Gillings can barely walk to the shops but remains Britain’s best snowboarder, as Anna Kessel finds out.
Zoe Gillings can hardly walk. Even wearing shoes is painful for Britain’s best snowboarder. For the 24-year-old, ranked fifth in the world and hoping to win a medal in the snowcross final on Tuesday, it is a worrying state of affairs – but one that she is well used to.
Five years ago Gillings shattered eight bones in her left foot while attempting to perform a stunt for an Audi advert. An x-ray showed her cuboid bone – vital for stability – was a mess. “It looked like cornflakes,” Gillings says, matter‑of‑factly.
Her surgeon pronounced her career over, but Gillings refused to bow to expert opinion. “He probably thought I was very naive, but there was no way I was giving up.” The following year she qualified for the Turin Winter Olympics, despite having had her foot in a series of protective casts for four months, and finished 15th.
Even now, after all the rehabilitation she has done, Gillings cannot stay too long on her feet. To keep the pressure off, and get to the gym or the shops, she stores a fold-out scooter in her snowboard bag.
Pointing to the lump on her foot she gives it a little rub. “When the bones healed it wasn’t into eight different bones, but into one big lump,” she explains. By the end of a day’s competition Gillings is usually in agony. Big jumps are particularly painful as her foot takes the full force of a hard landing. There are plenty of them in snowcross, which involves racing other boarders down a steep slope, round corners and over jumps. Unable to take painkillers any stronger than ibuprofen – for fear of contravening the anti-doping rules – Gillings simply grits her teeth and bears it.
“To make the Olympic final it’s 12 runs [on the course] in one day so by the end of the day it will be very sore. But I won’t care by that point, I just want to win a medal.”
The memories of the day she almost ruined her career are strong. She smiles wryly as she notes with faux pride that she “did clear the car, though”.
She adds: “Afterwards I was telling myself to breathe. I knew it was broken. I took my boot off because I needed to see it and when I did there was a big lump on the side of my foot. I don’t wear shoes very often at all now. I can’t wear high heels, except once every three years I’ll wear them to walk across a stage.”
Gillings received no compensation after the accident that stalled her career for two-and-a-half years, and yet she is remarkably cheerful about it. She was not even being paid to perform the stunt. Does she not resent Audi for what happened? “No!” she laughs. “I was sponsored by them last summer. All is forgiven. I don’t really hold a grudge. Although I’m never jumping over a car again. I was asked to do it at a Nike photoshoot two years ago and I was like: ‘No way!’ It took them a moment to register.”
Her attitude to the accident says much about her attitude to life. Gillings is a maverick – the Isle of Man’s champion under-13 gymnast, “although I never liked the dancing bits” – who takes an unusual approach to her training. With less access to snow than her international competitors, Gillings makes do with a purpose-built practice gate – a plywood and Velcro contraption located in the basement of the University of Bath’s sports centre. To improve her balance she unicycles (“my personal record is once all the way around a 400m track”) and to improve concentration and focus she taught herself to juggle.
“I was trying to think what I could do at the top of the course to keep my mind awake. I thought if I could juggle snowballs that would be pretty good – co-ordination and reaction. You can have long waits up there, anything from five minutes to two hours, so you need things to keep yourself occupied.”
Sir Clive Woodward has been an influence. In his role as performance director of the British Olympic Association, he took Gillings to visit an eyesight specialist to work on her reaction time. “We used a programme that’s a bit like a computer game, and by the end your eyes actually feel tired. Clive’s been really helpful, he just seems incredibly interested in trying to help people make the most of their talent.”
That Gillings is even in contention for a medal is impressive after the demise of Snowsport GB hit her preparation last year, leaving her without a coach for six months. The governing body have since gone into administration, with the BOA and UK Sport picking up the pieces.
“We’re British athletes so we’re used to facing adversity when it comes to snowsports,” Gillings says. “It did worry me, I’m only human, but I’m just trying to not expend too much energy on it and concentrate on training and competition.”