How Charlotte Bankes overcame a devasting injury to become a world champion

After suffering a serious injury in a training session in 2011, snowboarder Charlotte Bankes spent the next seven years dealing with pain every time she took to the slopes; so much so that she contemplated retiring from competition altogether. Three years later, she was making history at the 2021 World Championships.

By Will Imbo
Picture by 2021 Getty Images

From 1931 to 1936, British women - not generally considered to be a ‘powerhouse nation’ in the world of winter sports - claimed an astounding 11 medals (including four golds) at the International Ski Federation (FIS) Alpine World Ski Championships.

But in the years succeeding Evelyn Pinching’s famous three medal haul at the 1936 World Championships (which included gold in the downhill and combined events), no woman flying the Union Jack had stood on top of a world championship podium in an Olympic snow sport event.

That is until Charlotte Bankes took to the slopes of Idre Fjall, Sweden, for the final of the women’s snowboard cross at the 2021 FIS Freestyle Ski and Snowboarding World Championships.

The two-time Olympian produced a scintillating performance to beat both the reigning Olympic (Michela Moioli) and world (Eva Samkova) champions and in the process became the first British woman to claim a world title in a winter sport in 85 years.

It was a remarkable achievement for the 25-year-old, made all the more special considering that just a few years earlier she had been on the verge of retiring from the sport altogether, as she explains in an exclusive interview with Olympics.com.

An origin story beginning in the French Alps

Bankes was born in the town of Hemel Hempstead, England, but moved with her family to France when she was four years old.

The Bankes family settled in the town of L'Argentière-la-Bessée, where Charlotte followed in the footsteps of her two brothers by learning the ropes of snowboarding and sailing (she already had two years of skiing experience under her belt, having first started the sport when she was two years old).

“I competed in both [skiing and snowboarding] until I was 13, but I was also sailing at that time, and altogether it was too much,” Bankes says. “I knew that if I wanted to continue with skiing that’s all I could do, but I didn’t want to give up sailing and I enjoyed snowboarding. So I decided to stop skiing competitively and stick with snowboarding and sailing, and then when I was 15 I focused solely on snowboarding.”

In 2006, Bankes had the opportunity to pop down the road to Turin, Italy to watch Pierre Vaultier, who came through her club in Puy-Saint-Vincent, compete at the Winter Olympics.

“That was the first Olympics where boardercross [snowboard cross] was part of the programme, so we [her club teammates] hopped on a bus to go see it.”

Yet Bankes doesn’t believe the experience of watching the Games as a youngster inspired her to compete at the Olympics herself.

It’s my journey in snowboarding that brought me to the Olympics, rather than having a deciding moment where I told myself, ‘Yes, I want to compete at the Games.’

“I’ve enjoyed snowboarding and had fun and want to get better each year, and that mentality enabled me to make it to the Olympics.”

Bankes also mentions the role her two brothers played in motivating her to improve.

“Both of my brothers were also competing in bordercross, so I looked up to them; they were a big inspiration for me in wanting to get better every year.”

A career-altering injury and Olympic debut

Thanks to Bankes’ hard work (and no doubt the encouragement she received from her older brothers) she quickly rose through the ranks, and in 2010 she began competing for France in international bordercross competitions.

However, an injury Bankes sustained in training just a year later threatened to derail her career, and almost forced her to retire from competing entirely.

“It was my first year racing internationally; I had just finished my first races and we were finishing up a training camp. It was my last run of the day; I tried out a jump and landed on the flat [of the snowboard] with straight legs, which wasn’t a good idea (laughs).

“I got down to the bottom of the track, took my board off, and found that I couldn’t walk.”

“As soon as I got back to doing jumps, anything with an impact, I felt pain,” Bankes recalls. “We couldn’t find the solution; we tried more rehab work, but I spent the next two years not being able to snowboard at 100 percent.”

Despite Bankes’ own admission that she wasn’t able to perform at her best, she still managed to qualify for her first Olympic Games at Sochi 2014, where she finished 17th in the boardercross competition.

Charlotte Bankes Sochi
Picture by 2014 Getty Images

“I probably wasn’t ready for it [competing at the Games]. All I remember was the size of the track; I was really struggling to ride it. My first full run down the course was my qualifying run! But of course, it was quite a good feeling [being an Olympian]."

Following the Olympics, Bankes underwent an operation that included installing a metal plate in an attempt to consolidate the fracture.

“That [the surgery] didn’t really help. The rehab had more of an impact, but the pain was still there.”

Incredibly, Bankes continued to compete on the World Cup circuit, riding through the pain and securing her second qualification for the Games, this time in PyeongChang in 2018.

“I had more experience when I went to PyeongChang versus my debut at Sochi; I was far more prepared for it. This time I was there to get a good result; it wasn’t simply part of the journey.”

Bankes managed to battle to the quarter-final stage of the competition, finishing seventh. Following the Winter Olympics in 2018, Bankes made a decision that would completely change the trajectory of the career.

The switch to Team GB

“I was wondering what to do," Bankes says, as she recalls her thought process following PyeongChang 2018. "I was at a point in my career when I wasn’t enjoying snowboarding anymore; primarily because of my hip, but also due to my inconsistent results in competition. I really couldn't see myself doing another four years of the sport. 

“So I felt the options I had at that point were to either give up, or switch to compete for Great Britain.”

Bankes chose the latter in a decision she says gave her “a second start”.

“I went through a whole new rehab process; they [the Team GB medical staff] approached the problem in a different way and that has massively helped. I’m now able to train properly and do full days on the snow, which wasn’t possible before.

"I had great support throughout the process to help me enjoy snowboarding because I think everyone realised that that was the way I could get good results.”

A British world champion... 85 years in the making

Following her change to represent Great Britain, Bankes did indeed start racking up good results, claiming six podium finishes at World Cup races in the space of three years, not to mention winning a silver medal at the 2019 World Championships.

And then came her history-making triumph at the 2021 World Championships in Sweden. Bankes produced a marvellous performance in a tight race to beat Italy's Olympic champion Moioli to the title by just 0.08 seconds.

“It was a bit of a relief to prove to myself that I could do it [win gold at the worlds], and it was a great feeling to share that with the team. At the time it didn’t sink in that I had just become a world champion, and it’s still a bit surreal to know that I am now.”

Now, Bankes' attention is focused solely on Beijing 2022.

“I’m looking forward to it [the Olympics], but I don’t have any specific goals in mind. I just want to ride at my full potential and have fun on the track, and hopefully, my results will be a reflection of that."