When a crash in training at this year’s Pyeongchang Winter Olympics left GB snowboarder Katie Ormerod with broken heel it kick-started a nine-month journey featuring multiple operations, complications and a skin graft. As one of Britain’s genuine Olympic medal hopefuls, Ormerod (who was the first female in the world to nail a backside double cork 1080 at the age of 16) had to process the mental effects of crushing disappointment as well as the physical challenge of being unable to weight bear.
Now almost recovered, the 21-year-old Roxy slopestyle athlete reveals the mental and physical challenges she’s faced along the way and how, almost 10 months on, she’s coming back stronger.
Firstly, how is your heel doing now?
It is doing great! It has been a rollercoaster of an injury but it is on the mend and I’m almost done with my rehab now.
Can you tell us what happened to break your heel in Pyeongchang? It sounded painful…
It was the worst and most painful injury I have ever experienced! It was the first run of the second training day at the Olympics and I just came off the top rail a bit early and hit the knuckle really hard. As soon as I hit the ground I knew instantly that it was very serious. I’ve never felt pain like it… It made all my other injuries, which include breaking my back, shoulder and ACL, feel like paper cuts. This was also following a broken wrist on the same rail the day before.
What sort of physical rebuild process have you had to go through?
I had to have emergency surgery to put two screws in it as it broke directly into two pieces. I stayed in hospital in Seoul for eight days before returning to the UK. I then saw a specialist as it looked as if I had some skin complications – the skin on my heel had turned completely black and died. This resulted in another operation just a couple days after getting home and this was to cut out the dead skin.
From there, I had to have another three operations to put in a tube that went into my heel and connected to an external device that helped produce new tissue and clean the wound. It was a bit annoying as I had to carry it around my neck and it made a loud ticking noise 24/7. The final skin operation was to have a skin graft where they took skin from my hip and used pig skin. After a few months of rehab, I had another operation to shave off some bone growth on my heel, and just recently, I had my seventh heel surgery to take the screws out as they were sticking out and digging into my Achilles causing me lots of pain.
I then started my rehab at the gym and physio. I wasn’t allowed to wear proper shoes for almost four months due to the skin graft and I was on crutches for three months. It was very tough and painful learning to walk again and it took over four months before I could walk comfortably, but I trained as hard as I could in the gym to make it as easy as possible for me.
Physically, did your injured leg become noticeably weaker when you couldn’t weight-bear?
Yes, I was on crutches for such a long time that I lost nearly all my muscles in my leg. It looked shocking – I have never seen myself so skinny. I quickly got my muscles back when I could start training in the gym, as I used machines such as leg extension and hamstring curls which didn’t put pressure through my heel. I found my calf muscle the hardest to get back and I’m still working on that now.
Mentally, this must have been a seriously rough time. Has recovery been as much a mental challenge as a physical one?
I struggled a lot at the start of my rehab. For around the first four months I went through a very dark period where I felt really lost. I often felt sad and confused. It was such a bad injury that I didn’t know at that point if it would be career-ending or not. I’m so thankful that it isn’t, but at the time, I was so worried and it felt like the whole world was against me. I qualified easily into the Olympics and was hoping to bring back a medal, but instead I had the worst Injury I’ve ever known and had to miss the Olympics and the rest of the season, as well as spending the rest of the year doing rehab – not how I planned my year to go.
After a few months of keeping my struggles to myself, I finally realised one day that I wasn’t the only person in the world going through tough times mentally and it was a huge eye opener for me. I started to talk about what I had gone through and as soon as I spoke out about it I instantly started feeling better. I am now openly talking about the mental side of the injury because I want to help as many people as possible going through similar things.
You’ve been working hard in the gym. What kind of strength sessions have you been doing?
My gym routine is based heavily around leg strength and movement control. I focus a lot on single leg work, for example I warm up on the BOSU [ball] doing pistol squats and Romanian deadlifts. I then do single leg presses, Trap bar deadlifts, leg extension and rear foot elevated split squats. I mix up what sets and reps I do, but it’s usually either 4 sets of 8 reps, or 5 sets of 5 reps with heavier weight.
You competed as a gymnast from an early age. Would you say this has contributed to your success as a big air/slopestyle boarder?
Definitely. I am so thankful that my parents took me to gymnastics when I was 4-years-old because this has helped massively with my muscular strength, special awareness and the flexibility needed for snowboarding. The tricks are also very similar and transfer almost directly from gymnastics to snowboarding.
Prior to your injury were dedicated gymnastics sessions part of your training?
I did gymnastics competitively until I was 16 and then became a full time snowboarder, but I still did gymnastics in my spare time. It is so important for all the British Snowboard Team to train in gymnastics now as it helps so much.
I’ve seen a few photos of giant airbags on the snow. Do you use them to practice tricks?
Yes, when I want to learn a new trick that has a high risk factor, I try it on the airbag first. This helps to reduce the risk massively and also help to improve my confidence and do more repetitions. I don’t use the airbag to learn every trick though, just the big ones.
Before your injury, what would a typical week of training look like during the snow season?
A typical week would be snowboarding roughly 5/6 times a week depending on weather. I snowboard from around 8am to 4pm. I would go to the gym around 2/3 times a week and include gymnastics sessions in between.
What might a heavy leg session for you involve in the gym?
A heavy leg session would be 5 sets of 5 reps of 85kg Trap bar deadlifts, 5 sets, 5 reps of 50kg single leg presses, 5 sets of 5 reps of 49kg single leg extensions, and 5 sets of 5 reps of 40kg rear foot elevated split squats.
Have you managed to process the disappointment of not competing in the Olympics this year?
I had to accept pretty early on that it just wasn’t meant to be this time, as my Olympic experience went so wrong. I realised that I couldn’t feel sorry for myself forever and that everything happens for a reason.
What’s on the horizon for you this coming season?
I am aiming to be back on my board in January and Snowboarding mainly in Livigno with the rest of the British team. I would love to compete this season, so I will just see how my training goes and hopefully I will be back to it as soon as possible.
Has your experience with injury and rehab taught you anything?
I have learnt so much from this heel injury. I think the main thing that I’ve learnt is that I only have one body and I have to look after it. I don’t want any more injuries and this injury was the first that really shook me up. I want to carry on challenging myself and pushing the sport and women’s snowboarding, but I want to do it in the safest and smartest way possible. I feel like a much stronger person from this injury, physically and mentally.
You’ve been boarding since you were 5 – what is it that you love about your sport?
I love the adrenaline rush when I fly over big kickers and the feeling of landing a trick. It is the best! I also really love competing and travelling the world to snowboard in the most beautiful mountains.
What are your favourite items of kit for training and competing?
I love my Roxy Bright edition Snowboard and Roxy crew pants…You cannot beat them!
Who are you sponsored by right now?
Roxy, Red Bull, and Solarplicity
Katie Ormerod is one of the most exciting young female slopestyle riders on the scene and is sponsored by global action sports brand Roxy. Find out more about the latest Roxy Snow Collection at www.roxy-uk.co.uk/snow.
You can follow Katie’s snowboarding via her social media handles: www.instagram.com/ormerodkatie, www.twitter.com/ormerodkatie and www.facebook.com/katieormeroduk and by visiting her website, www.katieormerod.com.