STEPHANIE COOK, from Skeeby, near Richmond, North Yorkshire, is only 23, but in the short time she has been cross-country skiing she has rubbed shoulders with some 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 says. “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 straight away, the staff were surprised that I got the leg and body movements just right straight away.”

When she got home Stephanie 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.

“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. 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 winter sport athletes in the school.”

Stephanie mastered the different methods of cross-country skiing, including classic technique and freestyle technique.

The Northern Echo: Stephanie Cook as a 19-year-old student in Sotkamo in Finland

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

Stephanie found she settled into life in Finland 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.”

Stephanie feels 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 and popular event in the country.

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

The following year, Stephanie got even closer to achieving her dream. She amazed coaches with her fast improvement, but was still outside 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. 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.

“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.

“But in Lapland I did not do as well as I wanted – I was under a lot of pressure from school and I was feeling unwell. I finished my third year and came back to England and it 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.

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

Stephanie is now back home in Richmond and is concentrating on her own personal training business, specialising in training people for ski holidays and Nordic walking, and hopes to build this in the future 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.”