Inspired by the Winter Olympics, thousands of people are hitting indoor snow slopes across the UK to try their hand at skiing and snowboarding for the first time.
A world away from the Games’ host nation, South Korea, and the snow-capped peaks and mountains more commonly associated with snowsports, Britons are picking up the tools of the trade in places such as Milton Keynes, Hemel Hempstead and Stretford.
“Our programme numbers have gone nuts since the build up to the Olympics and now that it’s on,” said Oliver Bowley, head of snowsports at Snozone in Milton Keynes. “When slopestyle is on, our snowboarding classes especially get a massive boost. Anybody who doesn’t know how to ski or snowboard can look at someone doing a backflip on TV and think that looks cool, I want to do that.”
Bowley, 26, was 12 when he decided he wanted to do half pipes and took a summer course at Snozone. He never looked back, becoming an instructor aged 18 and now qualified enough to compete professionally or train high-end athletes.
Running me through my first snowboarding lesson on Thursday afternoon, he said every coach at the centre was booked up for weeks. Customers range in age from kids as young as three to his eldest client, a 96-year-old Austrian man.
“This is my passion and I love watching people start to fall in love with snowboarding and skiing. I enjoy watching how quickly they can pick this up as a sport,” Bowley said after I tumbled for the second time. Young children, impressively adept at bending their bodies into sharp angles, skied their way around me.
It was in Sochi where the term “fridge kids” was first used to refer to freestyle and slope style athletes who started their career in indoor snow centres. Big names such as James Wood, Jamie Nicholls, Katie Ormerod and Aimee Fuller came through snowdomes like this and dry slopes made of astroturf or dendex.
Here, the snow on the ground looks normal but it feels like sugar or sand. When I try to make a snowball, it doesn’t stick together.
Rebecca Hicks, from the Hemel Hempstead Snow Centre , said they had seen a 20% increase in visitors since the Olympics started, particularly in snowboarding. “We’ve had thousands more guests. Many call to say they have been watching the Olympics and they want to give it a go, or they can already snowboard and since watching the slopestyle they want to progress to freestyle lessons.”
It’s a similar story at Chill Factor in Stretford and Snow Factor in Braehead, both of which reported a Winter Olympics effect. Morwenna Angove, the CEO of Chill Factor, said they had been attracting hundreds more people, many of whom had never seen the mountains.
“As Olympic fever grows we are seeing a significant number of guests visiting,” she said. “We’re all about getting people in snowsports and if the Games inspires a new generation it can only be a good thing for our future Team GB chances.”
Bowley told me what struck him most after Sochi was the massive spike in teenage girls who wanted to try snowboarding after watching Britain’s Jenny Jones win a bronze medal. “They’d say: ‘I don’t want to be some girly girl with just makeup,’” he said.
This year it was teenage boys, inspired by the likes of Norway’s Marcus Kleveland and Canada’s Mark McMorris, “who are basically like snowboard Gods”.
Others, too, have emphasised the evolution of skiing and snowboarding from sports for the elites to ones accessible to anyone, even those who live in big cities.
“We see a tangible Winter Olympic effect every time the Games are on, especially when our British athletes do well,” said Rob Stewart, a veteran ski writer and coach. “If you can get to a dry slope or an indoor snow slope close to you and find out how to learn that’s the best way, you’ll be hooked.”
Charities such as Snow-Camp are helping young people from inner cities to access snowsports. Dan Charlish, Snow-Camp’s founder, said snowsports could have a profound effect on young people, raising their confidence, self-esteem and ambition.
“Every four years snowsports dominate TV and social media feeds,” he said. “There’s a real buzz, and we are already seeing an increasing number of young people and youth projects getting in touch to find out about our programmes. But snowsports continue to be seen as something that’s out of reach for far too many of the young people we encounter and it’s something we work tirelessly to change.”
A spokesperson for UK Sport said its mission was to use British Olympic and Paralympic success to inspire the nation to become more active and healthy. “That’s why our #StepItUp campaign this year is capitalising on the high profile of our stars in Pyeongchang to encourage more physical activity in partnership with the BBC’s Get Inspired, which signposts people to their nearest venue or activity, including snowdomes and ice rinks.”
By the end of my first lesson, I could slowly board unassisted down the slope.
The average time needed for a person to learn how to competently board from the top to the bottom was 10 hours, Bowley said, so I was on track. But it took him significantly less time to equip me with a newfound interest in everything snowboarding, much to the confusion of my friends and colleagues.