take up the offer without worrying about how it would fit in with her school - because she had never been to one. Her education had been supervised from home by her mother, Jill, a qualified teacher. "It was a great advantage because that enabled me to go away for five or six weeks every winter and go skiing," says Gillings.

As an all-rounder, Gillings had done more of the giant slalom and half-pike snowboarding events that had made their Olympic debut in 1998. But soon after arriving in Canada she was asked to enter a snowboard-cross. Somewhat to the alarm of her hosts, she took to it immediately.

The reason for trepidation lay in the nature of an event that involves four competitors racing down the same course, heading for the same jumps, bumps and turns at the same time. Gillings was expected to go out on the opening day, when competitors race individually in attempting to qualify, but she reached the finals, finishing in the top 20. Her course was set. And it carried its own particular hazards.

The event which will announce itself to the wider world in Turin has a distinctly gladiatorial element to it. The rules appear to amount to this: you cannot deliberately whack your opponent, but if you happen to do so, then so be it... Like 800 metres runners, the competitors have individual starting points, but soon break from their lanes.

"You will get disqualified if you purposefully push someone," Gillings explains. "And if you punch someone. But if it's accidental then nothing will happen against you.

"Collisions occur quite often. Usually there will be one or two jumps on the course where everyone will go off at the same time. And at least a couple of people will hit in the air and crash on landing. It's quite entertaining.

"Ideally, you have to get to the markers before your opponents. If you are slightly in front of them you can turn towards them so that they have to veer away from you.

"There are certain people that I know who are usually a bit wimpy and they are likely to slow down and stop if I get anywhere near them. Whereas other people are pretty strong-minded, and they keep going no matter what.

"My motto is, 'Get in front, stay in front'. So if I'm not in front from the start then I'll try and get in front any which way I can. If you get in front there's nothing that anyone else can do to you."

Gillings, faintly smiling, makes it all seem very simple. It will be fascinating to see if that is how it works out.

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