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February 7, 2014 12:31 pm
Sitting at the dining table in her Thameside cottage in Hampton Court, Chemmy Alcott, Britain’s fastest female skier, takes a sip of tea and thinks. She is explaining the importance of her fourth Winter Olympics, which start this weekend in the Russian resort of Sochi. “It means more to me than any other Olympics because of how hard I’ve fought,” she says.
Alcott, who talks almost as fast as she skis, was named Chimene after Jimena, the character played by Sophia Loren in El Cid. On the wall behind her hang some modelling shots of her late mother, looking indeed like Loren, and on another wall is a poster for the 1961 film – a 30th birthday present from her brother.
During the past few years Alcott has been plagued with injury. If her life was a mildly allegorical short story it might be called “The Uphill Battle of the Downhill Skier”. Sport is never just very fit people running or throwing or kicking, diving or skiing; it’s a moral universe that can reflect a nation and its values. Talk of British sport, and the words plucky, spirited and underdog are never far behind. And Alcott embodies that perfectly.
In 2010, practising at Lake Louise in Canada, she took off at 80mph on a tricky curve, landed awkwardly and shattered her right leg. The break was so bad that bone protruded into her ski boot. The years of recovery have been fraught; she has had to battle to find sponsors and just as she was due to return to racing she broke her leg again, twice – most recently in Switzerland last August. She came home with a 15in metal rod in her leg. “I’ve had a terrible time of it, there’s no other way to put it,” says Alcott, now 31 and nearing the end of her career.
However, she has a secret weapon: a seemingly invincible positive mental attitude. For example, her preparation time for Sochi has been minimal. She started skiing again just before Christmas, with her first proper race scheduled for just three weeks before the Olympics, giving little opportunity to prove herself fit to Team GB selectors. Yet this, she says, is a strength. “I tend to ski very fast at the beginning of the season, have a massive low around February and then ski fast at the end.” She’s never been able to delay her season before – World Cup competition started in December – but this time she has, with everything focused on Sochi. “The big positive I’ll take from my injury,” she says, “is that it’s a really long ski season for these girls and I will come in fresh. It’s exciting.”
It was also a high-risk strategy that very nearly didn’t pay off. Just before that all-important selection race, at Cortina in the Italian Dolomites, late last month, there was a heavy snowstorm. The race was cancelled and after years of rehabilitation and fundraising, a place at Sochi would come down to the selectors’ willingness to take a chance on her. After a tense 48-hour wait, they did. After all, where would British sport be without the plucky, spirited underdog?
Alcott was just 18 months old when she first put on a pair of skis. At three she took part in a fun race and by eight she was competing properly. “I would ski six times a week [on dry ski slopes],” she says. “I raced every single weekend growing up, so that competitive element grew. That’s why I won the world’s children’s Olympics at 11. For some of my peers it was their first race.”
If those early races marked out her competitive streak, they also prefigured the drama to come when, aged just 12, Alcott broke her neck skiing. For most that would have been the end to a fledgling career, but it was simply the first outing of that positive mental attitude.
“I’ve become a bit of a rehab queen,” she laughs now. “When I go to IRU [Team GB’s Intensive Rehabilitation Unit], the psychologist says: ‘We should just go for a cup of tea because you know exactly how to rehab.’ I have no bitterness or ifs or buts. You can’t beat yourself up about things you can’t change.”
However, she does admit that she dreams of where she might be had she not been plagued with injuries. At her peak, Alcott finished 11th at the 2006 Turin Winter Olympics, the best result for a British woman skier since 1968. Later in the year, after the sudden death of her mother Eve, and a foot operation, she recorded her best World Cup result: seventh in the super combined event.
“But that’s the nature of my sport,” she says with surprising cheer. “You have to go to your limit. When I was younger, I always skied in my safety zone, I always skied at 80 per cent and I never knew how far I could go. When I became the first Brit to win a run in a World Cup [in 2008] in Sölden, I risked everything. I’ve been risking everything ever since and it’s much more satisfying.”
Yet the risks entailed in hurtling down a mountain at 80mph are only part of the challenge. In the brutal bloodsport that is the financing of Olympic dreams, any failure can mean a cut to funding. Days after her 2010 crash, Alcott learnt that UK Sport had pulled her funding. At the time she was ranked eighth in the world.
“If I was a tennis player I would be everywhere, but because [skiing] is not a sport we’re supposed to be good at . . .” She leaves the sentence hanging. Unlike skiers in richer teams from Europe or the US, Alcott herself has to raise much of the money required to train.
Recently she organised a Question of Sport-themed black-tie dinner for more than 170 guests including fellow stars of Dancing on Ice (in which she competed in 2012). The event raised £36,000 for training for herself and her fiancé, Alpine skier Dougie Crawford. It got Alcott thinking: “When I retire, if we can keep doing this event we can find future ski racers and send them to Chile for the summer and make Britain a strong downhill ski nation.”
Even now she is mulling how best to achieve that. “When I had my own programme it would cost around £200,000 per year,” she explains. “Now, because I have the experience, I can join other teams. I’m [training] with the Norwegians and that radically reduces the cost to around £50,000. They don’t really need my money, but they’ve got a team of incredibly talented, fiery skiers in their early twenties and they needed someone to come on board who had tactics.” You can’t imagine the England rugby team training with the All Blacks – but this seems to work. “I’ve never felt more at home in a multi-nation team,” she says, “and it’s great to have teammates.”
Sochi will be Alcott’s final Olympics. What, I ask, happens once the snow has settled? “The [fundraising] skills I’ve learnt are incomparable,” she says. “I’ve always wanted to set up a female empowerment charity to teach girls self-belief. I feel so passionately that sport has enriched my life.”
When Alcott stands in the start gate for the downhill on Wednesday, it‘s clear that the finish line at the bottom of the hill will be a huge milestone for her, but what should we expect? “Some people’s destiny is to win gold,” she says. “I think mine is to show how much fight I’ve got and how I can keep getting up when I’ve been knocked down.” In that regard, she’s already triumphed.
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