Reflections on a season
As a guide for severely sight impaired James Luetchford, I ski in front and guide James down Slalom, Giant Slalom and Super-G alpine races. You can find out more at www.luetchfordskiracers.com
Going independent. What a scary proposition!
It was March 2018, and James had just finished his 2017/18 winter season ski racing for Great Britain as part of the British Parasnowsport Development Team. While there had been benefits whilst being with the team - and he and I both had learnt a hell of a lot while working with them - for various reasons that I won’t go into here, we decided to go independent for the foreseeable future.
What does ‘going independent’ mean in reality when para alpine ski racing for GB? Firstly, there are no contracts to sign and far fewer expectations on either side. We would not be invited on GB training camps but as the Development Team was axed shortly after the season, this made no difference to us whatsoever. We wouldn’t have to physically undertake the team’s exercise regime, nor would we have to attend the races they chose for us. Instead, we would have to arrange all of our exercise regime, our training regime, decide which races we were going to enter, organise our own accommodation and travel arrangements and motivate ourselves mentally and physically to achieve our best.
GB Parasnowsport would still enter us for races (as the single point of race entry) and we would still compete for Great Britain, just not as part of the Great British team.
It was scary. And a huge unknown.
How would we know which races to attend? How would we find a coach to work with? How would we know where to go for the races and the start time for each run? How would we know how to exercise and stretch and generally look after ourselves? How would we access physiotherapy if we needed it and any medical help?
The questions were overwhelming and endless. Frankly, we didn’t know where to start. But what we did know is that we wanted autonomy and more control over our own programme. As athletes in our thirties, spending scary amounts of our own money funding our ski racing, we needed to make sure our ski racing career worked for us — and around our day jobs.
We believed we had enough knowledge, skills and discipline to begin to design a programme that would increase our progress, performance and results as independent athletes. And we also knew where our gaps in knowledge and skills were too.
We decided to break down the questions into chunks…
Probably the most important area for us to sort. Fortunately we’d worked with some great coaches before we worked solely with the Development Team, such as Charlotte Evans with Precise Racing, so we contacted our previous coaches to see if they were running any training camps. That helped us to get going for summer training and to find our (skiing) feet.
As we started skiing independently, we started to meet more people and began to say yes to opportunities. We met the fabulous Blake Williams of Skivo on a gondola while freeskiing on the Hintertux Glacier in Austria, and exchanged contact details. Knowing the other visually impaired athlete Blake had trained previously meant we knew he’d deliver quality training. From Blake we then organised six weeks of Giant Slalom training on the World Cup Stade in Courchevel for the start of 2019.
We also looked out for good skiers and identified their coaches. We’d seen Ben Reid training ski racers in SnowWorld at Landgraaf previously, and so contacted him when his advert popped up on social media. We chatted through our needs by phone and arranged to attend one of his training camps at the start of the season to see how it would work.
Fast forward a year, and we now ski train with Skivo and Ben Reid. We focus on Giant Slalom training on the mountain with Skivo and focus on Slalom, Giant Slalom and Super-G with Ben Reid. So far, so good…
During our time with the British Parasnowsport Development Team we’d learned a lot about what we were meant to be doing in the gym, and also as activation before and recovery after our ski training sessions.
This meant we had a foundation of knowledge about what to do in the gym. We worked with our personal trainer to make sure we did our exercises correctly, minimising injury. We continued to train at the same intensity by ourselves, using similar if not the same exercises as the year before. We tracked our own progress using Google Sheets which was a helpful motivation.
We also researched how other ski racers such as Lindsey Vonn exercisedto gather inspiration for when we needed to change things up. And after asking a fellow gym-goer who had the physique, agility and balance that we were after what workout programmes he used, we started using the MadBarz app for general fitness and toning up when we weren’t able to access the gym. Overall we’re stronger, fitter and more flexible than we have been before. And have — generally — had a lot more fun getting so!
Physiotherapy is important for every athlete at one time or another after injury. We’d previously had physio support as part of the Development Team, so this was another area for us to arrange ourselves. Having snapped my ACL and torn my MCL in 2017, we knew that we also needed medical support should the worst happen.
After a lot of ringing around and research, we decided to purchase VitalityHealth Insurance, including physiotherapy support. We decided that spending this money was worth it, considering that we use our bodies so much for our ski racing career, and spend so much of our money doing so. My accident cost us approximately £2,500 for private physiotherapy (which wasn’t covered by my ski racing insurance) plus an additional £10,000 for hotel bills, flights and transfers for James when I wasn’t available to drive and guide him. I need to be fit and healthy as much of the time as possible, and so spending money to be able to see a doctor quickly and to access physiotherapy for no additional charge was a no-brainer. I’ve not regretted any single penny we’ve spent on it.
I’ve used the private physiotherapy for a shoulder injury which has occurred this season, and instead of waiting 3 months for an NHS physio referral, I’ve been able to see a physiotherapist within the week for my first assessment. I’m now armed with a diagnosis of the injury, information about how to avoid exacerbating it and exercises to help my recovery — and prevent it from happening again. Brilliant.
Planning our season
One of the main reasons we went independent was to have autonomy about where and when we were going to train and race. Rather than having to wait for someone else to notify us what was happening, we can instead design our own season. As I write this in March 2019, we have our summer training planned (and my time off work agreed with my employer) until November. The races are published by October, but we know the rough pattern of when and where they’ll be until December, so we’re tentatively planning on being at those. And while I have the annual leave, we’re going to plan on gaining as many race starts as possible to practice racing in a stressful environment and increase our experience of ski racing.
We also have to be realistic about the cost and logistics. We can financially only attend European races, and have an inkling about which races may be more or less likely to be cancelled due to poor weather. We can guess the races which will be more or less well attended, and also know which races we are qualified to enter. Once we’ve taken these elements into consideration, we have a pretty solid idea about which races we’ll enter, BUT also always expect things to change — as they so often do ski racing!
One of the best ways we save money is by travelling in our campervan. A converted 4x4 Volkswagen LWB Crafter, she (Louise) is how we save about £10,000 a year on travel and accommodation costs. She is our home away from home. We’re able to be more flexible about where we go and when; critical for cost-saving when races are so prone to changes. She wasn’t cheap to buy, but we’ll make back the money in four years. The upfront cost is totally worth it for the improved quality of life.
She also improves our performance. We’re more comfortable, sleep better and feel more secure in ourselves when we take our home, our bed and cats with us. We always have everything we need and don’t have to worry about additional luggage charges when flying. The reduction in anxiety and being able to travel in comfort all adds to improved race performances from both of us.
Mental health and performance
Sports psychology is critical for performing well. As someone prone to bouts of major depressive episodes and anxiety, my mental health is more valuable than ever. As we began to cultivate our own sporting programme, I also sought more knowledge about how to improve my mentality and mental health.
I read enthusiastically, with the following being my top favourites:
Tipping the Balance: The mental skills handbook for athletes (Turner & Barker)
So how has it gone?
This season has been brilliant. A sense of autonomy is crucial for my wellbeing, and being able to organise a training and racing schedule to help us maximise our potential has made a big difference in our progress. It hasn’t always been easy, but fortunately the skiing world is incredibly helpful and supportive.
We’ve got to know athletes and coaches from other countries far better, even sometimes jumping into training sessions with them. On race days we aren’t afraid to ask questions when we need more information, and are continually reassured by the prompt, friendly responses we get. As we’ve spent more time on the circuit, we’ve also got to know the Armed Forces Para-Snowsport Team(AFPST) better too; a lovely — and hilarious — group of people.
We’ve been able to get 22 race starts so far this season, and have knocked points off our average scores (which is a good thing). Comparing our first two slalom races to our last two this season, our points have decreased by >90; far more than we were hoping for.
Our confidence has increased and we have a better idea about what racing independently means. We have learnt a lot and the lessons just keep on coming.
So was it worth it?
If you want to find out more about James and Alice, you can visit @Luetchfordskiracers on Instagram. Alice has also written more stories about ski racing with James on Medium.