Winter Olympics: awesome! Trying to be cool with the fridge kids

As the Left Bank was to French intellectuals, so Hemel Hempstead Snow Centre is to the snowboarding elite

'So are you following the Winter Olympics?" I said with kindly curiosity, to a girl who looked about 12, in a GB tracksuit that I assumed she'd got from Asda. "I'm … I'm Aimee Fuller. That's Jamie Nichols. We were in the Winter Olympics."

"Wow. What was it like?"

"It was the most insane, craziest experience of my life."

"Aimee! Will you sign my helmet?" "Will you sign my cast?" "Can we have a photo?"

As the Left Bank once was to French intellectuals, so Hemel Hempstead Snow Centre is to the snowboarding elite. Don't get too hung up on the casts and the dislocated shoulders: concentrate on the star power. Not just the team fresh back from Sochi, who two hours ago were on Radio 1 telling some excitable young person what it was like in the athletes' village. Also Cerys Allen, who came ninth in the European junior open last weekend, who is 13 (and has dislocated her shoulder); and her friend, Amber Cordingley, who came ninth in the Scottish indoor championships last year, and is 14. Both have sponsorship deals, before they even have GCSEs. Kris Amstutz, 22, one of the main coaches, has won best unsponsored rider twice.

Amstutz taught me some key principles. I couldn't compute how much ski centres had changed since 1987. They used to look like fairgrounds in disrepair, with some rush matting thrown over the top, sprayed white. Now they're full of real snow, underpinned by ice, chilled from below. At the same time, I was entrusting my safety to a person young enough to be my son, which is a bit of a memento mori even before the ground disappears beneath you. And that's without all the garish colours and the big noises, and the outdoors-indoors surrealism. He was brilliant – but don't listen to me, I would have grabbed on to a scaff pole and called it the messiah. Listen to him.

"The thing with freestyle is that it's free. It's fun. It's exhilarating. There are no rules. If you want to be upside down, you go upside down. If you want to mellow, you mellow. There's a scene, but it's not a scene you can get cut out of." An older skier interjected: "It's very inclusive." Kris scowled, not at the skier, politely into indeterminate middle distance. Inclusive was not the right word; it was too like an equal opportunities policy document. "It's very open," he allowed. Unless you're a middle-aged skier. Then you can butt out, with your stupid words.

In some ways snowboarding is the cultural opposite of skiing, tough and wild rather than sleek and formal. Skiing I can't imagine a kid wanting to take up without a parent hassling them; and snowboarding I can't imagine a parent being very keen on, without a kid nagging. And they have a way of being and talking that is distinct and recognisable, sticking their tongues out and saying "back in the day" when they don't even mean as far back as last century. They're nostalgically referencing that knowing, MTV raucousness, the delighted jackassery of the noughties. "You can't be nostalgic about the noughties," I want to say, "that was only five minutes ago." But instead I go: "Help! Christ! It's slippery!" and Kris nods and goes: "Awesome. You're doing awesomely."

Allen started when she was eight, and was an instant natural. Nichols was doing sevens by the time he was nine. Don't worry too much about the numbers. They describe spins by the number of degrees turned, then round it down to make it mathematically meaningless (a seven is 720 degrees).

It is as dominating as any sport – Cordingley participated in 15 competitions last year and trains three times a week. It must be more expensive than other elite sports, just finding snow in a non-snowy climate. "The amount they spend on us," Amber said, fake ruefully, of their collected parents. "If we were ever going to work and pay them back, that would take years."

Five minutes later, Cordingley laughed so much that she literally fell down the stairs. Allen may have been trying to help her up, or may have been trying to dislocate her other shoulder; it was hard to tell. A girl of about eight was beseeching Fuller to sign her actual head.

They share a lot of characteristics with the snow itself, a kind of pristine newness, a love of extremity. "Fridge kids," they call them. They are pretty awesome.


Zoe Williams

The GuardianTramp

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