Last season in Silvaplana, Switzerland, Izzy Atkin became the first British woman to win a ski slopestyle World Cup competition. It was the first time the teenager had ever stood on a World Cup podium. A couple of weeks later, Atkin competed in the World Championships in Sierra Nevada, taking home the bronze medal in slopestyle. In January 2018 Atkin proved her podium potential, winning bronze at both the ski slopestyle World Cup and Grand Prix in Aspen Snowmass, Colorado.
Coming off the back of three years’ work with the GB Park and Pipe team, the results marked her out as a real medal contender for the 2018 Olympic Games – today, she became the first ever British skier to win a Winter Olympic medal, bronze in slopestyle.
Born in Boston, Massachusetts, to an English father and a Malaysian mother, Atkin started skiing at three years old on Sugarloaf Mountain in Maine. The family would drive to the resort every weekend to ski during the winter. Realising Izzy’s potential, they moved to Park City in Utah when she was 14 years old so she could ski every day. “I think my parents were looking for a change,” says Atkin, now aged 19. “The west coast has a very different vibe to the east.”
Atkin enrolled in Park City’s Winter Sports High School, which was set up in 1994 by parents of US ski racers. The academic year runs from April to November so that winter sports athletes can train and compete all season with their clubs or national teams. Alumni of the school include Olympic alpine skiing gold medallists Ted Ligety and Julia Mancuso, and the current gold medal holder in ski slopestyle, Joss Christensen.
At the same time, Atkin’s father Mike was talking to British freestyle coach Pat Sharples about his daughter joining the GB Park & Pipe programme. Sharples remembers the conversation: “They liked the way we run our team,” he says. “Izzy is a quiet person and unless you are a loud, big character you could get lost on the US Team.”
Sharples recalls that when the coaches first took her on, she was only spinning 360s, but was technically a great skier. “Izzy had done a bit of alpine racing, moguls, halfpipe and backcountry – she could literally ski the whole mountain and that has been a big advantage for sure.”
Atkin’s results last season didn’t come as a surprise to Sharples. “Izzy has just started to come into her own as an athlete and her confidence has really built. She is one of the most stylish, tidy and consistent women skiers on the tour right now.”
Before her maiden victory in Silvaplana, Atkin had scored 11 top ten results, including a fifth-place finish at the big air contest in Quebec City, Canada, in February 2017. Although big air skiing is not an Olympic event, Quebec City was a turning point for Atkin, and it was here that she started to introduce tougher tricks into her competition runs. “I did a leftside 720, which is my unnatural side. The fact that I landed it and got fifth really boosted my confidence in that trick, so I put it into my slopestyle run for the next contest at the Silvaplana World Cup.”
Lining up at Silvaplana in March 2017, the strong field for the slopestyle World Cup event included all three Olympic medallists from Sochi – Dara Howell, Devin Logan and Kim Lamarre – as well as World Cup leader Sarah Hoefflin. Introducing the unnatural leftside 720 had an immediate effect on Atkin’s scoring ability, as she booked her place in the final and won the event with a score of 88.40 out of 100. “I was so stoked that I was able to put that run down. It was a big breakthrough for me in my mental game. I included tricks that I had been working on for a while in training but had been too scared to use in competition.”
I’m probably going to be pretty nervous at the Olympics, but I’m just going to try my best and stay in the zone
The World Championships in Sierra Nevada followed later in March. Slushy snow, wind, and sand blown over from the Sahara affected competitors’ speed coming onto the jumps. Along with a poorly designed rail section, these factors made for a very challenging event.
After a protest from the competitors about the conditions, the qualifying event was delayed by 24 hours. Once it went ahead, Atkin scored well and made it through to the final in third position. At the World Championships the best individual score out of three final runs takes gold, and it’s a reflection of how difficult the conditions were that none of the finalists managed more than one run without falling. Atkin had fallen on her first two runs, and as she prepared for her third, she knew the pressure was on.
“I was very nervous, but tried to channel my fear and stay in the zone. The organisers had waxed the rails between the final runs and I nearly fell on the last one. I would have been so disappointed because I had stomped the rest of my run.”
Claiming the bronze medal at the World Championships was a great way to end the season. “My focus now in training is to work on my rail game and put a right-side 900 into my run.”
She skied on indoor snow for the first time this summer, working on rails with the British team at the snow centre in Tamworth. She spent the summer in New Zealand for winter training with Pat Sharples and the GB team. “Izzy is very ambitious and she will always try and put down in training,” Sharples says. “If anything we have to rein her in quite a lot.”
As with all new-school freestyle sports, progression is the key, with super-talented youngsters appearing all the time – even at 19 years old, Atkin is already looking over her shoulder. The one that everyone is watching is Kelly Sildaru from Estonia. At Aspen in 2016, Sildaru became the youngest ever X Games gold medallist, aged just 13. She successfully defended her X Games slopestyle title again last season, although she was not old enough to compete in World Cup competitions.
Atkin is full of respect for the youngster. “Kelly has won every slopestyle contest she has entered and this season she will be old enough to qualify for the Olympics. Right now we are all trying to keep up with her level of tricks.”
Atkin expected an exciting Olympic slopestyle competition. “At the test event in 2016 they put together a really creative course, with some jumps with side-angle take offs, which we have been training for over the summer.” She’s also looking forward to representing Team GB: “I feel a lot of connection to the UK, and I visit my dad’s family in Birmingham regularly. I’m also hoping that my mum’s side of the family can come up from Malaysia to South Korea to watch me compete.”
She will lead a strong British team in women’s slopestyle that should include Katie Summerhayes, who finished seventh at the Sochi Olympics, and the promising youngster Madi Rowlands. It promises to be an exciting medal event for anyone supporting Team GB. “I’m probably going to be pretty nervous, but I’m just going to try my best and stay in the zone. As long as I ski my best I will be proud of myself and happy.”
Atkin’s main rivals
Just 15 years old, Estonia’s Kelly Sildaru is the one to beat in ski slopestyle, having won two X Games Golds and her first FIS World Cup in New Zealand this summer. Unfortunately, Sildaru tore her ACL shortly after her World Cup win and will struggle to be fit for the Olympic Games, although a pioneering operation using stem cells could allow her to compete. World Champion Tess Ledeaux from France will be 17 years old in Pyeongchang and has an excellent chance of converting World Championship success into Olympic glory – as does Swiss skier Sarah Hoefflin, who was the most consistent slopestyle skier last season, winning the World Cup title.
When to watch Atkin at the Winter Olympics
Slopestyle qualifiers and finals: February 17.