• The Luetchfords

Sculpting my life: combining ski racing with my data analysis career

Ski training in Austria, October 2018

I’m often asked how I’ve managed to do it all. Pursuing my dream (ski racing with my sight impaired husband for Great Britain) while also holding down a data analysis day job was extremely difficult until very recently. I was working full time, yet also expected to spend 100 days on snow training with the British Parasnowsport team. It just wasn’t possible.

However, after making some — quite radical — changes, I’ve managed to sculpt my life into a version which is the best of both worlds, without sacrificing anything. I still work doing my day job (albeit at a reduced amount), and can take time off to train and ski race. We’ve reduced our outgoings so that the money I’m earning can be used for skiing instead. I spend my time carefully so that I can truly live my best self.

Ultimately, I’ve now got the space and opportunity to chase our dream of representing Great Britain at the 2022 Winter Paralympics in Beijing.

I’ve learnt that it’s amazing what you can accomplish if you’re brave enough to make a change. Here I use my story about how I sculpted my life, to show you how you can too.

Where are you now?

First steps first. What were my responsibilities and commitments before I made the changes that transformed how I lived? I’m extremely fortunate that I own a flat in London, so have a mortgage and bills to pay. My husband also earns some money, but not enough to support both of us and to pay for ski racing: each ski season costs us tens of thousands of pounds, and currently <5% of it is funded. We don’t have children, nor any other dependants apart from two cats. I was originally working full time at an education charity and physically training 4 mornings a week before work at our local Everyone Active gym. I care for my severely sight impaired husband, and am a daughter, granddaughter, niece and friend to others. I am a self-taught artist and need to create something regularly for my mental health. I like to think of art as nourishing my soul. So (nearly) every day, I’ll be painting or drawing in the evenings. And journalling too to help ensure my thought patterns remain heading in the right direction. With a history of depression and anxiety, keeping mentally healthy is critical for me.

Where do you want to get to?

A few years ago (3? 4?) I attended a workshop for artists. As part of the day, we had to develop a ten year vision. We were made to stop and think about what the vision looked like; who we were with; where we were; what we were doing; how we were feeling; even what it smelt like. I really had to think deeply about what was it exactly that I was aiming for. What was society trying to tell me I wanted? Was this true? What did I want?

The results surprised me. It turned out that for my vision of ultimate happiness, I imagined living in a van, with two cats, travelling throughout continental Europe with my husband, ski racing for Great Britain and selling my paintings. We were footloose and fancy free, and able to decide where we wanted to visit spontaneously, without worries or anxiety. We earned enough to live and ski from my art, and even managed to save some money for our pension. We were completely and utterly free.

So how the fuck was I going to get there?

Reframe your crazy ideas as genuine possibilities

Things started slowly. Now delightfully aware of what I actually wanted — needed — to be happy, my mind began to open to ideas. I began to mull over the possibility of getting a van to travel in, and started to discuss it with my husband (James) as a potential option. Just considering something a genuine possibility was a significant step forward as my mind and sense of self preservation tend to be my strongest barriers to change!

We tried out for the British Parasnowsport skiing team in the summer of 2015, and started training weekly in a snowdome in Milton Keynes the following year. We went on our first training camp with the British Parasnowsport team in August, and competed internationally for the first time in November 2016, where we raced slalom together in a Dutch snowdome.

All of these steps were scary, particularly as I was not mentally well at the time. Meeting new people was terrifying, and trips away from home (and our comfort zone) were physically, mentally and financially demanding. Yet despite my fears and anxieties, we ended up having more fun than expected with every trip. Yes it was tiring. Yes I was inundated with negative thoughts in my mind. Yes it was challenging going to so many new places and meeting so many new people. But it turned out that it really was quite fun training and racing with James. Good enough to go to the next camp anyway. Plus if we hated it, we could always run back home again…

As the season progressed and we travelled more and more to continental Europe, James and I began to better understand just how expensive the sport is. Accommodation every night during high season is 100 Euros each; a high price to pay for somewhere which isn’t home, nor a five star hotel. James and I began to think about how we could make our skiing career more sustainable, and the idea of living in a van took a firmer hold.

Take small steps

We met a fellow team mate who lived out of a van while training on the continent. Extremely friendly, helpful, and just a little bit mad, he convinced us that living in a van was the way forward. So I began searching online. Not seriously believing that we’d actually go through with it (I was still scared), I reassured myself that just looking wouldn’t hurt. We didn’t have to actually buy anything, so what was the harm in looking?

At first I had no idea what we’re looking for, so reached out to my fabulous uncle who’s converted many a decrepit vehicle into a swanky motorhome for his family. Sharing the successes of my online searching, he promptly informs me that I’ve been looking at the wrong type of vehicle. If we’re going to be driving hundreds, if not thousands of miles every trip, we need something with power. And bog standard motorhomes just won’t be sufficient. He sends me the link to the type of vehicle he’s talking about… so we buy it. He forgot to tell us that he’d not actually looked at any of the details - it might not have even had four wheels. But we didn’t know that. So in our ignorance (and being motivated and buoyed up by my antidepressants), we flew up to Glasgow, saw the van (renamed ‘Thelma’) and drove her back down to London. She wasn’t cheap, but we pooled our savings together and saw her as an investment: we were going to save huge amounts of money in accommodation costs in the immediate and future. Plus it also gave us the option of renting out our flat more while we were away, should we choose.

We now had a van. Turns out she wasn’t winterised, wasn’t professionally converted and probably wasn’t the best choice of van to have bought, but we loved her and the freedom she brought. We started driving, and didn’t stop. Even the cats liked her, and their ever changing environment. As indoor (and disabled) cats, being in a van was just a different home for them. But with more exciting windows than normal.

At every stage, getting a van had been scary. The unknown is a terrifying entity. Would we survive? Could I drive a 3.5 tonnes van? What was it going to be like driving on the continent? Would the cats be ok? Would we be warm enough? How did the heating work? How would we refill our water? How would we cope in the snow? Were there tolls on the motorways and autobahns? How did we go non-toll routes? What happened if we broke down? The questions were endless and we often only found out the answer once we’d gone wrong. Buying Thelma had been a huge step to take, and one that was helped by feeling slightly more ‘up’ on my anti-depression medication than normal. More assertive; more capable. But I didn’t regret it for a second.

Look for opportunities that will help you achieve your vision

Fast forward to spring of 2017, and buoyed up by the success of Thelma, I’ve just started a new job in the UK’s National Health Service (NHS).

Changing jobs has always terrified me, but I notice that something is happening within. I’m becoming more used to changes, and start to fear the consequences less. I’m more comfortable with uncertainty and the idea of just giving something a go. I’ve found a job that looks flexible enough for my current situation within a workplace that values employee engagement and offers flexible working arrangements. Moving from the charity to the public sector, I appreciate just how progressive the organisation is. Plus my new colleagues are bloody awesome.

So I’m now analysing data at the NHS and am able to work from home a couple of days a week. Our ski racing is going well, and we’re surprising ourselves with our positive results. We keep being invited back to more and more races and training camps, and I’m soon out of annual leave. This new roadblock just has to be overcome. Ski racing is far too much fun and far too rewarding to stop. I look again for opportunities.

Find out what the options are at your day job

James and I chat again. We do the maths, and even though it’s a pay cut, I decide to ask work if I can go down to 70% of my hours. Rather than working 3.5 days a week, my workplace fortunately offers ‘annualised hours’; meaning that I just need to work my hours over the whole year, allowing me to take larger chunks of time off at once. Originally designed for parents to be at home during school holidays, I rework it for my own purposes. I just can’t keep working full time and also expect to be able to go to the continent 1–2 weeks a month to train and race. Something’s gotta give.

Fortunately, I work in a very progressive workplace where the employees are well looked after. My request is accepted, on a trial basis, and I begin to take longer amounts of time off to develop our skiing career.

Cut out the non-essentials

While I’m doing this, I’m also trying to declutter my life in other areas. I’ve realised that the physical training for ski racing is exhausting me, and I need to find space and time to recoup my energy. It’s amazing how busy you can be doing… not much at all. Having read Essentialism by Greg McKeown (one of the best books I’ve ever read), I realise that in order to achieve my vision, I’m going to have to free up even more time if I’m not to burn out.

So instead of saying ‘yes’ to every opportunity that presents itself, I now ask question myself:

* Is this essential to pursuing my vision?

* Is it going to benefit my mental health?

* Do I have to do this?

If I answer no to all of these, then it’s a no-go. There are plenty of opportunities for doing things I like, but in order to focus my time, mind and energy levels, I need to proactively pursue activities that are going to give me the biggest benefit. A ‘could be good’ just isn’t good enough.

I stop going to large parties and instead see friends for quality time, one on one. I spend less time socialising but have much higher quality interactions. I like sewing and knitting, but instead I focus just on my painting (after all, in my vision I’m painting in my van). I like going to the cinema, but instead go to the gym to increase my strength and flexibility for skiing. I like going to the pub, but instead I limit my alcohol intake and focus on eating more healthily.

Monitor your progress and tweak accordingly

By the summer of 2017, I:

* have a van and live out of it when abroad with the two cats

* am ski racing representing Great Britain with my husband, James

* am spending lots of time on the continent ski training and racing.

My vision is nearly complete and I’m having the time of my life. Yet there is one missing piece: my art.

I’ve not completely neglected my painting, but it’s the area that I’ve made the least progress in. When in the van, I’ve been experimenting to see what I can create in such a confined space. When at home in London, I’ve been improving my technique and building up my portfolio. But I need to do more.

Capitalise on your momentum for even more benefit

During 2018, I take on more commissions and, needing a support network to learn from, start attending the fabulous She Almighty sessions for entrepreneurs. I soak up knowledge and experience from these exceptional women. During one of the She Almighty sessions, I identify that marketing is where I could have the biggest impact in moving my creative business forward, yet the area which I know the least. Despite trying to teach myself marketing skills for five years, I acknowledge that I really needed external help.

Using the old maxim that you’ve gotta spend money to make money, I pay the wonderful Michelle to help me develop a marketing plan. Together we brainstorm, talk, write and I leave with a renewed sense of enthusiasm, confidence in and marketing plan for my art ventures. I take action.

Reaching your vision

While I haven’t completely reached my vision (needing to make more money from my art to 100% fund our lifestyle and ski racing), I’ve reached a slightly different iteration which is working for us at the moment. We’re currently funding our skiing through a combination of my day job and our research consultancy business, and I plan to make more money from my art in the future (and am taking steps to do so).

I’ve also been using this time to reconfirm whether my vision is still right for us. Other things in our lives have changed, but all in all, my vision is exactly what I still want. Even now, nearly but not quite there, I’m having the best time of my life. I’m my happiest, healthiest, best self.

Together with James, I’m chasing my dreams.

Final word

I was terrified of change. Absolutely, completely, terrified. Knowing that something was going to change was enough to put my mental health at risk and for my anxiety to kick in with all of the ‘what ifs’. But by following these steps, and identifying what works for me (rather than what society expects of me), I’ve become the happiest and healthiest I’ve ever felt. I didn’t make these changes overnight, nor did I make big changes at once. I just started entertaining ideas as serious possibilities. I found out what the opportunities were in my workplace. I said ‘yes’ to the opportunity of trying out for the British para alpine ski racing team. I went to the first training camp, and then returned to another. Every step I took wasn’t huge by itself, but by making enough of them, and by having a very clear idea of where I was headed, I’ve managed to redesign and sculpt my life into its best version for me.

I wish you all the success in your journey too.

To join us on our ski racing journey you can visit our website, our Facebook page,our Instagram feed or my Twitter feed. To learn more about my art, visit my online home here or say hi on Instagram or Facebook. Come say hi!

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First published on Medium on 3 Feb, 2019.

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