Snowboarding: Gillings shoulders the weight of expectation INTERVIEW

Headingley-based snowboarder Zoe Gillings has been using the gymnasium facilities of Leeds Rhinos to compensate for a lack of snow as she builds towards competing at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

Headingley-based snowboarder Zoe Gillings has been using the gymnasium facilities of Leeds Rhinos to compensate for a lack of snow as she builds towards competing at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

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A familiar sight at Leeds Rugby’s Kirkstall gym might be Jamie Peacock dead-lifting 200kg.

What might strike people as odd, however, would be the considerably more diminutive figure of an international-class snowboarder following him onto the weights bench.

That brave woman would be Zoe Gillings, a two-time Winter Olympian, who compensates for the lack of snow to train on by increasing her size to better combat her opponents.

Gillings, who was born on the Isle of Man and originally trained in Bath, relocated to Leeds after the Vancouver Olympics, primarily to use the facilities at the Kirkstall gym.

She does conditioning training four days a week with Leeds Carnegie’s conditioning coach John Noonan, using the same weights that members of Super League and world champions Leeds Rhinos use.

“I can dead lift 130kg,” says Gillings, proudly, not even batting an eyelid at the thought of the 200kg that an average Rhino can hoist.

“I don’t actually train with the guys because we don’t overlap times, but whenever I have met them they are good guys.”

To say she has stuck to her training programme so religiously is a testament to her willpower. Any British winter sports competitor has to find a way to get an edge over their opponents to counter the fact that they do not have snow and ice to train on.

And Gillings is happy for that to be in the testosterone-charged environment of one of the biggest rugby clubs in the country.

“It’s mainly just gym stuff, you can replicate the moves on a bosu ball, or with squats etc, but it’s not easy,” says Gillings, who also prepared for the start of the World Cup season on Friday in the French and Austrian Alps.

The regime seems to be working.

Gillings, 27, is the leading British competitor in the hi-octane and dangerous sport of snowboard cross, and has been for over a decade.

Boardercross, as the athletes call it, was one of the more radical and explosive additions to the winter programme in 1997.

Four snowboarders hurtle out of the start gate down a ramp and along a course that resembles a BMX track with the first one across the line the winner. Twists, turns and jumps ensure that more often than not, the challengers end up smashing into each other.

It is hectic and utterly compelling. Like all winter sports, its protagonists need a few loose screws to have the nerve to do it.

When the sport debuted at the Turin Olympics of 2006 it was regarded as a breath of fresh air, but it was the actions of American Lindsey Jacobellis that made it famous.

Jacobellis was the favourite for gold and coasting for victory when she decided on the last jump to showboat for the crowd by doing a method grab. She lost her balance, landed on the edge of her board and crashed to the snow, her grip on the Olympic title lost in an act of ill-timed over-confidence.

“Everyone remembers that, but in a way Linda has very much helped with people’s knowledge of boardercross,” admits Gillings. “She wishes it never happened but it’s helped raise the profile of the sport.”

That sport will only get more dangerous, and therefore exciting. For the last year, racers have been adjusting to a rule change that sees six boarders on the track at one time, not just four.

“It makes it even more unpredictable,” says Gillings, who lives in Headingley. “The courses are supposed to be wider now that it’s moved to six people but they don’t seem to be! They certainly don’t look much wider.

“The main thing I find exciting about the sport is that you’re right next to who you’re racing against.

“You know where you stand because the first across the line wins. There’s no judges or stopwatch to wait on. It’s all very clear cut.

She adds: “People have wiped me out a few times and I’ve wiped them out. It’s part and parcel.

“The biggest injury I’ve had is the broken foot. But I’ve also had five concussions, a broken collar bone, a torn cartlidge in my knee and more twisted ankles than I can remember.”

Gillings – thanks to her training at Kirkstall – is fully fit for the start of the 2012-13 World Cup season in Montafon on Friday.

The eight-leg series runs until the end of March, with a world championships also squeezed in.

But the main ambition for Gillings is to continue building towards a third Olympics in Sochi in 2014.

“I was sixth in the World Cup last year and I’d like to break into the top five this time,” she says.

“And having finished 15th and eighth at the last two Olympics, a medal would be good this time.”