Just before Christmas, in an interview for the annual Scottish Ski & Board supplement in our sister title Scotland on Sunday, 15-year-old Aberdonian freestyle ski sensation Kirsty Muir spoke about her training routine. “For me, the most important aspect of training is time on snow,” she said, “having experience of varying conditions in the mountains, and a chance to train on the big snow jumps.”
However, like Olympic halfpipe skier Murray Buchan, who cut his teeth at the Hillend dry slope in Edinburgh, Muir is also proof positive that time on snow isn’t everything. She may not have grown up in the Alps or the Rockies, with a famous ski resort right on her doorstep, but despite studying full-time at high school she still manages to train three times a week at the Aberdeen Snowsport Centre dryslope, in addition to sessions at the Scottish Institute of Sport and Banchory Trampoline Club.
And all those hard yards – both on and off the snow – have certainly been paying mighty dividends on the competitive circuit, most recently at the Winter Youth Olympics at Lausanne, Switzerland, where Muir took silver in the Big Air contest the other week, just 1.25 points behind China’s gold medallist Ailing Eileen Gu.
After her first two runs out of three, Muir was sitting in first place, with a score of 161, but when Gu scored 81.5 in her final run to take top spot, with a combined score for her best two runs of 171.25, the pressure was on. Muir went into her third and final run knowing she needed a score of 89 or more to win gold and she came within a whisker: her super-smooth cork 9 tail (two and a half off-axis rotations while grabbing the back of her right ski at the apex of her jump) gave her a final run score of 87.5 which left her just 1.25 points shy of what she needed.
Still, for all that Muir may have been gunning for gold in Lausanne, her silver medal still makes her the first ever female British ski athlete to medal in a Big Air competition at an Olympic Games, and only the second British Big Air medallist alongside snowboarder Billy Morgan, who won bronze at PyeongChang in 2018. Her achievement is also pretty historic in terms of the wider competitive skiing universe: Muir is only the third British athlete ever to win a ski medal at an Olympic Games, after Izzy Atkin, who claimed the slopestyle bronze at PyeongChang, and Madi Rowlands, who won halfpipe gold and slopestyle bronze at the Youth Olympic Games in Lillehammer in 2016.
The next senior Winter Olympics are in Beijing in 2022, by which time Muir will be 17. So, is it too early for Scottish ski fans to start getting excited? One snowsports athlete who knows all about what it takes to compete on the biggest stage is Aviemore’s Lesley McKenna. She competed in the halfpipe snowboard division at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City in 2002, Turin in 2006 and Vancouver in 2010. Now programme manager for GB Park and Pipe, she has been keeping a close eye on Muir and recently told the BBC that she considered her a “once in a generation athlete.” McKenna also said that, while Muir is clearly “a special talent” she is also “extremely hard working” and always seems to be having a good time – all of which is particularly encouraging if you believe that, at an elite level, sporting success can often be as much about temperament as talent.
While Muir was blowing minds over in Switzerland, back in Scotland the ski season has been a bit of a non-starter so far, following a worryingly mild January. In spite of the general lack of snow, however, Di Gilbert and the folks at Skimo Scotland still somehow managed to find enough white stuff at Glenshee on 25 January to run the Dynafit British Ski Mountaineering Championships. In fact, with a total length of 8.69km and a vertical height gain of 1,157m, the course was one of the biggest in the history of the series. In the men’s division, Finlay Wild retained his title with a time of one hour, five minutes, while Ursula Moore won the women’s division with a time of one hour 23 minutes that also put her in third place overall.
With some much-needed snowfall in recent days, it seems the 2019/20 Scottish ski season might finally be about to kick into gear. The next big competition due to take place is the Lawers of Gravity freeride event on 15 and 16 February. Will there be enough white stuff on the craggy slopes of Meall nan Tarmachan by then? Or could this mobile contest perhaps end up moving to Beinn Ghlas, Meall Corranaich or even Ben Lawers itself? Prospective competitors and spectators should keep an eye on www.scottishfreedomseries.co.uk for updates.