I have a confession to make. I am 34 years old and I have never ever skied!
Plans were afoot for me to ski for the first time this Sunday under the watchful eye of the wonderful and charismatic IPC Alpine Skiing Sport Technical Committee chair Sylvana Mestre, however the forecast for bad weather now means I may have to wait another 34 years until I don a pair of skis.
Although I have never skied before, (the closest I’ve got is going for a meal at X-Scape near Leeds) it is not to say that I have no interest in skiing. I grew up watching the winter Olympics and the BBC Ski Sunday programme and marvelled at people hurtling themselves down hills at speeds faster than I could normally achieve on a busy English motorway,
So this week has been a real eye opener for me attending the 2013 IPC Alpine Skiing World Championships in La Molina, Spain.
Around 120 athletes from 28 countries are here taking part in what will be one of the last major international events ahead of the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.
And before I go any further, I have to tell you this – I am quite simply in awe at the athletes taking part here.
Following last summer’s Paralympic Games, I left London hugely inspired by the abilities of athletes within the Paralympic Movement. They showed to the world that absolutely anything is possible.
What I have witnessed in La Molina so far has taken this feeling to a whole new level. It has left me more than inspired, but totally and utterly amazed.
Take visually impaired skiers for example.
Some of them are unable to see a hand in front of their face, yet quite happily propel themselves down a hill, hitting speeds of 75mph (120km/h) with just a guide skiing in front of them telling them whether to turn left or right.
Can you possibly imagine that?
Now as I’ve already confessed, I’m no skier, but the prospect of walking down a street blindfolded with a friend telling me where to step is something I would totally dread. So to consider skiing down a 500m descent whilst negotiating gates, putting my absolute trust in a guide, fills me with nothing short of sheer panic and fear!
Not only do I have huge respect for the skiers who put their trust in the hands of someone else, but I think the guides are absolutely immense. Just think of the mammoth responsibility they have. It is up to them to get their partner down the side of a mountain, from start to finish, in the fastest possible time. They do this knowing that just one wrong call, a slip or mix-up in knowing left from right, could be the difference between winning gold or silver, reaching the finishing line safely or crashing out. It’s a huge responsibility and one that should not be taken lightly.
Building that trust must take years and most of the visually impaired skiers have been with their guides for a long time.
All of which makes British skier Jade Etherington’s performance in the super-G even more remarkable. Jade has spent most of this season searching for a new guide and had only benefitted from a few practice sessions with John Clark acting as her guide before the two of them won World Championships bronze on Thursday.
It’s not just the visually impaired skiers who have impressed me so far, but so have the standing and sit skiers. To see athletes missing legs, arms or with some form or paralysis putting everything on the line to win gold is compelling viewing. This is a sport that deserves a far greater profile and hopefully this will come with the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games.
After watching two races in my time here, I fear I must label the sit skiers as totally crazy! The speed they come careering down the hill at is insane. It’s pretty obvious to me that fear is a word they do not recognise or even acknowledge.
Take Canada’s Josh Dueck, who you may have seen last year when he made history by becoming the first person to complete a backflip on a sit-ski (check out the YouTube video here which has nearly one million hits).
On Wednesday shortly after crashing out of the downhill at high speed, Dueck tweeted: “It’s a good day when you hang it all on the line in downhill – blow up – and live to tell the tale. It’s all fun and games! #worldchamps”
The men’s sit ski competition has been a thriller so far, with Thursday’s super-G the best yet. The top three finishers were separated by just 0.2 seconds, whilst Japan’s Taiki Morii snatched gold from France’s Yohann Taberlet by just 0.01 seconds.
One other pleasing aspect of the competition in La Molina is the age profile of the athletes. This is a sport with many youngsters coming through and it is important for the long-term development of the sport that teenagers and twenty-somethings get the opportunity to compete at the elite level.
Finally, before I finish I must say that it’s not just the skiers who I am in awe in La Molina but also the volunteers.
Just like in London, which boasted the wonderful Games Makers, La Molina has its fair share of unpaid, unsung heroes who are working extremely hard behind the scenes ensuring that this World Championships runs smoothly.
If it was not for volunteers, sport events like this one simply would not happen. So on behalf of everyone at the International Paralympic Committee, thank you for the sensational job that you all do.
Fingers crossed the weather picks up on Sunday and we can fulfil the slalom competition that was cancelled on Saturday. I also have
every part of my body crossed in the hope that it’s warmer too – today’s -6C (wind chill factor –1,000,000C) was testing for all spectators, so I dread to think what it must have been like for the athletes coming down the mountain.
IPC Director of Media and Communications
You can follow Craig on Twitter @CraigSpence