Guiding a visually impaired ski racer: daily life in the mountains
Updated: Feb 25, 2019
As a guide for a visually impaired ski racer, I have to train just as hard as my athlete. In my case, my athlete is also my husband (James). Together, we represent Great Britain in the World Para Alpine Ski races (Slalom and Giant Slalom) and Europa Cup for Slalom. Guides ski in front of their visually impaired athletes, verbally guiding them down the race course. Guides have to be able to ski as fast or faster than their athletes to win, which is more challenging when your athlete is 30kg heavier (and therefore faster) than you!
The alarm goes off at 6am and I snooze until James hollers that breakfast is on the table. I’m not a morning person and my first thought is how much I hate having to get up. I love ski racing but hate the early starts! I mentally run through all the other sports I could have done that don’t require early starts so much, but within a couple of minutes I acknowledge that nothing can beat spending time in the mountains. And getting up early means we catch the best snow of the day. As much as I hate to admit it, getting up before the sun is worth it.
Nevertheless I still resist actually getting out of bed until James hollers that breakfast is ready. He’s far better than me in the mornings and knows I’m far more likely to rise if I smell coffee. In fact he knows I won’t rise without it. I slowly give way to wakefulness as the food and caffeine kick in, and we start to chat about our day ahead. We both know what we are trying to improve in our skiing, which may or may not be the same thing. What I’m working on may change how James skies, so it’s helpful for him to know this in advance. Occasionally my speed lessens if I’m thinking more about my technique, but usually I try to keep a brisk enough pace in front of him so he can also work on his skiing. I’m not a former ski racer, so as he progresses, I also have to progress in order to stay in front of him.
Being quite similarly matched can be useful; we ski in sync and support each other to improve. However, we’re still fine tuning how to give feedback in the most positive way. Actually that’s not true. James is still fine tuning how to give feedback to me without me taking it the wrong way! We’ve improved our communication hugely, but it isn’t entirely niggle free. A benefit of being married is that we know each other extremely well, so if one of us has an off day and isn’t skiing or communicating well, we talk it through until we come to a positive resolution — however long that might be.
We pack our skis and ski boot bags into the car, and drive up to the training piste. Our bags are filled with our ski kit; the usual plus extra good goggles for both James and myself, ski racing helmets, radio headsets for the guiding, a Donjoy knee brace for me post an ACL reconstruction last year, snacks, water and a hot thermos of coffee. Some ski racers have training skis and racing skis but this doubles the cost of skis. We haven’t got multiple sets yet so instead just take one pair of skis each per discipline. Some days we train Slalom; other days we train Giant Slalom; and sometimes we train both. If James knows the area fairly well, he often carries my skis for me, but if it’s dark or a new place then I carry some of his kit so he can have a hand free for his guide cane (white stick). Watching other people’s reactions to a visually impaired skier heading up the mountain with his guide cane is very entertaining!
Attitudes towards disability differ between countries. In some, disability is nearly always associated with a wheelchair and so proving invisible disabilities can be harder. James is often asked for an ID card to prove he is disabled, but that’s not something we typically have in the UK. We usually end up showing his Blue [parking] Badge for cheaper ski passes, which fortunately is nearly always enough.
Back to the piste. We’re currently training with Ben Reid in Austria. Ben’s a fantastic performance ski coach, and this morning he’s setting a Giant Slalom training course so James and I kit up and then start warming up. We warm our bodies up physically by doing warm up exercises both on and off skis. I’ve accidentally kicked James in the head with my ski boot before while warming up, so I do try to turn my mind on beforehand. The coffee is the critical component here!
We warm up our bodies until we are skiing as fast as we will need to in the course, if not faster. We need to make the most of our time in gates before we tire and the snow deteriorates. The training course quickly gets rutted from all the skiers on it, making it harder for us to work on improving our technique. Typically our first 4 runs in the gates will be our best, and anything after that is a bonus. We normally call it a day and stop after 6 runs; we begin to physically and mentally fatigue and ski more sloppily. If either of us is tired, our verbal communication starts to go which makes skiing more dangerous for both us and those around us. Plus being more tired, we’re more likely to argue too! We have an agreement that if either of us wants to stop training, we will. It’s not safe to continue if our head isn’t in the right place, or if our body is too tired. Continuing would increase our chances of an accident, which neither of us wants. Plus we don’t want to practise the wrong habits. Deliberate practise and skiing quality runs are nearly always more important than quantity.
We’re physically and mentally knackered as we stop for lunch to refuel and to rest. We’re ski training with an able bodied group this week, so we join them in their hotel for lunch to natter and get to know them better. Ski racing is a very small world and it’s nice to spend time with similar minded people. We take the opportunity to learn more about the sport — and they are more likely to help you if you fall if you’ve got to know them beforehand!
We return to the piste in the afternoon for a more challenging Giant Slalom practise course. It’s longer (longer than we’d actually race) and steeper which is slightly scary. James and I haven’t skied much Giant Slalom together yet so we psychologically gear ourselves up. I remind myself that I snapped my ACL when I was stood still last year, and focus on the placement of the GS gates rather than the pitch itself.
Again we warm up until we feel ready to ski our best. We go for it in the course, and after the first run our nerves settle and we start to enjoy the training again. It feels wonderfully satisfying to conquer something harder than you’ve skied before, especially when shared with your partner. James and I are so lucky to ski race together; we experience the highs and lows together and being away from home is much easier when your loved one is on your adventure with you.
We fly down the mountain as many times as our physical and mental energy levels will allow. We usually stop just before the able bodied athletes; guiding and being guided adds a layer of exhaustion onto an already tiring sport. We’re knackered but so happy.
En route back to our apartment, we stop for snacks and dinner at the local shop. Being in our own apartment is lovely; we can eat more healthily, sleep better, rest more easily and have mental downtime before returning to the slopes. As introverts, having down time to mentally recharge is critical if we want to make the most of our time race training. Plus renting an apartment is usually cheaper than half or full board in hotels, and being virtually completely self funded, every penny matters.
It’s about 4pm now and our day isn’t over. We both stretch our bodies to reduce fatigue and to recover as much as possible for tomorrow. We might do some yoga or core exercises using MadBarz. It’s harder to exercise on the road but you’ve just gotta be creative with where and what you do. Flexibility is key.
After stretching and armed with a good podcast, I head to the garage. We have to take extremely good care of our skis. They’re expensive and easily damaged and without them we can’t ski, so we take ski tech seriously. I sharpen the metal edges, wax the bases of the skis and generally make sure they’re in good condition. Some days they need more attention than others and I stay until they’re done. James can’t see well enough to sharpen the skis (he slices open his hand too frequently to sharpen them himself), so his part comes later. After the wax has soaked into the ski bases, James scrapes the excess wax off. Having smooth bases helps us ski faster, so while he sometimes moans about doing it, it’s definitely worth spending the time scraping the skis properly.
Nearly finished for the day, we take out all of our used, wet ski kit and dry it off before repacking it for the following day. Ski kit goes smelly fast and drying it out helps slow the smelling process. It’s fortunate that James and I are married. We’re used to putting up with each other and our collection of smells!
Finally, James and I eat dinner before collapsing in a heap together on the sofa, or even straight into bed. I’ve been known to fall asleep at 7:30pm; late nights are just not possible when ski training intensely! I’ve heard time and again that adults need eight hours sleep, but to truly come back to the piste refreshed in the morning, I need ten hours. It means I do a lot less drawing, reading and general relaxing in the evening than I’d prefer, but I also love waking feeling completely refreshed. We are investing a huge amount of our time, energy and money into developing our skiing career, so resting up properly is a priority for us. Getting into bed is one of my favourite parts of the day, and as I nod off/pass out instantly, I usually dream of ski training and of what might come tomorrow.
Early night, anyone?