STEPHANIE Cook, from Skeeby, near Richmond, is only 23 but in the short time she has been cross-country skiing she has rubbed shoulders with Olympic athletes and impressed top coaches.

It was while on a holiday in New Zealand when she was 16 in July 2005 that she realised she was a natural skier.

“I was already very sporty at school but had never tried skiing,” she said. “My mum and I decided to go to Snow Farm in Queenstown, on the South Island of New Zealand.

“I just really took to it straightaway. The staff were surprised that I got the leg and body movements just right.”

When she got home she was keen to try again, and had a go at roller-skiing with Yorkshire Ski Club and after a couple of sessions she was advised to visit the British Ski Team in Aberdeenshire.

“I met Roy Young, who is head of the British development squad, and he said I could train with them, but also suggested I go to Finland,” she said.

“I had just finished my GCSEs and wanted to carry on with my education, and by going to Finland I could enrol in a school that catered for training athletes as well as regular pupils.

“It seemed like a great opportunity – so my mum put me on a plane and away I went.”

Stephanie, then 17, enrolled at Lukio School in Sotkamo, Finland, for three years of intensive ski training and demanding studying for her baccalaureate exams.

“I found it hard to speak the language at first – my teachers were all Finnish so their English accents were difficult to understand,” she said.

“On top of that, I trained three times a week with the ski team and coach, who would give me a programme for the rest of the week.

“I would also usually train in the morning and after class, so it was not unusual for me to fall asleep in lessons – but the teachers were actually used to that because of the other wintersport athletes in the school.”

Stephanie mastered the different methods of crosscountry skiing, including classic and freestyle techniques.

“With classic, you move along a set track and poles help move you along,” she said. “With freestyle you have to glide more and your legs go outwards – it is very technical.”

Stephanie found she settled in to life in Finland more once she found herself a job as a cleaner.

“I wanted to make some money and I had to make more of an effort to speak the language because none of the other cleaners spoke much English,” she said.

Stephanie said she was inspired to aim for the top after witnessing the Canadian Olympic ski team while on holiday.

“I saw them flying past me and I thought ‘I want to be like that’. I didn’t quite get there but I did get very close.”

Stephanie competed in competitions across Europe, and in her first winter in Finland she raced in the Scandinavian Cup, a prestigious event in the country.

“The best score I got was 240 points, which meant I was just 40 points away from getting into the British team,” she said.

The following year Stephanie got even closer to achieving her dream, but although she amazed coaches with her fast improvement, she was still behind the time needed to be allowed to join the Olympic team.

“The first year I raced I was 20 minutes behind the time needed to get through and the second year I was nine minutes away,” she said.

“My coach said he had never seen anyone progress so much.“ During her years studying in Finland, Stephanie got the chance to compete in crosscountry ski races in Austria, Lapland and Germany.

But all the competitions on top of her school work were beginning to take a toll.

“I did quite a few big races in a row during my second year at school in Finland and I had a lot of coursework to do on top of my training,” she said.

“I did really well in Germany. I came third in a relay, third in individual sprint and overall I came seventh. I impressed and surprised a lot of people on the British team because I had not had a lot of contact with them as I had been in Finland.

“In Lapland I did not do as well as I wanted – I was under a lot of pressure from school and was feeling unwell. I finished my third year and came back to England and felt a bit of a loss.”

While continuing to train, Stephanie took a course in Nordic walking and became a qualified coach, then shortly after gained a personal training certificate.

“The time gave me time to think about what I wanted to do,” she said. “I knew that I needed to have another career on top of the skiing because to be a top skier you need a lot of sponsorship. It costs a lot of money to sustain the lifestyle.”

Stephanie is now back home in Richmond and concentrating on her personal training business, specialising in training people for ski holidays and Nordic walking, and hopes to build this to take groups on ski holidays and act as a coach and guide.

“I have moved away from competitive skiing at the level I was at, but I would like to do ski marathons in the future,” she said.

  •  Stephanie can be contacted by e-mail at stephea