Sheffield's skiing stalwarts who paved the way for a generation of sporting superstars

Sharks Ski Club founders Molly and Norman Gill
Sharks Ski Club founders Molly and Norman Gill
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Sheffield's Ski Village would become the launch pad for a generation of Olympians, but the foundations for their success were laid many years earlier.

Had the late Sheffield education officer David Laird not shared his passion for the sport, forged on the slopes of Scotland, the city may never have been bitten by the bug.

Volunteers help build Sheffield Ski Village

Volunteers help build Sheffield Ski Village

And had people like Molly and Norman Gill not taken up the reins, that fever might not have grown and given rise to the fondly-remembered Ski Village, where the likes of James Woods and Katie Summerhayes ascended from humble backgrounds to become global superstars.

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The couple met as youth workers during the early 70s and learned to ski thanks to David, who encouraged teachers and youth workers to become qualified ski instructors so they could take young people from Sheffield skiing first in Scotland and later in the Alps.

They helped introduce hundreds of youngsters to skiing, many of whom came from poorer backgrounds and never imagined getting the opportunity to try a sport seen as the preserve of the moneyed elite.

Molly and Norman quickly fell under the spell of the sport's charms themselves and, sensing a growing appetite in the city, set up Sheffield Snow Steelers Ski Club in 1981.

John Fleetham, the original owner of Sheffield Ski Village

John Fleetham, the original owner of Sheffield Ski Village

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The club organised regular social events but opportunities for members to strap on the ski boots were, for the time being, largely restricted to their annual trip to France - except for those, that is, who gave grass skiing a go at Rother Valley and Meersbrook Park.

So when the architect John Fleetham visited the club on the evening of Norman's 40th birthday celebrations in 1987 and unveiled his vision for artificial slopes at Parkwood Springs there was great excitement.

The new Ski Village would open the following year - a remarkably rapid turnaround by today's standards - but it might have taken longer were it not for the dedication of ski club members, who grafted tirelessly without pay to get it ready.

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"The slope was already there, it just needed shaping, and we did lots of digging and painting," recalled Norman.

Volunteers help build Sheffield Ski Village

Volunteers help build Sheffield Ski Village

"There would always be a dozen or so Steelers there of an evening or at weekends.

"Once it opened, lots of our members did voluntary work, which included teaching beginners, in return for free skiing."

Norman told how at the official opening blustery winds not only brought down a specially-erected marquee but whipped up Sarah Ferguson's split skirt, exposing more royal flesh than intended.

Sheffield's own alpine resort flourished, rapidly expanding to boast eight slopes, with a ski lodge, bar and shops later added, making it reportedly Europe's largest artificial ski complex.

Sharks Ski Club members at Sheffield Ski Village in 1989

Sharks Ski Club members at Sheffield Ski Village in 1989

When large groups of youngsters began pouring in at weekends, the owner turned to Molly asking him to organise them and their parents too.

That was the birth of Sharks Ski Club, which soon had up to 100 young people at each Saturday session and 30 skiers on Thursdays.

Having mastered the basics, members could try racing or even ski ballet, which was popular at the time - but for many the real attraction was perfecting ever-more daring tricks.

There were moguls, a half-pipe and even a pool built so skiers could safely attempt new jumps, which Molly remembers standing beside wielding a rope in case of emergencies.

But it was not so much the facilities as the hours youngsters were able to spend on the slopes, without being charged extra, which was the key to producing so many freestyle stars of the future.

"It was that playing and experimenting on their own, and daring one another to try new things, which brought them on so much," said Molly.

The view from Sheffield Ski Village

The view from Sheffield Ski Village

"At least they thought they were alone. We were still there in the background keeping an eye on them - remote supervision, shall we call it."

Even from a very young age, says Norman, the naturally talented children who would go on to make it big stood out.

He recalls how during a trip to Wengen, Switzerland, in 2002, when Katie Summerhayes would only have been six or seven, confidently predicting during a speech that she would make a name for herself in the sport.

"You could see from the start that she had it," he added.

It was not all about producing stars for the Ski Village and the Sharks, though, with Molly and Norman cherishing the lifelong friendships built on the slopes, and the chance for children from inner city estates to broaden their horizons, above individual awards for any members.

It was somewhere people from all backgrounds could mix. Even those who were unable to afford the relatively low fees would be 'snuck in' by Sharks members, keen to ensure everyone got the chance to enjoy the facilities.

The owner was happy to turn a blind eye to this practice, said Molly and Norman, given the rollicking success of the complex during its heyday.

"The camaraderie was brilliant. It was like one big family," said Molly.

"Some of the people, because they weren't going to grammar schools and didn't have O-levels, were classed back then as no-hopers.

"But thanks to the opportunities they were given, they've gone on to achieve all sorts of amazing things.

"We have former members who are running ski schools in Japan, Canada and Australia, or went on to become top sports photographers or edit skiing magazines. We also had three consecutive presidents of the Oxford University Ski and Snowboard Club."

The Sharks were on a high and in 2004 were named UK Sport's club of the year, receiving their award from the Duke of Edinburgh at a glitzy London ceremony, but a few years later disaster struck.

Molly and Norman were on holiday with fellow Sharks in April 2012 when they learned the Ski Village had gone up in flames in the first of a series of fires which would lead to the complex's demise.

"We went up the next day and just stood there crying," said Molly.

After the first fire, Molly says she had a feeling there would be more so Sharks members emptied out the clubhouse as a precaution.

But the club persevered. Although there were no longer skis to hire, members brought their own or lent them to those who didn't own any.

They got the ski lift working again, only to walk up for training one evening and notice the engine powering it had been stolen, but still they persisted, slogging up the slope with all their gear.

"We hung on as long as we could," said Norman.

Once further fires made skiing there impossible, the club briefly relocated to Manchester - which they were invited to use for free by a member who ran the ski school there - before moving to Snozone in Castleford which remains their home.

The club continues to thrive and still boasts around 300 members, but despite how good Snozone has been to them Molly and Norman lament the fact that skiing in the region is once again becoming an 'elitist' sport with the rising cost making it no longer accessible to the masses.

They describe how one family, determined to give their child the chance to compete at the highest level, were left with no choice but to remortgage their home.

The couple, who still work as ski instructors, are understandably excited about plans announced last autumn to revive the slopes at Parkwood Spring as part of a huge sports complex, where other attractions could range from indoor skydiving to eSports.

Molly said: "We've got our fingers crossed that the Phoenix will rise, but I'll believe it when I see it. We just hope it opens again while we're still able to ski."

Sharks Ski Club members during a trip to Wengen, Switzerland, in 2004

Sharks Ski Club members during a trip to Wengen, Switzerland, in 2004

Future Olympian Katie Summerhayes at Sheffield Ski Village in 2008

Future Olympian Katie Summerhayes at Sheffield Ski Village in 2008