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Skiing elite find white Christmas is no dream

Scotland's young skiing elite will be spending Christmas away from home this year. They've been packing their Christmas stockings in their backpacks, taking special presents from home and heading for race training in Norway in the middle of December.

It's a familiar routine for some members of the Scottish Alpine Ski Team, who are used to spending Christmas away from home and heading for the slopes. The part-time squad of 14- to 18-year-olds are all in full-time education.

Sixteen-year-old Sarah Norton from Carrbridge has spent the past four Christmases away from home. "I found it pretty hard the first year but it's all right now - it's cool to have Christmas with your friends," says the Grantown Grammar pupil.

Families are welcome to join youngsters overseas at the festive training camp, but Sarah says her family may prefer to join her on another trip to the British Championships next year. "We do a Secret Santa for the team and everyone takes their Christmas stockings with them. We get a day off, which is great, and we just open our presents and have a relaxed day," says Sarah, who was British Junior Super G champion last year.

Another of the country's top young skiers, James Filsell from Dollar Academy, can't remember the last time he spent a Christmas at home in Scotland. This year, he's missing the team Christmas to spend it with his family - on skis in the United States. "I've not had Christmas at home for seven or eight years," says James, who is a member of the British Youth Team and the Scottish Alpine Ski Team. "It's quite weird but you get used to it after a while," he says.

He spent last Christmas with the team in Norway. "We all make a big roast together and mum gives me presents to take out with me," says James, who is currently British under-18 combined champion. "When you get up and it's a nice morning and sunny with good snow and skiing, there's nowhere else I'd rather be." He and Sarah travelled with the rest of the Scottish team to train in Australia this summer.

"Quite a lot of people go full-time at my age but I am not going full time - I am staying part-time to finish school and go to uni," explains James, who captains his school ski team at Dollar Academy.

The Scottish team follows a year-round fitness programme and travels overseas regularly to train and compete in international events.

"I want to see how far I can get in skiing - I'm going to try full-time, hopefully after sixth year," says Sarah, whose older sister, Emma, is in the development squad for the British ski team.

Parents of gifted young skiers find that they have to sacrifice more than their children's company at Christmas - the financial burden is considerable. It can cost upwards of pound;15,000 a year to support athletes at this level, and since the talent seems to run in families, parents may find themselves with more than one gifted youngster to support.

James has an older sister who skis competitively and is now in the British Universities ski team. Their mum, Terry, is thrilled by their success: "It's a fantastic sport for them to get into - my children have made friends all over the world," she says.

Jane Harvey, chief executive of Snowsport Scotland, the governing body for snow sports, said: "We have some very, very promising young people in the team - people who could go a long way.

"Our aim has a two-pronged approach - one is to promote the participation in snow sport in Scotland, but also to develop the performance of people participating in snow sports in Scotland.

"I'd like to think that snow sport is thriving here and that we are increasing the participation base all the time. A lot of schools have it as an essential part of the curriculum, particularly if they have a dry ski slope on their doorstep or, indeed, a mountain.

"Skiing tends to be part of the Active Schools programme, which identifies certain sports as priorities within schools. We have a school ski clubs association affiliated to Snowsport Scotland and two development officers working in Grampian and Edinburgh who liaise with schools all the time to get them on to the slopes.

Firpark ski centre in Tillycoultry is a council-run facility that was launched 25 years ago and now provides free tuition for 19 primary schools in Clackmannanshire. One class from each primary school is entitled to free lessons as part of the curriculum and the centre is available to secondary schools as part of Standard-grade PE.

"Our ski slope was originally built for schools to give them ski-ing as part of the curriculum and I think that's probably unique," says Katie Taylor, schools ski programme co-ordinator at Firpark.

"Some of the primary schools come as part of their Active Schools time," she says. "Usually it's the P7s and they come for a block of four or six weeks. They come for a minimum of eight hours and a maximum of 12."

Alva Academy uses the centre for Standard-grade PE, with pupils starting in second year and learning skiing once a week. Alloa Academy pupils visit as part of their health programme. Four special schools also use the centre, as do pupils from West Fife, Perth and Kinross and Stirling.

In the past quarter-century, Firpark has helped to launch some of Scotland's most successful winter sports careers, including those of Olympic skiers Ross Green and Emma Carrick-Anderson.

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