Schoolchildren across the country are channelling their energy into skiing and snowboarding, reports Roddy Mackenzie
Weather permitting, the first major schools race of the skiing season, the Scottish Schools Senior Skiing Championships, will take place at The Lecht today. Last year, more than 200 racers took part.
Scotland's top young skiers are in the middle of an intensive training and competition programme which will peak at the World Schools Championships at Gallivare, in Sweden, on February 18-24. Scotland is sending 20 alpine skiers -four teams - to compete in slalom and giant slalom races.
Many were training at Oppdal in Norway over Christmas and the new year with the Scotland team, the Scottish junior development group and the Scottish children's joint clubs group.
"For the first time, Scottish children's races were run in Norway to help the young skiers become race-ready," says Lesley Hutchison, secretary of the Scottish Schools' Ski Association. "The training camp will also have helped them to get used to the rigours of a Scandinavian winter.
"We have high hopes for the world championships, as we have a lot of good young skiers."
The SSSA is anticipating another record entry for its home schools championships, says Ms Hutchison.
"The sport is still strong in the independent schools and there are more state schools taking part in the championships. We have tried to make it more inclusive by changing dates of events to suit as many schools as possible."
Snowsport Scotland, the national governing body for all snow sports, has been pleased to see a high number of young skiers graduate from the artificial slopes at its base at the Midlothian Snowsport Centre in Hillend to become accomplished snow racers, says Gillian Stirton, its development officer in Midlothian.
Five years ago, the local authority set up a programme to offer every primary schoolchild in the area the opportunity to ski for minimal cost and more than 1,000 children every year have passed through the scheme.
The centre is "the jewel in Midlothian's leisure crown" and as such the council is keen to maximise its use, says Ms Stirton. The centre can cater for skiers with a disability, be it visual, mental or physical, and employs specialist adaptive ski instructors. "There are very few disabilities that cannot be accommodated. We have a lot of specialised equipment, from short skis and poles to seated ski equipment," Ms Stirton says.
The centre offers extensive after-school instruction; ski racing programmes are available for skiers aged six and upwards; and, from next month, ski performance classes will start to instruct children aged eight upwards on jumps and tricks.
Snowboarding has become a popular option, especially with teenagers, and they have a Scottish role model to aspire to in Aviemore's Lesley McKenna, who was ranked third in the world last year.
For the past 18 months, school snowboarding sessions have been held at the Midlothian Snowsport Centre. "It has this trendy image and aligns itself to the street culture image," says Ms Stirton.
"It is outdoors and a lot of these children are used to spending so much time indoors. They can wear their old clothes, so there is not the problem of having the latest strip. And it is non-competitive, so there is no problem with them feeling uncomfortable with their classmates because they are not good at football or another game.
"This is just about doing your own thing. It is unfailingly hip and it has the spin-off of helping bring good behaviour out of challenging children.
"I know schools in Midlothian, West Lothian and Edinburgh have used snowboarding as a way of channelling energy in another direction. It has helped keep children attending school, as teachers use it on a quid pro quo basis."
Schools from all over Scotland use the Hillend facility but Garthdee Sports and Alpine Adventure Park in Aberdeen and the Newmilns dry ski slope in Ayrshire also offer school programmes.
For many schoolchildren, skiing has become an important recreational pursuit but Ms Stirton acknowledges that producing skiers who can compete at world level requires deep pockets. "It is expensive to pursue. I know of one 15-to 16-year-old boy from Penicuik who is a talented junior. For him to compete, in terms of equipment, travel and race entries, will cost pound;8,000 a year and up to pound;10,000 if a parent is to accompany him on some trips. How many parents can afford pound;10,000 a year for one child?
"And often, if there are siblings, the second is more talented than the first, as they have had the benefit of challenging their brother or sister from an early age.
"There are some specialist schools in the Alps that offer short-term scholarships, blending ski instruction with academic school work, but those are few and far between.
"It is an expensive sport. It is only once you get into the top 100 in the world that you would have access to National Lottery funding."